Wednesday 29 July 2020


There aren’t too many positives about working in isolation at home, but one of them is that I have had time to investigate more thoroughly some of the issues which are thrown up when researching for forthcoming exhibitions.  Starting with the inevitable Google search, I found myself reading through government reports and newspaper articles and went down many research rabbit holes, only to emerge at the other side almost as confused.  So, I am trying to make sense of what I have been reading about the subject of the disposal of single-use fast food or take-away packaging with a view to including this topic in MoDiP’s Beside the Sea exhibition.

 FC1 Fish and Chips box 

In 2019 the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee published a report on Plastic food and drink packaging. It referenced a U.N. Environment Report that stated foam take-away containers were in the list of the top ten most common single-use plastics found in the environment. 

Awareness of the adverse environmental impact that packaging such as clam-shell boxes and trays made from EPS (expanded polystyrene), commonly used to serve take-away fish and chips, has had over the years, has led to a recent move towards using biodegradable and compostable alternatives.  But it seems that they too are not without their problems. 

The problem with containers made from EPS, it seems, is that EPS is very difficult and not financially viable to recycle. It is inevitably contaminated by food waste and often ends up in landfill or in the environment where it can cause considerable damage. These containers were a popular choice for fast food businesses as they were cheap to manufacture, were lightweight and had excellent insulating properties.  More recently there has been a move towards the use of alternatives made from bio-mass materials such as Bagasse, which is a by-product of the sugar industry, and which has similar properties. But currently this type of material is also fraught with difficulties when it comes to its disposal. 

Bagasse is compostable with the rate of decomposition depending on the composting conditions. However, it is thought that even if the consumer is made aware that their container is made of such material, there will be confusion over how to dispose of it.  It all depends on local infrastructure and the type of composting facilities they use.  If mistakenly included with regular recycling then it risks contaminating that batch.  It seems to me that clear material identification and clear instructions are needed for the efficient disposal of this type of packaging, and like all other packaging there needs to be a national consensus on what is recycled.

The House of Commons report concluded that:

“Although industrially compostable plastic packaging is appealing as an alternative to conventional plastics, the general waste management infrastructure to manage it is not yet fit for purpose.  In addition, we are concerned that consumers are confused about how to dispose of compostable packaging, particularly if there is no dedicated compostable waste bin available.  We therefore don’t support a general increase in the use of industrially compostable packaging at this stage.”

So, it still feels like there is a long way to go, both with managing recycling and with my research, but who would have thought that reading about rubbish could be so absorbing!


Pam Langdown

Documentation Officer

Wednesday 22 July 2020

Lockdown: a force for creative innovation

Working in a museum situated in an arts university opens up special avenues. We are particularly keen to involve artists in interpreting the museum’s subject and have been pleased to host residencies of the fine artist, Mariele Neudecker, and the musician, Karen Wimhurst, both supported by Arts Council England.  


Mariele developed a series of art photographs presenting the collection as  ‘vanitas’ paintings

Plastic Vanitas -  Still Life with Flower and Poodle [AIBDC, 237, CR, 90, Shelf 2 of 8, 3.8kg] . Art photography by Mariele Neudecker

Karen developed a chamber opera, with soprano, plastic trumpet and live vinyl DJ. It explores our plastics age through a series of sung chapters timelining the meteoric rise of plastics throughout the twentieth century to ‘Synthetica’, the world we live in today. On one level this is an ‘every person’ mythic tale initially heralding a glorious new age free of poverty and exploitation of nature which leads us to a different reality unfolding in the twenty-first century. It tells of the desire to move beyond nature for the betterment of humanity and ends with returning to closed loop systems of the natural world. On another level, it is a cross genre reflection on a complex web of design, scientific discovery, history, and the power of marketing. 


‘Synthetica’ was workshopped at the Lighthouse, Poole, in 2018 and premiered, as part of the Tête à Tête Opera Festival in London last summer, directed on both occasions by the AUB’s Acting Course Leader, Katharine Piercey  Bill Bankes Jones, Tête à Tête's Artistic Director, said: 'We were extremely pleased to host Synthetica... It was a great addition to our programme… innovative, thought provoking, a great score and a virtuosic cast. Moreover, it’s billing in the Plastics and Rubber UK Journal proves it can reach places other operas can’t go!' It was Frances Lynch of Electric Voice Theatre's favourite opera in the festival: '...cutting edge, provocative, with a truly exciting score and great live performances... It stood out as an opera for our times and deserves a wide audience.' You can enjoy excerpts from it here 

We were so pleased and excited early this year when Arts Council England offered further support to build on the success of that performance.  The intention was to tour the show to a minimum of six venues, even to take it abroad.  However, for the time being at least, lockdown has put our plans into abeyance. Theatres are closed and staff unavailable. Planned performances have had to be cancelled and making contact with theatres is proving challenging. Although there is some easing of lockdown, it is not known when live performances will be allowed. 


