Vulnerable plastics

Helen C. Coxon and Julia Fenn


The Royal Ontario Museum, aided by a donation from the Formica Company, has recently begun to acquire a representative selection of plastic art and household artifacts. The collection to date ranges from ca. 1857 to the 1970s, and includes objects made from celluloid, casein, bakelite, acrylic, melamine, vulcanite, and polyvinyl chloride, as well as a few which are as yet unidentified.

The acquisition and eventual display of these artifacts has raised a series of problems for the conservation department to solve. For example, certain plastics have been found to be extremely sensitive to heat, light and atmospheric pollutants, including solvent vapours. It is therefore important to identify or verify the materials from which artifacts are made, and to establish guidelines for the care and display of different types of plastic in order to reduce the danger of artifacts suffering as a result of ill-advised mounting techniques, labeling, airtight cases, cleaning agents, or adhesive repairs.

There also appears to be an unspoken difference in the ethical code when applied to plastic artifacts, probably arising from our perception of plastics as being modern, cheap, replaceable and of little intrinsic value.

This paper will explore some of these problems, and our tentative solutions.

1989 | Cincinnati