Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Sea change: how can museums turn the tide on ocean plastics?

I was pleased to be invited by Dr Rupert Cole from the Science Museum, London, to take part in his panel session at the Museums Association’s conference. Inspired by the conference location on Brighton’s sea front, the session explored the issue of plastics, sustainability and the environment from the perspective of seaside heritage, asking what can museums do to engage with this global problem. 

Dr Kathryn Ferry, author of forthcoming books on the history of the seaside in 100 objects and a social history of plastics, placed current beach pollution in historical context. Her engaging talk identified three sources of pollution: the working coast for example fishing nets; plastics that belong to the seaside like buckets and beach balls; and plastics that get washed up carried from all over the world. She outlined a long history of pollution, citing sewage disposal directly into the sea in the early 19th century and trains carrying people to the coast in their thousands, day trippers as well as holiday makers.

Collection: Dr Kathryn Ferry

I found this poster especially piquant because there was a display at the conference in which someone said they had gone searching for what they called glass pebbles, which by now this broken glass will have become. Disappointed, they found only plastics detritus. Could there come a time when, likewise plastics waste could be treasured?
My own contribution looked rather literally at three ways in which museums might address the question posed in the title. This is a précis of my main points.

Karl-H. Foerster, formerly executive director of PlasticsEurope, has stated that: ‘To protect our environment effectively, we need to educate citizens so they understand that plastics are too valuable to be thrown away.’ Thus, firstly, museums can help to engender respect for plastics so we no longer want to dispose of them carelessly. Ways of doing this could include telling people about their hugely democratising influence; how they can be used instead of animal products; how they prevent food waste; and how they have transformed world health.

Oxfam’s simple plastic bucket, has dramatically improved the life expectancy of the 46% of the world’s population who still don’t have piped water at home.

Secondly we can show how appropriate design, consumption and disposal of plastics products can enable realisation of their value at every stage of their lives. The problem with plastics is not so much the material but rather human behaviour. Plastics mainly end up in the oceans because of the absence of effective end-of-life-procedures. Thus we can demonstrate the importance of designing so that different plastics can be identified and disassembled from a product at the end of its useful life to ensure that the various plastics enter the correct recycling stream. We as consumers also have responsibilities. If we continue to buy plastics products made without consideration of their disposal, they will continue to be made. Thus opting for headphones like these is responsible consumption.

This modular design for headphones by Domus Galama and Tom Leenders, 2018, provides an example of responsible design and an opportunity for responsible consumption.
We can also champion the use in manufacture and consumption of recycled plastics.
Minnowskateboard, Bureo, 2017
This product is made from 30 feet of discarded fishing net which would otherwise have ended up polluting the oceans.

Thirdly, museums can act as platforms to promote and increase understanding of the ongoing research into environmentally friendly plastics, for example the different pros and cons of biodegradable fossil fuel plastics and plastics made from crops. We can also, in tune with Dr Errol Francis’s contribution to the plenary session ‘What is a museum?’ referred to in one of our recent posts, act as venues for debate.  The meaning of individual, collective, industrial and global responsibility for consumption and disposal of plastics is high on my agenda for any such discussion.

These are just a few ideas. I am sure there is much more we could and should be doing. Do please let us know your thoughts.

Susan Lambert, Chief Curator

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Memorable memories of the Museum’s Association Conference 2019

I was lucky enough to attend one day of the Museums Association’s conference. It was remarkably environmentally conscious: name badges were not contained in plastics, only tapped water was on offer, all food was vegetarian, the programme was accessed solely online, and there were no wasteful goodie bags. The content was stimulating, even inspiring too.

The day started with a breakfast at which leading museum figures from across the United Kingdom’s four nations addressed ‘The case for museums’. The message I took away was that we must be less apologetic and more pro-active with internal and external stakeholders about the value of museums to economic strength and thus the reasons to invest in them. The cases made included that they are beneficial to education, health and wellbeing; they are the rock of many communities; they are good for tourism; and that they could even take the place of retail to draw people to town centres.

The plenary session that followed, chaired by Sharon Heal, the Museums Association’s Director, took the theme ‘What is a museum?’ It, following on from the theme of ‘The case for museums’, made me wonder if the museum community were suffering from a loss of confidence but the speakers were quite wonderful.

I was especially struck by the contribution of Errol Francis, the CEO of Culture&, an independent arts and education charity which aims to open up who makes and enjoys arts and heritage through work-based training and public programmes. I was not surprised to hear his viewpoint that the dominant western museum model, with their cabinets of curiosities collected by powerful men and hierarchies of civilisations, provides a colonial viewpoint. But I was astounded to hear him question the need for museums to collect anything at all, putting the emphasis rather on exchange and dialogue. He suggested a form of cultural exchange based on what he termed dispersal, preferring the term dispersal to disposal, as a more sharing and participatory word. He emphasised the need for museums to appeal to all the senses and not prioritise looking.