Therefore, in navigating the unknown territory that Covid 19 has thrown up, we hope in the shorter term to be able to create an online version. As the opera is already split into chapters, each one of these can be presented for people to access from an initial menu. The circularity of a vinyl LP and the lock groove turning round and round is a central image to be used.  The proposal is to film the opera simply with the head of the singer ‘Zoom style’ on a green screen backgrounded by a playful collage of objects from the MoDiP collection including ads from 1940’s magazines, excerpts from the libretto, and textures of plastics materials, which the singer can manipulate. As well as the opera scene itself, each chapter will contain educational resources for release to schools nationally.  


Whatever the state of lockdown, MoDiP remains interested in working with artists.  Although ideally a residency involves hands-on contact with museum objects, we are fortunate at MoDiP that most of the collection has been photographed. Indeed we believe we have the best quality and largest collection of images of objects made of plastics in the world. In these strange times we would be especially interested in creative interaction with the online collections. Indeed, with or without lockdown, there is much that could be done with the digital collection. Do get in touch if you have ideas, digital or otherwise, that you would like to talk through:


Susan Lambert, Chief Curator, MoDiP

Wednesday 15 July 2020

My plastics at home: part 1.

Inspired by a blog written by Carla Flack, Sculpture and Installation Art Conservator, Tate, I decided to investigate some of my own plastics at home, to see if I could identify what materials they are made from and (hopefully) find out more about their history. For my first object, I selected this toy piano and stool (see image below), both pieces from a collection of doll’s house furniture originally owned by my Aunt. 

Image ref: A doll’s house piano and stool.
Image credit: K. Pell

I started by examining MoDiP’s online guide to Identifying Plastics. I find this a really useful resource that provides a list of potential materials based on the answers to a series of questions. You can narrow down the possibilities by considering things like when the object was made, what it looks and feels like and whether it has any distinguishing marks.

Image ref: Ejector pin marks (created when the warm moulding was released from its mould) on the bottom of the piano.

My original guess of 1950s polystyrene seemed to bear out: the piano is extremely lightweight, brittle, creates a ‘metallic’ sound when tapped and has visible injection moulding marks underneath (see image below).

It is also possible to see the gate (where the molten plastic entered the mould) and how the material flowed – excuse the colour discrepancies in my photography!

Image ref: (left) the injection moulding ‘gate’, (right) the gate is at the bottom of the photo and you can see how the material flowed into the mould.
Image credit: K.Pell

Next, I wanted to find out more about who had made the object and, rather conveniently, they had signed their name on the sheet music (see image below). An online search resulted in my finding an article written about Kleeware by Percy Reboul, published in the Plastiquarian, the journal of the Plastics Historical Society.

Image ref: The piano was made by Kleeware.
Image credit: K.Pell

I was able to ascertain that this company was founded in 1938, initially producing cellulose acetate combs and phenol and urea formaldehyde ashtrays using the trade name Kabroloid and later, Kleeware. They made radio components for the Ministry of Defence during WWII and afterwards expanded their range to include small toys and dolls which were sold to Woolworths and exported around the world. In 1959, the company was sold to Rosedale Plastics, a rival toy manufacturer.

I also found some great advertisements including these two below, referencing the actual plastics materials used in the production of these toys.

Image ref: (left) 1949 advert for Kleeware doll's house furniture, (right) 1952 advert for the British Industries' Fair
Image credit: and

It seems that plagiarism was common amongst toy manufacturers in the immediate post-war years and many, including Kleeware, were known to have ‘borrowed’ designs from other companies. That makes it particularly difficult to try and identify information when they did not brand their products. I am so glad my Aunt looked after her toys so well, preserving the paper sheet music that could so easily have become detached and which provided a vital clue.

If you would like to try and find out some more about your own plastics objects, why not start with MoDiP’s curator’s guide, which explains what plastics are and how to go about identifying them. We’d love to hear how you get on. 

Katherine Pell, Museum Collections Officer.




