Wednesday 27 January 2021

Provocative plastics: their value in design and material culture

Back in 2015, the Arts University Bournemouth held an international conference, Provocative plastics: design in plastics from the practical to the philosophical, attended by scholars, art and design practitioners, and members of the plastics industry from five countries. We are pleased to announce that the book of the conference has now been published:

Its scope is more focused than the conference but on the area that elicited the most interest, plastic’s value. It consists of two sections. The first explores the multivalent nature of plastics’ materiality and their impact on creativity through the professional practice of artists, designers and manufacturers as a medium for making. The second explores how they are valued in societal use, people’s attitudes to plastics and the different values that can be applied to them.

The book is unusual in the range of its tone arising from the variety of experience of its authors. Some have hands on knowledge of working with plastics. As a result, their perceptions stem from anecdotal experience that, nonetheless, because of their practical knowledge of working with plastics as a means of livelihood, contribute meaningful testimony to the wider picture of plastics’ value. Others have researched their subject from specific theoretical standpoints and provide more traditional academic arguments. Some themes are common across chapters. Indeed there is a synergy across the texts in the two sections but from different perspectives. It is the interdisciplinary approach that sets this compendium apart. It brings together a variety of voices to unpick values attached across time to this paradoxical materials group, as their unique properties lead them to play an ever more essential part in our lives whilst simultaneously their ubiquity creates an ever-greater problem that we must solve.

Professor Sir Christopher Frayling, Cultural Historian and former Rector of the Royal College of Art and Chair of Arts Council England, says: ‘Plastics have had a very bad press - from just about every point of view: environmental, social, cultural, aesthetic, the lot. This book adopts a series of fresh perspectives on this much-maligned material. It explores, on the whole dispassionately, the use of plastics in fine art, industrial and product design, fashion, popular culture, in craftsmanship and in industry. And it asks the question ‘is it possible to have sustainable plastics?’ Provocative? Yes - and also both timely and important. For too long, the debate about this product of chemistry and manufacturing has been characterised by rhetoric and knee-jerks. It’s time to reflect.’

Susan Lambert
Chief Curator

Wednesday 20 January 2021

Fascinating finds from MoDiP's Reference Library

Whilst undertaking research in the MoDiP library, before lockdown #3, I found a mountain of ‘useful’ information, but not that little bit of information I was looking for. Still, it is a fascinating way to spend a few hours and quite a bit of what I came across relates to objects in our collections. 

One of those objects is a No. 2 Hawkette camera with a Bakelite case (refer image above). It was made for Kodak circa 1927, but we didn’t know who actually made the outer case, until today. We now know that Solidite and Synthetic Mouldings Limited (refer image below) manufactured the mouldings for Kodak, a piece of information that, for many objects, is all too often difficult to establish with the passage of time. Now we will be able to update the information on our website.  

Of course, such endeavours are not new to the research that the MoDiP team undertakes on a regular basis. In 2013 MoDiP launched the ‘10 Most Wanted’ project, a Digital R & D Fund for the Arts project undertaken by MoDiP in partnership with the University of Brighton and Adaptive Technologies. It sought to crowd source information relating to selected objects in the museum’s collections that had been difficult to find. With the help of social-media, a wealth of invaluable information was unearthed and recorded for posterity and it provided a template for other museums to gather difficult to find information relating to their collections.

I have been trawling through bound volumes of British Plastics & Moulded Products Trader from the 1930s and, as with most old periodicals, the advertisements are as interesting as the articles. Those adverts tell a story. Who was producing what and for whom and who were they trying to sell it to at any particular time. 

These trade publications are also full of adverts for long forgotten plastics materials which would have been familiar names to consumers and manufacturers of the time, Sicalite, Stanite and Nestorite and Indurite, for example, but not Birmite that I was searching for. 

Since starting this blog I have encountered another ‘ite’ for which I need to find information, namely Jaxonite, a type of phenolic resin. And so, when I can get back into the museum, the search will continue and I will try not to get too distracted by the ads., but they are fascinating…

Pam Langdown
Documentation Officer

Wednesday 13 January 2021

Horn combs

The museum recently (pre-covid) took receipt of a selection of 139 horn combs, acquired by the Worshipful Company of Horners to be accessioned into their collection, which has been cared for by MoDiP since 2010.

Horn has been used since prehistoric times as a cheap, readily available, easily worked material from which essential tools, as well as decorative items, were made. It is considered to be one of nature's plastics because of the way in which it can be moulded with the application of heat and/or pressure. The Horners’ collection provides a comprehensive insight into the use of this material up to the development of the early synthetic plastics which replaced it.

