Plastic Fantastic! An emerging conservator working with modern materials - by Emily Hick

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Plastic Fantastic! An emerging conservator working with modern materials

When I first graduated from Northumbria University with a MA in Conservation of Fine Art in 2013, I didn’t think that a year later I would be sitting in a studio in Edinburgh, trying to figure out the best way to store a condom. I had imagined repairing 19th-century prints, humidifying old maps and washing watercolours, but working with modern materials? The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind.

But this is exactly what happened. In January 2014, I began a 12-month project funded by the Wellcome Trust at the Lothian Health Service Archives (LHSA) to conserve their UNESCO-recognised HIV and AIDS collections. This material records the social and medical response to the HIV epidemic in Edinburgh from 1983 to 2010. These collections are hugely important as by the mid-1990s, the HIV infection rate in Edinburgh was seven times higher than the national average, which led to the city being dubbed the “AIDS capital of Europe” in the national press. Policies formed at this time, in terms of awareness and prevention campaigns as well as care of patients, went on to inform national policy. The significance of these collections was acknowledged by their inscription to the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register in 2011.
The collections are made up of a variety of media, mostly loose paper documents, but also badges, stickers, photographs, 35mm slides and canvas and plastic bags, as well as rubber and latex items such as condoms and balloons. Although the material was in good condition overall, previous storage led to planar distortion, creasing, tearing and the accumulation of surface dirt on paper documents. Damage to other items was often due to the inherent nature of the object. For example, rubber items such as balloons had become brittle due to loss of plasticiser and objects were stuck together due to the migration of additives.
I was unsure how I would fare working with such modern material, but I soon found that I was amazed by their complexity and fascinated by the weird ways in which they degrade. The conservation of modern plastics is challenging as although the objects may look similar, they may not be formed of the same materials and depending on the method of manufacture, they can degrade in different ways. For example, the four balloons shown in figure 1 (originally used in a health promotion campaign) were stored together in the same environment, but have degraded in completely different ways. Balloon 1 had become brittle and fragmented, balloon 2 had become tacky and stuck to a business card it was stored with, balloon 3 has hardened whereas balloon 4 is still relatively flexible.
Degradation issues such as this led to the design of some innovative storage solutions, mainly to reduce the amount of handling needed and to aid viewing. For example, in the collection, there is a long line of plastic bunting with a repeated “Take Care” logo on. It has a strong ‘plastic’ smell, suggesting it is deteriorating rapidly and likely to become brittle as it ages. To avoid excessive handling of this object, I made a ‘concertina’ folder which could display three flags only and leave the rest untouched (figure 2).
This storage method enables the general design of the bunting to be viewed and the condition of the item to be monitored without touching it at all.
Some plastic objects in the collection are at high risk of deterioration and need to be monitored regularly, however, the current storage methods were preventing easy access of the items. For example, there are several vulnerable plastic watches which were previously stored wrapped in tissue paper. This meant that the watches had to be handled a lot to remove the tissue, and also made it hard to wrap the package up neatly once it had been opened. To aid monitoring of these items, I made a bespoke box made from mount board with a clear polyester window on top, so that they can be viewed easily without excessive handling (figure 3). Ventilation holes were left at the edges of the box to allow acidic vapours released from the plastics to escape the package.
To address these issues and share the knowledge we had gained, we held a symposium in November 2014 entitled “Conserving Condoms: Modern Materials in Medical Archives”. We invited speakers from top institutions in Scotland such as the University of Glasgow and National Records of Scotland who had experience working with contemporary collections. The event was funded by the Wellcome Trust’s small grants scheme and proved to be extremely popular, with all tickets selling out.

The interest in the event points to the growing concern surrounding the conservation of modern materials and the need for further information on the subject.
Next year, I hope to attend the IIC 2016 Los Angeles Congress which focuses on the conservation of modern art to learn more about this interesting subject. Since the quantity of modern materials is increasing in our libraries, archives and galleries, I think that issues similar to those I faced in this project will become more common.
Emerging conservators should take time to learn more about this relatively new area of conservation as sooner or later they will find themselves, like me, faced with an unusual plastic object. They will need to know what it is made from, how it will degrade and how to store it to ensure its longevity for future generations.

All images in this article are courtesy of Emily Hick, Lothian Health Services Archive