A project of the Modern and Contemporary Art Research Initiative

sample of twenty-year-old polyurethane-based plastic
 

This long-term project aims to rapidly gather information on the properties of a wide range of plastics in order for conservators to understand why certain plastics are more unstable than others and to establish protocols that will slow down this process. It involves a large consortium of museums and research institutes, in order to maximize the impact of the research. The GCI's role will initially focus on assessing and testing the best methods for their analysis, especially for rapid, in situ monitoring of large collections; examining the physical and thermal properties of a selection of key classes of plastics, especially those known to exhibit instability (cellulose acetate, cellulose nitrate, polyurethane and PVC); and developing preventive techniques and strategies for preservation.

A component of this workthe GCI and Disney Animation Research Library Collaborative Research Project—involves GCI scientists assessing the best methods for the identification of the actual plastics used in animation cels, and for monitoring the condition of cels made with cellulose nitrate and acetate, as well as examining their physical and thermal properties.

Background

Plastics are found everywhere in modern and contemporary cultural heritage, from sculpture to design objects, from architectural models to decorative arts. Many classes of plastic have become household names: polyethylene, polyester, polyurethane, acrylic, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and cellulose acetate, to name just a few. They can take many forms, including solid sheet plastics, foams, fabrics, and coatings. They are typically cheap, lightweight, readily molded and shaped into all kinds of forms and structures, and, since their introduction in the 1930s have opened up incredible new design possibilities for sculptors, architects, and designers.

Unfortunately, many types of plastic are already exhibiting serious signs of deterioration that often appear with little or no warning. Common signs of deterioration include discoloration (yellowing or opacifying), crazing and cracking, warping, becoming sticky (as plasticisers migrate out of the bulk material onto their surfaces), and in extreme cases, turning completely to powder. The combination of the potential for catastrophic changes in certain classes of plastic and the sheer range of plastics available, means that their preservation constitutes a significant challenge for the conservation profession.

Overview

The degradation of plastic objects in collections has been a growing problem for museums and galleries for at more than twenty-five years, yet the problem still confounds conservators and collectors due to the potential for rapid and often spectacular disintegration of objects with very little advance warning. Without research into this area, the problem can only escalate. One of the main problems in designing a strategy for researching these materials is that the term plastic covers such a wide variety of different synthetic polymers, each of which might exhibit highly varied properties and behavior. A significant body of research is therefore needed before it will be possible to decide on the optimum ways in which plastic objects/materials can be exhibited, treated, and/or stored in order to lower their deterioration rate.

conservation image
 

A large consortium of research laboratories from France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the United Kingdom, was recently successful in obtaining funding from the European Commission to initiate a three-and-a-half year project on the study of plastics. The project—for which GCI is a full partner—is entitled Preservation Of Plastic ARTefacts in museum collections (POPART). Together the group will aim to develop strategies that improve the preservation and maintenance of plastics objects in museum collections. By coordinating scientific studies and gathering experiences from all partners, it is hoped that recommended practices can be established and risks associated for exhibiting, cleaning, protecting, and storing these artefacts can be identified. The Preservation of Plastics project is the GCI's contribution to this larger collaborative POPART project.

The POPART Project involves five key steps: the identification of polymer artefacts; a collection survey; a polymer degradation assessment; conservation; and dissemination. Within this framework, the GCI's Plastics project will coordinate the comparison of a wide range of analytical techniques for plastics identification and participate in a detailed study into the physical and aging properties of a few key classes of polymer. Benefits of this research will be to significantly improve the conservation profession's understanding of plastic materials and to test the effectiveness of a number of treatments, some of which are currently only being discussed theoretically. Concurrently, the GCI will work closely with the Getty Research Institute to investigate the plastics and resins (in terms of their identification and their subsequent aging properties) used by "Finish Fetish" artists who's work will be featured in the exhibition Pacific Standard Time: Art in Los Angeles 1945–1980 at the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2011.

This project is part of the GCI's Modern and Contemporary Art Research initiative, which takes a broad approach to the needs of this area of conservation, including a range of scientific research projects but also a number of conferences, events, and meetings that are intended to promote discussion of these issues and to help disseminate information.

Last updated: March 2010