Richard Sandell, Professor of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, made the point that although to some people museums are welcoming and safe places, to others they are alienating. Having recently worked on the new ’Being Human’ gallery at the Welcome Collection, he cited a disabled person as having found its predecessor, ‘Medicine Now’, ‘red hot and full of hate’. He stressed that equal access for disabled people is a fundamental right. He agreed that museums are places to air different views but that they are also places for stating what is not up for debate. Referring to the recent experience of Naga Munchetty, he said it was important to hold on to non-negotiable issues. He also said that often the most important work done in museums was in spite rather than because of the collections.

Jett Sandahl, founder of the Women’s Museum of Denmark and the Museum of World Culture, Sweden, and currently a member of the European Museum Forum’s board of trustees, placed people and planet at the heart of her model, which involved the bringing together of research and ideas with physical examples. She described this as ‘the both/and’ rather than the ‘either/or’ approach. This was for me, as a traditional curator, a much more comfortable standpoint but the other speakers have opened up a radically new approach. I would love to know how they would tackle our subject, design in plastics.

Susan Lambert, Chief Curator

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

The Colour Orange

Orange, an uplifting colour of autumn among other things, apparently represents fascination, stimulation and creativity.  So, I thought I would dip into the collection and find objects that are not only orange, but also have a fascinating purpose, will stimulate conversation about design in plastics and inspire creative thought.  Plastics are able to take colour completely – not just a covering – so plastic objects that are orange, can be made to look particularly vibrant.

My first object is a ‘Novelty orange pencil sharpener’ which imitates a real orange with great attention to detail. This shows the playful side of plastic as it is almost a surprise to discover, that this apparent orange, actually turns out to be a pencil sharpener!

My second object is the infamous ‘Orange Panton chair’ (injection moulded polypropylene) which readily stimulates discussion about the design of this tough, consistently dyed chair.  As well as being a design icon, this chair demonstrates how well polypropylene is able to take on a strong colour such as orange.

My third object is a pair of ‘Jelly Jolly boots’, the soles of which are again injection moulded, this time using a bright orange PVC.  Maybe they could inspire you to create a complete costume around them for a performance or exhibition, or perhaps develop and create a character in a play or story – someone who might wear a pair of boots like these. 

These appropriately called Jelly Jolly boots, also reflect another meaning of the colour orange – happiness – so they will help you walk through autumn with a much jollier step!

Julia Pulman, Museum Digital Communications Officer.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

The Role of Canada in the Development of Plastic Furniture

This is a welcome opportunity to share a significant story about Canadian furniture
innovation. I'm a design historian in Australia, writing international furniture manufacturing
history and global trade history. From 1996 to 2001 I was Curator of Canadian Decorative
Arts and Post-1900 International Design at the Royal Ontario Museum, and a lecturer in
furniture history at the University of Toronto from 1989 to 2001. My doctoral thesis, titled 'A
Quintessential Global Product: Bentwood Furniture in Canada and Australia 1860 to 1945'
was completed in 2017 at University of Technology Sydney. 

World’s first prototype of a one-piece moulded plastic chair, designed by A. J. Donahue and D. Simpson. Fabricated in Ottawa in 1946 by the National Research Council of Canada.
(Library and Archives Canada PA-160515)

The world's first prototype for a one-piece moulded plastic chair was made during
1945 and 1946 in the Structures Laboratory of the National Research Council of Canada in
Ottawa. It was displayed in the 'Plastics' section of the Design in Industry exhibition, which
opened at the National Gallery of Canada in October 1946. The exhibition was one of several  industrial design projects jointly supported by the National Gallery of Canada, the
Department of Reconstruction and Supply, the National Film Board of Canada, and the 
National Research Council of Canada. The plastic chair was designed by Canadian architects Arthur James (Jim) Donahue and Douglas Colborne Simpson.

Jim Donahue (1917-1996) was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, and completed a
Bachelor of Architecture degree at the University of Minnesota in 1941. He was awarded a
Master of Architecture degree in 1942 at Harvard University where he was the first Canadian to complete a degree at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. There he studied under the illustrious ex-Bauhaus architecture and design professors Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. Donahue's familiarity with pre-fabricated housing systems developed by Gropius with Konrad Wachsmann enabled him after graduation to obtain a job working on pre-fabricated housing structures for the National Housing Authority in Ottawa.

A parallel interest in materials research and applications was encouraged by his
studies under Breuer, who had been a furniture pioneer in the use of bent steel tube in the
1920s and of moulded plywood in the 1930s. In 1945, Donahue designed and co-curated a
national touring exhibition called Wood in Canada that included new bent-plywood and
moulded plywood products.

