The Language of Appearance.
Blooming or bleeding? Difficulties in finding the right words

Lisa Burkart, Laura Bode, Johannes Heyn, Christian Bonten, Friederike Waentig

Cologne Institute of Conservation Sciences, University of Applied Sciences, Cologne, Germany
Institut für Kunststofftechnik, University of Stuttgart, Germany
Technische Hochschule Köln, Germany

Collecting plastic objects involves establishing the best storage conditions, as well as monitoring the status of the objects. As soon as visual changes occur, immediate action is required to preserve the objects for the future.
The difficulties in conserving plastic objects start with finding the right vocabulary. A uniform terminology has not yet been established in the young discipline of plastic conservation.
In the field of plastics, the stakeholders include a wide variety of professionals from museums, industry, monument care, crafts, humanities and natural science. Until now, interest groups have come up with their own terminology for the same or similar observations, such as failures, defects and aging phenomena. In order to document the changes in objects, it is crucial that we establish a common terminology, use it consistently in communication with other interest groups, to ensure a common understanding of terms.

The surface is usually the first part of the object to be affected by external influences such as UV radiation, pollutants and fluctuations in climate. When examining an object its surface is often the first part of interest. As soon as changes appear on the surface of an object, the failure analysis begins (describing, documenting, evaluating, identifying the cause of the failure and developing a monitoring plan).
However, describing the failure poses its own challenges, especially for conservators with a lack of experience in this field. The limited terminology and assessment criteria toughen the misunderstandings between different interest groups.

Fortunately, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is now funding a project focusing on “The Language of Objects”. The four-year research project aims to facilitate transdisciplinary cooperation between art and design historians, plastic engineers and conservators. With the various disciplines working in collaboration, it will be possible to gather as much information as possible by reading the traces on the object’s surface, and to develop a comprehensive terminology.