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01.03.2019

Icon Modern Materials Network officially inaugurates

The Icon Modern Materials Network was set up in 2018 as a forum to share information on the collection care and conservation of modern materials in UK collections. In mid-February 2019 the inaugural meeting took place at Blythe House Archive in London, where a group of thirty conservation professionals spent the afternoon enjoying talks and tours on all things plastics.

Blythe House Archive houses a hugely diverse range of artefacts from collections including the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Modern materials are found in almost every storage room from early 20th century prosthetic legs to 1980s’ roller skates, making it the perfect venue for the very first MMN meeting.

V&A Senior Scientist (polymers) Dr Brenda Keneghan’s years of experience with modern materials made for an engaging opening talk on the history of plastics. She highlighted the diversity of polymeric materials through a timeline of plastics including the different manufacture techniques. She showed us many types and causes of polymer deterioration such as how oxygen can lead to the chemical breakdown of polyurethane foam or how the emission of organic acids from cellulose acetate accelerates the deterioration of the polymer. Her talk underlined the importance of collection surveys to understand how many plastics are in our stores and displays and how crucial identification is to find the most suitable approaches to care. Most of all it reminded us that there is still much more to learn.

This led perfectly to Dr Anita Quye, Senior Lecturer at Glasgow University, who came to speak about the exciting new MSc in Modern Material Artefacts, starting in September this year. She has identified the lack of education in the investigation and preservation of modern materials, including fibres and dyes, and intends to work with the collections of Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum, Glasgow’s civic museums and the Scottish Business Archive to give hands on experience as well as making links with industry and manufacturers.

For the second part of the afternoon we toured both the V&A and Science Museum stores to see a wide variety of plastics and examples of polymer deterioration. At The Clothworkers Centre  for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion (V&A) I was most drawn to a beautiful Vivienne Westwood gown from 2013, where the natural rubber bodice had already started to discolour. The Science Museum showcased their plastics store which is kept at ideal conditions to store the most fragile of their plastics collection.  

The afternoon finished with a drink and exchanges about the preservation of plastics and how to move forward with the network. There is a definite appetite for knowledge-sharing on this complex topic, highlighted by the oversubscription of the meeting, leading to plans for a much bigger venue for the next MMN event. Keep an eye on the website for updates. In the meantime, there will be a MMN session at the upcoming Icon conference in Belfast, or if you have any comments before then please feel free to tweet to @IconMMN and use #IconMMN.  

Carla Flack ACR, Sculpture and Installation Art Conservator

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