Autumn 2000 Issue 36
The identification and deterioration of modern materials is the topic of a gallery talk to be given as part of the 'creating SPARKS' festival. The talk aims to demonstrate to the public just how widespread and varied the occurrence of synthetic and semi-synthetic polymers are among the Museum's collections. It also aims to show how a knowledge of the chemical properties of materials, especially relatively recent 'modern materials', is essential for the preservation of objects.
For the purpose of the talk the term 'modern' encompasses a wide range of materials from early modified natural materials like cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate, to completely synthetic polymers such as nylon, polyester, etc. The natural material, rubber, is also considered since historically it is generally included in this section. Drawing on the diversity of the collection's, examples of many old and new polymeric materials will be pointed out.
The starting point for the talk will be the Ron Arad installation next to the medieval treasury. This is a contemporary display with examples of purely synthetic polymers used alongside materials like steel and stone. Arad's work uses a diverse range of modern synthetic polymers and he is also very interested in production techniques, like vacuum forming and injection moulding. The use of these severe production processes alone can introduce the potential for early degradation into the resulting plastic. This type of object, therefore, provides a good illustration of how some artefacts made from plastic and using high temperature and/or pressure production methods may have an inherent potential to degrade. This is an important aspect of the degradation of plastic compared with degradation of more traditional materials.
From the contemporary nature of Ron Arad we move on to the textiles and dress galleries. Here there are many examples where original semi-synthetic materials can be employed to replace more expensive natural materials. Precious natural materials like amber or tortoiseshell, which were originally used to create buttons and decorations, were replaced in the latter half of the 19th century by cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate. Also in the textile and dress collections we can see the pop fashion of the 1960s where synthetics were widely employed. The Cellophane dress made by Courreges is a good example. The costume jewellery in gallery 102 displays a huge range of plastic in the form of beads, brooches, rings and earrings. Almost every synthetic and semi-synthetic material is here, from Celluloid™ to acrylic.
We move on from jewellery to the 20th century design galleries. There are many pieces of furniture made from polymers in these galleries including two chairs made from recycled plastic materials. The talk finishes in the 20th century galleries. Here we have everything from Swatch watches to a Dyson vacuum cleaner. There are examples of synthetic textiles from Lycra™ shorts to Nuno™ textiles. A case full of radios shows how Bakelite™ was used to imitate wood but in shapes that could not be attained in wood.
Throughout the talk there will be an emphasis on the necessity for identification of the different types of plastic. The effects of plastic degradation will be discussed, highlighting the effects on the objects themselves as well as their neighbours. The methods used for identification and the limitations imposed on sampling will be discussed.