Wednesday 8 July 2020

Sewing Machines – fabulous in form and function

In this current time of staying and working at home, certain objects have become increasingly important to our lives. We are advised to use certain objects, for example soap, hand sanitisers and masks. These objects have become vital to how we live. 

In our homes, certain objects may have become particularly significant as their use supports our different and changed ways of living. The kettle, the washing up-liquid bottle and the tin-opener may be used more frequently and their efficiency and ease of use can make things that little more comfortable. We may find that we are revisiting and reviewing our acquaintance with certain objects: that we are increasingly reassessing their use and value. For example a range of plastic and glass packaging and containers, such as lidded plastic yoghurt pots and large plastic milk cartons, may now be readily kept, repurposed, upcycled and used again throughout the home as their value is reconsidered. We may discover an object long stored away and long overlooked that can now be used readily with greater purpose as our needs shift. As such the padded coat hanger and the Swan Brand stainless steel teapot are convenient designs that may now see greater use. Some items can be used across different contexts, for example the bulldog clip is a useful item to clasp paper together in the home office whilst being a rather handy tool to hold other things together more generally, including to help seal food packets and to nip back loose clothing and curtains. 

Interestingly the Victoria and Albert Museum’s current project ‘Pandemic Objects’, and the accompanying blog, explores ‘objects that have taken on new meaning and purpose during the coronavirus outbreak.’ Some of the objects identified include chairs, skipping ropes and toilet rolls. The blog’s short texts discuss the significance of the objects in the pandemic and they also provide some thought-provoking personal insights and facts about the objects. 

The Victoria and Albert museum include the sewing machine as a pandemic object in its pandemic objects blog as sewing machines have seen increased use in the home in recent months, and the sale of machines has increased significantly since the onset of lockdown. The Japan Times reported in April 2020 that ‘Demand for sewing machines jumps on rise in DIY face masks’ and that sewing machine manufacturer ‘Brother Sales Ltd. saw a 30 percent rise in orders for sewing machines in February and March compared with last year.’ Sewing machines have become particularly popular as people make things and as author Knott (2020) comments ‘From a quick online search, sewing machines are currently out of stock – or in very limited availability – from most major UK suppliers, as many people have sought to buy one during lockdown’. 

Like others, I have rolled out my preferred sewing machine: a 1903 hand cranked Singer with golden decorative transfer designs; a machine that operates using a shining bullet-like shaped shuttle bobbin case; and a sewing machine that is housed in what is called a coffin case (owing to its particular box design). I delight in its smooth functionality and its sturdy reliability. This old object, that only sews one type of stitch, just keeps on sewing for miles and provides hours of entertainment whilst reassuringly serving important needs. 

To search out old sewing machines is an enjoyment in itself and the website for AUB’s Museum of Design in Plastics, includes some interesting examples manufactured in plastics. For example the E-Z sewing machine MoDiP artefact aibdc-000798 made in China c. 1998, is a small hand-held design that offers easy sewing (Fig. 1). The text on the machine’s accompanying box (Fig. 2) states that the design is for ‘doing super jobs on the spot’ and proclaims ‘The most fantastic tool that you’ll ever own’. Likewise, the RoncoTM cordless portable sewing machine, c. 1973, sold in UK Woolworths stores is another example of an inexpensive machine for quick and undemanding work. 

Fig. 1. E-Z sewing machine, c.1998. Image: copyright MoDiP.

Fig. 2. E-Z sewing machine box, c.1998. Image: copyright MoDiP. 

MoDiP’s sewing machine and sewing-related collection includes the portable electric sewing machine designed by Ernst Fischer that is part of the Plastics Historical Society (PHS) collection that is held by MoDiP (artefact number PHSL : 225) (fig. 3 and fig. 4). According to the Museum of Modern Art (USA) online collection listing (2020) this intriguing design was manufactured by VEB Ernst- Thälmann-Werke, Suhl, DDR East Germany in the c.1950s. The sewing machine, made of steel, has a clever fold out design and its brown plastic carrying case ‘which converts to a working surface, is made of compression moulded phenol formaldehyde and has a leather carrying handle.’ (MoDiP). This design would serve many a home well today perhaps with its compact unobtrusive design. 

Fig. 3. Portable sewing machine designed by Fischer, Germany. Image: copyright MoDiP. 

Fig. 4. Portable sewing machine designed by Fischer, Germany. Image: copyright MoDiP. 

So the rise in sewing has seen a greater interest in sewing machines, and designs old and new are enjoying greater use today. Increasingly we may see greater reappraisal and reuse -or further use - of design objects within the home to help make our lives more efficient, comfortable, safe and reassuring. Maybe we will see the popularity of other objects flourishing as our needs and preferences change and develop.

