Identification of plastics outside the lab: the development of an identification tree

Suzan de Groot, Carien van Aubel, Olivia van Rooijen, Henk van Keulen

Each collection of contemporary art and design objects contains numerous artefacts made of plastic. To identify the material composition of these objects specialist knowledge is required, which is often not present in museums without a laboratory. The Plastics Project1 aims to apply advanced research to this large group of objects, bringing together conservation scientists, conservators and no less than ten major museums and curators in the Netherlands. A do-it-yourself method will be developed by which means administrators and conservators will be enabled to identify a large part of their plastic collections themselves, to monitor them and take appropriate measures for preventive conservation.
The objective of the project is to improve the sustainability, visibility and accessibility of objects made of plastic. A representative part of the collections will be identified and registered in the museum information systems. Participants learn to identify plastics ‘on the job’ and when needed additional research will be carried out. By developing preventive measures in collaboration, plastic collections will be maintained in a proper way and knowledge will be secured within the organizations.
During the first phase of the project (April 2017 – April 2018) an identification tree will be developed on the basis of which a survey can be performed. A do-it-yourself kit for identification provides a basic means for identification and a digital platform helps collection managers by distributing information on the most common and / or problematic types of plastics. Those examples are illustrated by iconic works to which the plastics have been applied.
During the second phase (April 2018 – April 2019) ten surveys will be carried out during on the job workshops, in which collection keepers of participating institutions work closely with the four scientists from the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE). This is also a test for the do-it-yourself kit and information platform.

During the first period of the project the focus will be on foamed plastics. The identification tree for these foams will be tested during a mini pilot survey for the RCE collection and later on tested on three of the selected iconic works containing foams. Besides the results of the mini pilot survey and the identification of the foams in the iconic works chosen from the participating collections , an overview of the project and the progress in the development of both the identification tree and the do-it-yourself kit will be presented during the oral presentation at FT017.

1 The Plastics project is coordinated by the Foundation for Conservation of Contemporary Art (SBMK) and the Netherlands Institute for Conservation, Art and Science (NICAS), a collaboration between the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, Rijksmuseum and the University of Amsterdam. Partners in the project are: Bonnefantenmuseum, Centraal Museum Utrecht, Gemeentemuseum The Hague, Kröller-Müller Museum, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Schunck*, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Van Abbemuseum, Rabo Art Collection and Collections of the RCE. This project has kindly been supported by financial contributions from the Gieskes-Strijbis Fund and Mondriaan fund.