The identification of plastics in museum collections by using your senses
Carien van Aubel (independent conservator of modern and contemporary art)* / Brenda Keneghan (senior conservation scientist, Victoria and Albert Museum)
Victoria and Albert Museum, Conservation Department
 
Collections with numerous objects dating from the late nineteenth century onwards often include a variety of plastics. Having almost 30 different types of plastic, where does someone who is not experienced with plastics start? For identification it is usually suggested to carry out analysis, mostly time-consuming, costly and not always accessible for every collection. Why not start by using your senses?
 
Several years ago the Museum of Design in Plastics (MoDiP) at the Arts University Bournemouth (UK) developed a very valuable resource – an identification flowchart for plastics, for curators and others with little knowledge of plastic materials. This resource was used at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) but sometimes conservators and curators experienced difficulties with identifying plastics, possibly due to the nature of the collections. This paper focuses on the approach how this flowchart was adapted to meet the needs of identifying a museum collection as varied as that of the V&A.
 
Identification
In total more than 250 plastics objects from the V&A’s handling collection were identified using the flowchart developed by MoDiP. In addition to the identification with this chart, we attempted to identify the objects using a list of questions a conservator would ask when looking at a plastic object. The outcomes of both methods were verified by analysis of the plastic with FTIR analysis.
 
Every step taken towards identification has been recorded which helps tracing back where possible mistakes were made. After analysis the objects were placed in groups of different plastics. By looking at the characteristics of the objects in each group similarities could be found.
 
Results
Strengths and weaknesses of the MoDiP flowchart were defined. Plastics with very specific characteristics or those that already show degradation signs are very easy to identify with the chart. Using the list of ‘conservator’ questions it was mainly the combination of characteristics that helped with the identification. Even when with a specific characteristic a plastic could immediately be identified, using other identification signs made it a more secure identification.
 
For a trial workshop it was chosen to use the list of ‘conservator’ questions. The participants were enthusiastic about the method and its systematic approach of identification. Now the basis of information and questions for identification is established, a suitable package needs to be developed to be able to teach conservators to identify plastics. What do they really need to know, while not being overwhelmed with unnecessary information? Upcoming research will focus on fine-tuning the new method on a museum collection.