Kaleidoscope House – A dolls house for the ‘child’ interested in modernist architecture

One of the nicer elements of my job is the exposure to the wonderfully diverse collection that we have here at the V&A. Later in the year the Museum of Childhood is putting together a wonderful exhibition on Dolls houses. We (my supervisor and I) were asked to consult on one of the more unusual dolls houses that will make up the exhibition – Kaleidoscope House

Kaleidoscope house - a mini modernist masterpiece (say that 10 times fast!)

Kaleidoscope house – a mini modernist masterpiece (say that 10 times fast!)

The example of Kaleidoscope House that we have here at the Museum of Childhood does not have its artwork attached to the walls. As they were purchased separately the museum could not, in good faith (ethics and all that!), adhere the artwork to the plastic walls without investigating how the artwork, adhesive and plastic would react over time. I was set the challenge to devise a simple and quick experiment to do this.

When we talk about the lifetime of a collection or an object we need to look timelines beyond our own lifetimes or careers. Research into this topic indicates that people would like an object to survive in a “usable” form for 100-500 yrs. Clearly we can’t wait around to see how objects react to their environments, nor can we always look to the past as we may not know the exact conditions of storage. This is where artificial aging comes into play. We know that exposure to light, especially UV light, is very damaging to plastics (and to objects in general. I can’t believe I just linked to the Daily mail…). We also know roughly the amount of light an object will receive when on display:  50 lux for 10 hours a day for 365 days = ~180Klux per year. By placing objects in a light box, exposing them to very high light levels we can mimic the the effect of years of light exposure in a short period of time. There are other factors which are important, temperature and relative humidity being the other two major effects. I wont go into more detail and risk boring you all but Robert Feller has a very good book on the topic of Accelerated aging which you can find for free here and it’s well worth a read, even if it’s just to brush up on the basics of what tends to age things!

Anywhos… back to my plastic dolls house. Through a bit of research – basically procrastinating while reading the wonderfully in-depth world of mini modernist houses over at http://modernminihouses.blogspot.co.uk/ we confirmed our theory that the walls were made of polystyrene, a common plastic used for this type of application. The experiment was a simple idea – get materials similar to those intended to be used, test a range of different adhesives and expose everything to 5 years’ worth of light! CD Jewel cases are also made of polystyrene allowing us to use cd cases that we had here in the lab – to better match the current conditions of KH we used cases that were of similar age. The amazing people over in the paper conservation department gave me some mount board of a similar thickness to the artwork; they also provided three common adhesives used in paper conservation – wheat paste, EVA and Methyl cellulose. The other interesting adhesives we tested were blue tack (yup, regular blue tack!), Paraloid b72 (a very common adhesive used in conservation) and Sugru (a new silicon based adhesive a bit like blue tack, only yellow and much stronger/permanent. It is also very popular in the hacking community atm.)

CD case ready to be tested - note that I used an excess of adhesive to see the 'worst case scenario' when trying to remove the 'artwork'. In real life you would try to use much less adhesive than this. (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

CD case ready to be tested – note that I used an excess of adhesive to see the ‘worst case scenario’ when trying to remove the ‘artwork’. In real life you would try to use much less adhesive than this. (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

CD jewel cases in the light box, propped up so that front and back get similar light exposure. You can see that a few of the adhesives have failed right from the beginning! (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

CD jewel cases in the light box, propped up so that front and back get similar light exposure. You can see that a few of the adhesives have failed right from the beginning! (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

After leaving the test to run for 96 hours (who wants to do the math to work out the average light levels in the light box…) we then tried to remove the mount-board and the adhesives. Before starting the tests I thought that wheat paste would work the best – how wrong was I! It was the 1st to fall off, along with Methyl cellulose – they didn’t even last a day!

Sugru was very difficult to remove, and I really thought I’d crack the plastic – I didn’t, but as you can see below I couldn’t remove the mount-board cleanly. Removing EVA was very similar and the risk of cracking the plastic rules these two adhesives out of contention.

Sugru...I was able to remove this from the plastic CD case, but not the paper artwork - it wouldn't want to be a Constable painting i was trying to take off! (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Sugru…I was able to remove this from the plastic CD case, but not the paper artwork – it wouldn’t want to be a Constable masterpiece I was trying to remove! (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Blue tack left a nasty residue behind. Researching into what goes into blue tack we found out that it contains a small amount of Xylene. Have a look at the video below to see what happens (admittedly in a pretty extreme case) when xylene and polystyrene come into contact with one another! Not what you want to have happen and leaving the residue on the surface would increase the risk of localized damage to the object.

You can clearly see the residue left behind on the surface! (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

You can clearly see the residue left behind on the surface! (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

So after all that work we found out that none of the major adhesives were suitable for this project (what was it that Thomas Edison said…) . In fact some of them could have totally ruined our lovely dolls house! The curators were thankful for the information we had given them, but also a little sad as they are now back to square one. We think we might be able to hang some of the artworks using nylon wire (again, a pretty common thing to do). The risks to the object are increased the more times the blue roof has to be taken on and off, but it also means we won’t have access to hang every piece of art. A small price to pay for keeping this lovely object in great condition! You can come see what methods we used when the exhibition opens later in the year.

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