As a design historian with a passion for design and object-based learning (OBL) I am researching how the use of objects in the home is developing and changing within the context of the current pandemic. I welcome anyone who would like to work with me on this intriguing journey – please don’t hesitate to contact me: 

In the meantime, I am back to my treasured old Edwardian era Singer sewing machine to keep me happy in the evenings .... whilst I wonder where exactly I can track down a 1950s Fischer portable sewing machine to buy...... 

And if you are revisiting your sewing machine and would like some guidance on how to maintain it, have a look at this blog 'How to oil a sewing machine: a step-by-step guide'.


Dr Kirsten Hardie, Associate Professor, Arts University Bournemouth


Dr Kirsten Hardie is a UK National Teaching Fellow and is Associate Professor at Arts University Bournemouth. Kirsten is recognised internationally for her object-based learning pedagogic practice and research. Kirsten created Arts University Bournemouth’s original design museum and is an avid collector of design.


The Japan Times. (2020). Demand for sewing machines jumps on rise in DIY face masks. April 21. [online]. Available from: [Accessed 13 June 2020]. 

Knott, Becky. (2020). Pandemic Objects: Sewing Machine. [online]. Available from: [Accessed 12 June 2020]. 

Museum of Design in Plastics. (2020). E-Z sewing machine. [online]. Available from: [Accessed 12 June 2020]. 

Museum of Design in Plastics. (2020). Fisher Sewing Machine. [online] Available from: [Accessed 12 June 2020]. 

Museum of Modern Art. (2020). 

Victoria and Albert Museum. (2020). Pandemic Objects. [online]. Available from: [Accessed 12 June 2020]. 

Wednesday 1 July 2020

Communicating loud and clear

Continuing with our Life goes on… theme, I’d like to share the many ways in which we, the team at MoDiP, have been adapting and further developing our means of communication with students, staff and everyone we work with and for – not to mention our public audiences - over the last few months, as we embrace everything digital.


Teams, AUB’s software of choice, has allowed us to chat, meet and share our work on an ongoing basis, so we have been able to support each other, and in many ways, it has made us stronger and more dynamic as a team. Only our dedicated Collections Officer has been able to go into the museum in person during lockdown, as she needs to regularly monitor the objects.


But never before have social media streams, online resources, and video conferencing and presentation software, played such a key role in the delivery of our museum services.


And, being responsible for Museum Digital Communications, I am pleased – as well as privileged - to be able to play my part and step up to face these new challenges alongside my colleagues.

LP High Pitch Jam Block
- usually played alongside a drum kit and makes an incredibly loud and clear sound

Not being able to deliver a practical ‘High Performance Plastics’ session (which was to include demonstration of the High Pitch Jam Block pictured above) to students in person early into lockdown, inspired me to produce a bespoke, audio enhanced version which I’m delighted to say went down a treat with Product Design, Design Engineering and Mechanical Engineering students over with our neighbours at Bournemouth University. 

- the super hero character with carbon fibre running blades, created by artist Jake Rowlinson, used to engage school children with our Cultural Hub project and
‘Being Me: plastics and the body’ exhibition

As it became clear home-schooling and much reduced class sizes had to be addressed regarding the delivery of our Cultural Hub project ‘Plastics for every body’, we decided to recreate school resources in a digital format.  I really enjoyed producing audio enhanced presentations for the project including a virtual exhibition of ‘Being me: plastics and the body’.  Having stayed in close contact with Cultural Hub teachers, I was able to keep my ear to the ground and provide resources – with appropriate content and format - for all Cultural Hub primary school children whatever their circumstances however challenging. 

A special thank you to my team mates for your encouragement and support along the way – very much appreciated as ever.

Philips D 8007 'The Roller' radio cassette recorder
- used in our #MuseumWeek  PR campaign to communicate loud and clear (with a ghetto blaster!) that our collections continue to be accessible online

And PR campaigns like the international #MuseumWeek and ‘Life goes on @ MoDiP’ have kept us focussed on what we need to be saying 'loud and clear' to our larger public audiences as well as to our colleagues and students here at AUB. Our virtual collections and exhibitions continue to be accessible 24/7 and we are continually adapting how we work and how we provide resources – most importantly, for our own university community, whether it is delivered directly to our students or working alongside academic, professional and gallery staff.


Julia Pulman, Digital Communications Officer.