January 1995 Issue 14
Review: polymers in museums
208th meeting of the American Chemical Society Washington
21-25 August 1994
The American Chemical Society is subdivided into more than 30 groups ranging from Agrochemistry to Women in Chemistry. It includes many areas of interest to those working in conservation, such as paper and textile chemistry, geochemistry and polymeric materials. The Society holds two major national meetings per year in the spring and autumn. One consequence of such a large and varied organisation is the size of these meetings. The 208th meeting held in Washington on 21-25 August boasted over 3000 papers, 12,000 registrants and 1,500 exhibitors. Despite the enormity of the task (or perhaps because of it) the organisation was impressive. Each division was clearly signposted and timetabled. Speakers were kept strictly to time and everything ran smoothly.
The division of Polymer Chemistry hosted a special session entitled 'Polymers in Museums'. This was a one-day meeting organised by Mary T. Baker of the Conservation Analytical Laboratory at the Smithsonian Institution. Mary Baker is the co-ordinator of the ICOM Working Group for Modern Materials. Presentations were given by speakers from a wide variety of backgrounds, both industrial and academic. The first presentation, '50 years of synthetic polymers in artist's materials from golden colours', set out to bridge the gap between the industrial and the museum worlds. This speaker had the unenviable task of not only trying to keep his audience's attention, but of also trying to keep them awake, as the proceedings began at 8 o'clock on a Sunday morning!
Industry was well represented, with big names like Rohm & Haas and Monsanto amongst others, explaining how the research carried out in their laboratories, whilst not primarily aimed at museum applications, could be adapted to the museum context. Research aimed specifically at museum problems was well covered, with papers from Carnegie Mellon University, The Smithsonian Institution and the V&A, whilst the title of the paper by Don Williams (Smithsonian Institution) - 'In search of the perfect polymer for conservation coatings on wood' - speaks for itself. It was a well-attended and lively programme. Conservators and conservation scientists outlined to their industrial counterparts their requirements and the limitations within which they work. As most research on polymers is carried out in industry, valuable links were made between the two groups of researchers working towards similar goals, but perhaps for different reasons. Mary Baker should be congratulated for bringing them together.
For the remainder of the week one needed to choose which session to attend. Whilst the papers were chemistry-oriented, many of them had museum applications. 'Analysis of some Roman amber carvings from the J. Paul Getty Museum using analytical pyrolysis' or 'Using chemical treatments to promote the rehydration of fibres'? 'Weatherability of polyurethane sealants' or 'Thermal degradation of PMMA'? With over 3000 papers (not including posters), decisions were difficult.
Historical plastics research scientists meeting
London, 20 September 1994
On a smaller scale was the Historical Plastics Research Scientists Meeting at the British Museum on 20 September. This was an afternoon session organised by Anita Quye of the National Museums of Scotland and Yvonne Shashoua of the British Museum. The aim of the meeting was to get together as many people as possible who are involved in research into plastics from a museums' or galleries' perspective.
There were eleven people present, with apologies from a further six. The format was informal, with each person introducing themselves and outlining their area of research. Up to now it has been very difficult to ascertain what projects are currently in progress. It will prove to be a very useful forum even if it only prevents research from being duplicated. It is hoped that the group will meet twice yearly. The next meeting is scheduled for April 1995 in Edinburgh after the Plastics Conservation workshop.