Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The first step of the PhD journey

You may remember that I have embarked on the journey to study for a PhD at the University of Brighton (UoB). I have recently had my research plan approved by the UoB and I thought that now would be a good opportunity to let you know a bit more about what I will be researching over the next few years. 

I am interested in the act of collecting objects because of their materials and will feature MoDiP as my main case study comparing it with other museums and collections that have materials as their focus. Accredited museums have mission statements and collecting policies that reflect their purpose, with subject as the usual. These subject-based collections necessarily include materials; however, they are an incidental consequence of the subject rather than the material itself being the primary reason for collecting. This project is an investigation looking into the significance of collecting objects because of the material family they are made of rather than the subject matter they describe.

Traditionally, early museums looked at ‘high culture’ such as art, science, or natural history. This concentration on ‘high’ or ‘elite’ culture, means that in many museums if an object has been collected with its material in mind, it is because it is made of a high status material, for example a silver teapot. In comparison, my project will be looking at the material most associated with ‘popular culture’ or everyday life. Plastics have the connotation of being inexpensive and disposable, ordinary, everyday and often something to avoid. Plastics are classless materials that we all encounter on a daily basis regardless of our social standing. They are practically impossible to avoid. Plastics as materials have no intrinsic shape, or colour, unlike natural materials. They surround us and when they are working well they are overlooked or taken for granted, but when an object does not do its job well the material becomes noticeable, and is criticised and the object is described as plasticy, tarring all plastic materials with the same brush. An equivalent phrase for something that does not work well would not be metally it would be, perhaps, tinny showing recognition that tin is a cheap metal usually used for inferior objects. 

In Nov 2013 BBC Radio 4 ran a programme in the Costing the Earth series entitled The End of Plastic, the programme looked into alternatives for single-use plastic packaging. This is just one example of the many instances of when the word ‘plastic’ is used today it refers to disposable packaging or carrier bags along with the pollution and destruction these items cause to environmental wellbeing. Plastic is invariably seen as a single use, cheap, mass produced material of little consequence, or huge environmental consequence depending on your point of view. However, the technically correct term plastics shows us that it is actually a family group of materials with many different qualities and uses, in the same way that metal and wood are families comprising materials as diverse and interesting as wrought iron and platinum, and balsa wood and ebony. The difference with plastics is that the members of the family are constantly changing with some older materials falling out of favour and newer, younger materials taking their place and venturing further into our lives.The fashionable style might change over time but plastics can be always up-to-date in terms of colour and shape due to being a formless substance. 

Compared to other materials, plastics are often regarded as too new to be a legitimate part of a collection by museum visitors. The material is often seen as playful and fun and not serious enough for museum objects.From talking to MoDiP visitors, it is apparent that they see plastics as a modern phenomenon, as part of their everyday lives, and as such they do not expect to see them in a museum display case. The phrase ‘I had one of those’ is often heard followed by the realisation that the object in their possession had been lost or thrown away with little regard. The ever changing use and development of plastics does give the impression of them being new materials and yet, plastics have a longer history than is often expected. Natural plastics, such as horn and amber, have been in use for many hundreds of years, however, the first ‘deliberate chemical modification of a natural polymer’ lead to the production of vulcanized rubber in 1839. The first semi-synthetic plastics such as Parkesine (cellulose nitrate) were created in the mid-1800s, and the first synthetic plastic, Bakelite (phenol formaldehyde), was produced in 1907 ( This historical context gives plastics the legitimacy to reside in the museum; nevertheless curators are still finding it hard to show the value of plastics alongside natural materials such as wood and stone, and traditional man-made materials such as glass and metal alloys. These older materials come with an assumed knowledge of importance and an intrinsic value which plastics objects have yet to secure. 

There are very few museums or collections which have a material focus as broad as MoDiP. The use of plastics is vast; from a disposable fork to the high technological body work of a Formula 1 car; from the disposable fashion clothing we wear daily to the specialist space suits worn by astronauts, no other material family has this diversity of uses.Collections with a material focus often look at the decorative elements or the industrial applications of material. 

I am really looking forward to working on this project and discovering more about plastics, collecting, and museum practices. I am interested in finding other single material family collections that may be of interest to my study, I would love to hear any suggestions you may have. 

Louise Dennis (Assistant Curator)

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