Douglas Simpson (1916-1967) was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and graduated from
the University of Manitoba in 1938. He worked as a government architect in Ottawa before
serving with the Royal Canadian Navy during the war. At the end of the war, he joined the
staff of the Building Research Division at the National Research Council where he recruited
Donahue for the furniture design project.

Their chair and table prototypes displayed in the 1946 Design in Industry exhibition
had a light grey, glossy finish, and were fire and acid resistant. They were made of ten layers of glass fibre-reinforced cotton, 3/16 of an inch in total thickness, moulded onto a reusable form with epoxy-resin adhesives, and baked in an autoclave at 350 degrees Centigrade. The epoxy resins were developed during the war for use in the Canadian fabrication of plywoodconstructed Mosquito bomber planes. The NRC engineer for the plastic furniture project was Eric Brown.

Simpson and Donahue applied for a patent for their moulded plastic chair but the
application was refused and the design was not put into production. The reason for the refusal of the patent is unknown as rejected applications are not disclosed by the patents office. This protocol protects the privacy of the design product information in the initial application and enables applicants to re-submit with revised applications. 

Jim Donahue and Douglas Simpson were founding members of the Affiliation of
Canadian Industrial Designers in 1946 with eight other architects, furniture designers, and
product designers from four provinces. This group became the Association of Canadian
Industrial Designers (ACID).

Donahue and Simpson both established successful architecture practices. Simpson
was a partner of the influential modernist firm Semmens and Simpson in Vancouver.
Donahue was appointed a professor of architectural design at the University of Manitoba in
1947. He moved to Halifax in 1963 to teach in the School of Architecture at the Nova Scotia
Technical College (now NSCAD University). He died in 1996, before publication of my
book for University of Toronto Press titled Modern Furniture in Canada 1920 to 1970, which
included the first published documentation of the plastic chair prototype since 1946. I had
discovered the negative of the photograph at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, in an
unsorted and uncatalogued collection of negatives from the first years of the National Film
Board of Canada. The first manufactured one-piece moulded plastic chair was designed by
Danish architect Verner Panton in 1960, going into production in 1967.

Furniture production was a long established industry in Canada when the plastic
research was undertaken in the 1940s, and Canada continues to be one of the world's leading furniture producing and exporting countries. Large-scale manufacturing and trade began in the mid-19th. century, with Canadian exports to Australia, for example, starting in 1869.  Historically, a considerable amount of Canadian exported furniture was recorded in
importing countries as American because the goods were shipped from Boston and New
York. When they were trans-shipped via British ports they were recorded as imports from
Britain. These anomalies in global trade history have obscured the scale and importance of
Canadian furniture design and manufacturing history.

Virginia Wright

Launceston, Tasmania

Author: book Modern Furniture in Canda 1920 to 1970 (University of Toronto Press 1996)

Doctoral thesis ‘A Quintessential Global Product: Bentwood Furniture in Canada and Australia 1860 to 1945’ (University of Technology Sydney 2017)

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Output animations

As part of MoDiP’s current exhibition ‘Output’, AUB Alumnus Jody Sweeney, BA (Hons) Visual Communication, was employed to create a series of visual explanations of the sometimes rather complex plastics manufacturing processes. These accompany the objects on display in MoDiP from 13th September 2019 - 13th March 2020 and can also be viewed online through our website. Katherine Pell, Museum Collections Officer.

Producing eleven plastic process animations for MoDiP has been a very exciting experience for me. Not only because it has been one of my first freelance works since graduating, but also because of the engaging subject, as I was learning more and more about plastics manufacturing as I went along. 

I was very eager to start, and began watching many plastic videos online. My favourite process to research and animate was the Sqezy washing up bottle. I was very new to the blow moulding process and wasn’t aware that to make the bottles, air is pushed into a plastic tube in order to expand the material into the mould. I now also know the reason behind the markings on the bottom of the bottle is because the excess tube at the bottom is cut. 

Another favourite of mine was Thermoforming, as the action of draping plastic over a mould as if it was a tablecloth, was quite a satisfying aesthetic. 

3D printing was a process that I was not entirely familiar with, especially SLS (selective laser sintering). To get my head around this process I was able to view a printer in the AUB workshop to see how it works. This was the most challenging and exciting animation to create in my opinion, as not only lasers were included, but the object being created was a fedora with a lot of texture and chain links integrated into the hat.

All of the animations were created by digitally drawing frames and objects. Titles, text and the MoDiP logo were also digitally drawn. My aim was to simplify the busy plastics process videos, usually filmed in factories. I created basic shapes for the moulds and machinery to visually interpret each process and used MoDiP’s colour palette to correlate with the museum branding.

Each object featured in the clips can be seen on display in the exhibition (MoDiP, 1st floor, AUB Library).

Jody Sweeney, BA (Hons) Visual Communication