Wednesday 29 September 2021

Plastic Vanitas, Mariele Neudecker, 2015

Six years ago, MoDiP hosted an international conference called Provocative Plastics, which took place over two days at the Arts University Bournemouth to explore the past, present and future potential of plastics. At the same time, we had an exhibition of photographs on display in TheGallery by Mariele Neudecker, to compliment the conference: Plastic Vanitas

Plastic Vanitas on display at TheGallery
Image credit: TheGallery

The basic premise of the project was to re-present the MoDiP collection as a series of Vanitas paintings. Vanitas was a specific form of Dutch still-life painting that became increasingly popular in the 17th century. Compositions included objects that carried symbolic meaning, such as a clock representing the passing of time, jewellery indicating wealth and food/wine alluding to pleasure. All of these would build up an overall moral message: the vanities of life are fleeting and, since death is inevitable, we should live our lives in the moment, as fully as possible.

One bay of shelving in the MoDiP store.
Image credit: MoDiP

Mariele had the opportunity to go behind the scenes at MoDiP and discover the collections for herself, removing boxes from the shelves at random and unwrapping the objects within them to see what they were. She became interested by how the objects were actually stored: by material, size and weight (heavy boxes on the bottom of the shelving and lighter ones at the top), in accumulations of objects that often make no intellectual sense.

To explore this further, she decided to ask the MoDiP team to identify potential objects that could represent the symbolism she was looking for. She would then take the entire box that each object was stored in and use all of the other items within (previously unseen by her) to form part of the still-life. The work was created in the Arts University Bournemouth's photographic studios with assistance from a team of students studying BA (Hons) Photography and BA (Hons) Commercial Photography.

In the artist's words:

I wouldn't call myself a photographer. I use photography but it's usually outdoors and photographing what's there, rather than setting up scenes like this. I'm learning loads about lighting etc. It's really fun how each student has their own tricks up their sleeve, which they're happy to share.

Mariele Neudecker


One student, Julio del Castello Vivero, recorded his experience as a time lapse animated film showing the process of the objects being unwrapped, positioned, lit and then photographed (refer below).

Julio del Castello Vivero’s animated film
Image credit:

In total, Neudecker produced 49 photographic artworks that she has subsequently toured around the world. We have a selection on permanent display outside the museum, on the first floor of the AUB Library. Here are two of my favourites:

Still Life with Lemon and Apples - (the contents of Box 653).
Image credit: Mariele Neudecker

Still Life with Thermos jug and Door Handle - (the contents of Box 316).
Image credit: Mariele Neudecker

In remembrance of Leo Gauvain, seen in the image below on the left, smiling (he was always smiling) with Julio del Castello Vivero, myself and Pam Langdown.

Setting out objects in the AUB photography studio.
Image credit: Louise Dennis

Katherine Pell
Collections Officer

Wednesday 22 September 2021

Beside the sea - introduction

In the video below I introduce our current exhibition, Beside the sea.  This is the first in a series of short videos all about the objects we have on display.

Louise Dennis, Curator of MoDiP


Wednesday 15 September 2021

Worshipful Company of Horners visit

MoDiP has been caring for the collection of the Worshipful Company of Horners for the past eleven years. These objects provide a comprehensive insight into the use of one of nature's plastics; defined as being a material that can be moulded with the application of heat (in this case with a soft flame or by dipping in boiling water or hot oil) and/or pressure (eg. using a press), in its natural form. By using techniques such as cutting, sanding and polishing, the material can be used to create a wide range of products.

Whilst horn artefacts have been found that date back to the 5th century BCE, its biodegradable nature has resulted in under-representation within the archaeological record. For example, evidence of horn working is commonly identified by the remains of the hard, bony inner cores (removed from the keratin outer layer which can then be worked), and metal fittings are often all that is found to indicate the presence of early drinking horns. However, it is historically recognised as having been a widely available and relatively cheap material that was commonly used for the production of everyday items, essential tools, weapons as well as decorative objects.

A selection of horn artefacts from the Worshipful Company of Horners’ collection.
Image credit: MoDiP

The first historic reference to the Worshipful Company of Horners was recorded in 1284, identifying it as a Livery Company with powers to control the craft within the City of London such as regulating conditions of employment and setting standards for workmanship. In 1476 they merged with the Bottlemakers, originally makers of leather bottles whose trade was being eroded by the introduction of glass and, as the craft of working with horn later declined, the Company adopted the emerging plastics industry in 1943, the two industries sharing many similar production techniques.

A 17th century leather
costrel (left) and modern replica.
Image credit: MoDiP

Their extensive collection of items made from horn ranges from simple agricultural tools such as drenches for use with cattle to sophisticated pressed and pierced combs as well as horn-working tools that demonstrate how the trade gradually became mechanised. Their earliest piece is a shoe horn dated to 1612, engraved with floral and geometric designs and bearing the legend 'Robart Mindum made this shooing horne for Ricard Gibon anno Domini 1612’. 

The objects laid out for the Horners to view.
Image credit: MoDiP

Recently, MoDiP travelled to a local hotel with a selection of these objects to meet with members from the Company. This was a postponed visit due to the Covid-19 lockdown and whilst we had hoped the group would be able to join us at the museum, current restrictions on visitor numbers unfortunately meant that would not be possible. So, if they could not come to us, we would go to them and we duly borrowed a van to carefully transport the objects a few miles down the road.