MoDiP’s Documentation Officer first completed the object entry process: listing each comb within the museum’s Accession register, ascribing a unique number and then labelling the objects and finally, producing a searchable catalogue record within MoDiP’s collections database. Once all of the data had been captured, the combs were handed over to me for storage.

After an initial assessment of the size and variation of the objects as well as the shelving space that had been set aside, I ordered some ‘Really Useful’ boxes, matching those already being used to house this particular material. Being made of strong and inert polypropylene, these boxes also stack easily and are transparent so that the contents can be viewed easily. 

Image ref: Preparing the storage boxes in the museum.
Image credit: Katherine Pell

Each box had to be lined with plastazote, a chemically stable, polyethylene foam cushioning material. We buy this in very large sheets and I was able to make use of the museum space, during quiet periods, to spread out all of the equipment I needed to cut it to size (see image above). I typically use a ruler, scalpel and cutting mat for this but am thinking about investing in a thermocutter hot knife tool – it would certainly have made this job a lot easier!

Next, the combs were sorted so that similar types could be stored together. This is advantageous for minimising future handling; if a researcher wanted to look at all of the mourning combs for example, it is much easier to retrieve one box containing them all than to search for and then remove ten different objects from ten different boxes. It is also beneficial to keep similar materials together; several combs contain silver which require regular condition checking - far simpler to achieve if they are all located in the same box and maintaining specific environmental micro-climates becomes much more straightforward too.

Image ref: The combs all sorted into boxes.
Image credit: Katherine Pell

Finally, each box was then divided up into sections with further plastazote being used to separate, support and cushion each comb (see image below). 

Image ref: A box of hair pins, sorted (left) and then stored (right).
Image credit: Katherine Pell

The boxes were then numbered, positioned on a shelf on the roller racking in the store and each comb’s catalogue record updated with a location reference so that they can be identified. The next job is photography, which we hope to begin soon, and then the records will be made available to search online through MoDiP’s website.

Image ref: Boxes numbered and located on a shelf in the store.
Image credit: Katherine Pell

There are some really lovely examples in this collection but my favourites are the painted combs, particularly the bird and the butterfly (see image below). Made in China in the mid twentieth century, they are both translucent horn, shaped specifically to incorporate the beautiful hand painted design.

Image ref: The painted combs.
Image credit: Katherine Pell

All of these objects, along with the rest of the Worshipful Company of Horners’ collection, can be viewed in the museum by request once we are able to re-open.

Katherine Pell
Collections Officer

Tuesday 5 January 2021

My plastics at home: part 3

Another year, another lockdown so obviously time for another My plastics at home blog!

I was thinking about the last blog we had written in this series where each member of the museum team had chosen a plastics object from home that was important to them in some way. It suddenly occurred to me that there is another object that I use on an almost daily basis that has proven invaluable over the years, but being so familiar I had not recognised its significance until today. It is my trusty travel mug – see image below.

My Aladdin travel mug

My Aladdin travel mug
(image credit: Katherine Pell)

It was purchased for a few pounds at a local discount shop, about sixteen years ago when my first child was born. I heeded the advice given to me by my maternal grandmother that you should get out of the house at least once every day with young children, regardless of the weather. For me, as much as for my daughters, each morning I would pack up the pushchair for an adventure. As well as the nappies, wipes, milk and snacks (once they had started weaning), I always made sure I had my coffee ready to go in this amazing, totally leak-proof cup. Being so impressed by it, I went on to purchase an additional one in blue for my husband.

Mine and his
(image credit: Katherine Pell)

Made of injection moulded polypropylene, the insulated double wall construction is designed with silicone banding running all the way around the exterior for grip, alleviating the need for a handle. The lid has a repeated pattern of two indented circles to assist with screwing and unscrewing and contains two (yes, two) rubber seals that ensure this mug is 100% reliable.

Unwashed mug and lid!

(image credit: Katherine Pell)

Although they are a bit battered now, these mugs are still going strong and have accompanied us on our many travels around the country, as well as the daily (sometimes twice daily) dog walk, the school run and the (pre-covid lockdown) commute to work. By reusing them we do not have to buy a drink whilst out and about; saving us money and reducing our impact on the environment. They have never failed us and I have yet to find their equal despite acquiring many alternatives that, despite claims to the contrary, all end up leaking. Usually in my bag.

Perhaps best of all, my fabulous plastics travel mug reminds me of a stylised stormtrooper! Or is that just me?

Katherine Pell
Collections Officer