The unexpected race to save some of our cultural icons


Conservator Karina Palmer with the Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer.

Museums around Australia are uniting in new research to discover how historic plastic artefacts, including old cameras and dolls, can be preserved for the future.

The Polymuse Project is a collaboration between scientists and conservators from five museums and three universities nationwide, including Museums Victoria.

The project will create a database of strategies to help conservators prolong the life of plastic materials.

Alice Cannon, manager of integrated collection processes at Museums Victoria. Picture: Rodney Start.

Museums Victoria integrated collection processes manager Alice Cannon said the artefacts containing plastics at risk could include old camera models, car components, dolls and clothing.

“We have found that many of these artefacts are already breaking down and are not even expected to the last the next century,” she said.

Ms Cannon said people often had misconceptions about the lifespan of plastic artefacts because of the environmental issues the material had come to represent.

“When plastics break down, they do break into smaller and smaller particles that end up in the ocean,” she said.

“But they stop being able to be used in a museum collection long before that.”

The project was named after the polymer molecules that make up plastics.

“Polymers are very long molecules that form a chain, kind of like a beaded necklace, and this chain gets broken down into smaller parts over time,” Ms Cannon said.

“Another issue is the loss of plasticisers, which are commonly added during manufacturing to make plastics more flexible,” she said.

“Once the plasticiser is gone, the plastic becomes brittle and can break more easily.”

According to a report from the Department of Environment and Energy, Australian’s consumed more than 3.5 million tonnes of plastic in the 2017 financial year.

A Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer (FTIR) sends infrared beams into a plastic object. These beams are reflected to create a graph that is interpreted by a materials chemist. The results will be collected in the Polymuse Project database. Picture: Mie Sorensen.

Lead academic on The Polymuse Project and Melbourne University lecturer in cultural materials conservation Dr Petronella Nel said museum artefacts containing plastic could become warped, cracked or brittle.

“We have learnt that plastic artefacts have a relatively short life, but conservators have limited knowledge on how to prolong this life,” she said.

“If it’s a certain type of plastic it may need to be stored in open, well-ventilated space and need to be separated from other objects so that it doesn’t damage them. Other objects like rubber are better enclosed in a plastic bag.”

Dr Nel said the project was using “accelerated ageing experiments” to predict problems that might arise in the future and test whether treatments could work.

“We’re not prepared to wait 50 years to discover what will happen,” she said.

Conservator for Museums Victoria Karina Palmer said the final database would be particularly helpful for smaller museums which did not have access to the same resources and scientific knowledge.

Ms Palmer said cold storage facilities could help slow the ageing process of some plastics. Picture: Mie Sorensen.

“The database will list vulnerabilities and storage strategies to find out how long things have before they start crumbling,” she said.

The Polymuse Project is due for completion by 2020.

This story was first published in Mojo News.