We spent the afternoon examining the collection in detail and a few favourites included: a set of six beakers, graduated in size to stack inside one another and dated to c.1910, a collapsible beaker in black and cream horn, an early 19th century engraved beaker depicting a hunting scene and a leather Black Jack with silver mounts, c.17th century. All seen in the image below. 

Cups and snuff boxes.
Image credit: MoDiP

The hornbook (seen below at the top of the table, centre) was also of particular interest. From the mid-sixteenth to the late nineteenth century, hornbooks were used as a teaching aid for children and were referred to as a primer. This example consists of a sheet of paper containing the alphabet and the Lord’s Prayer, protected by a thin layer of transparent horn and mounted on a leather covered oak frame with a handle. It is stamped with a figure of Charles I on horseback on the reverse.

A selection of cutlery, combs and the hornbook.
Image credit: MoDiP

The entire collection is housed at the museum and is available for research. It can be viewed in person on request or viewed via the on-line catalogue.

Katherine Pell
Collections Officer 


Wednesday 8 September 2021

Damard Lacquer Company

An intriguing object found in amongst some recent donations to the MoDiP collection turned out to be something rather special.


This shiny black piece of hard plastic came with a small handwritten note explaining that:

‘This phenolic rod was given to me by H.V. Potter, Chairman of Bakelite Ltd. He said it was made circa 1918 by Damard Lacquer Co and was an experiment into phenolic resins and moulding materials. It was cured by increasing the temperature of the oven over a period of 24 hours.’


With further investigation I was able to establish that the Damard Lacquer Company was formed in 1910, in Birmingham. 


Demolition of 98 Bradford Street, exterior shot. BXL : 1191.2

At that time Birmingham was the centre of the UK's brassware industry where durable lacquers were in demand for coating brass to prevent tarnishing. Responding to the demand for lacquers in America, the company set up another factory in New York in 1912, but this was closed at the onset of WWI with patent litigation threatened by Bakeland, the inventor of Bakelite, being another possible contributory factor.  Subsequent agreements with Bakeland allowed Damard to continue to develop lacquers and to produce laminated sheet for electrical insulations and resins for brake linings. In 1927 a new company was formed comprising the Damard Lacquer Co., Mouldensite Ltd., and Redmanol Ltd., to develop Bakeland's phenol formaldehyde patents in England. That company was Bakelite Ltd. through which this phenolic rod was eventually donated to the museum.


This unassuming object is a bit of a gem. It dates back to the early days of the development of wholly synthetic plastics, so whilst it is not the most photogenic of objects, it is a rare and tangible link with those early pioneers of plastics materials production. 

Pam Langdown
Documentation Officer

Wednesday 1 September 2021

Synthetic garments workshop at MoDiP

In April 2020 (see our post of 20 May 2020) we had the good news that our application to the Art Fund for support for a project in partnership with the Dress and Textiles Specialists’ network and the Plastics SSN had been successful. Its aim is to create a resource focused on synthetic garments with a view to building museum staff skills and confidence in this significant but neglected area. By ‘synthetic’ we mean garments made of materials that have been chemically changed or are entirely manmade. An example of the former is viscose, often called rayon, and of the latter, nylon. 

The intention was to hold workshops with a view to sharing experience and expertise and thereby to gather information for the resource. The timing of the project was such that we were meant to begin just as lockdown got underway so I am delighted to be able to report that we have, at last, managed to hold two workshops. The first was at the V&A’s magnificent Clothworkers’ Centre at Blythe House at the end of April. Lockdown restrictions were such that I was the only person to have the privilege of joining five V&A textile/fashion curators in person but we were fortunate to have further experts join via Zoom from Glasgow Museums and University. The second workshop was held recently at MoDiP where the MoDiP team was joined by three curators from the V&A and one from the Science Museum and again by the colleagues in Glasgow on Zoom. It resulted in a very rewarding day. 

Workshop attendees enjoyed exploring the collection. 
Image credit: MoDiP

MoDiP’s research, with the exception of the exhibition ‘Threads: plastics wearing well’ (, has tended to focus on objects made of hard plastics. Thus this workshop provided a wonderful opportunity for us to learn to look at and see garments through the eyes of textile specialists. I had scrutinised each of the 14 garments in advance and was amazed by how much I had missed. For example, that a blouse sporting a Utility label has a patch in a different material under one of its shoulder pads; a fake fur jacket had been shortened; and another fake fur object, a scarf, which is more convincing as fur to the touch, has a regular effect of striations across its surface when looked at from a certain angle. 

Some of the garments reviewed during the workshop. 
Image credit: MoDiP

Most of the garments we explored have labels specifying the materials of which they are made. For example an undershirt designed as protective clothing for racing drivers is composed of 69% Modal viscose, 28% aramid, 1% carbon fibre and 2% Elastane. I had assumed that it was made of a fibre created from a blend of these materials but learnt that it is more likely that it is the thread with which the garment is sewn together is the carbon fibre element. The reason being that it is much easier to work with than Modal viscose, very strong and maintains functionality at high temperatures. This supposition will be tested by infrared (IR) spectroscopy. An explanation of how this process enables material identification through the creation of a unique spectrum (graph) can be found here:

Sparco Pro Tech RW-9 undershirt, AIBDC : 007097. 
Image credit: MoDiP

I would like to thank our V&A, Science Museum and Glasgow colleagues for making the workshop so useful and enjoyable. Their different approaches have hugely expanded my understanding of the objects we looked at. If only we could submit everything in the collection to this kind of scrutiny and discussion.

Susan Lambert
Chief Curator of MoDiP