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Preservation OPlastic ARTefacts in museum collections.

Under the umbrella of the European POPART project (Preservation Of Plastic ARTefacts in museum collections) RCE researchers formulated guidelines for the display, cleaning and conservation of plastic art works.

 POPART logo

The POPART logo.

Information about preventing or delaying the deterioration of these works exists, but this is limited and scattered. Hence a European study has been initiated under the title of POPART: strategy for the Preservation Of Plastic ARTefacts in museum collections. Researchers from the POPART project have drawn up guidelines for the display, cleaning and conservation of plastic art works.


RCE was project leader for a part of POPART and has worked on four sub-projects:

Identification and caracterization

The identification of a plastic (what is it?) is one of the first considerations for the conservation management of plastic objects in museum collections. With the use of specific analytical techniques a distinction must be made between identification (what type of plastic) and characterization (what and how many components, what additives, size of the polymer, the physical properties of plastics etc.). The analysis of museum artefacts requires minimally destructive techniques when sampling. Non-destructive techniques and portable (hand-held) devices were also evaluated.


The identification of the degradation of plastics according to Polly, a doll made with 11 different plastics that was exposed to museum conditions. As it is not possible to sample art works in museums for monitoring degradation, the Nationalmuseet (Copenhagen) constructed a doll (Polly) made of 11 common types of plastic. All POPART partners were given their own Polly, which they each exposed to a different situation. At the RCE Polly was placed for 2½ years at a sunlit window in a laboratory.


Creating a reference collection of standard plastics and plastic objects. In this project a reference collection of 96 samples of plastic was accumulated under the name of SamCo. The reference samples were labelled, packed in special cases and sent to the six partners participating in a round robin test for identifying plastics. A computerized database of the results was made using FileMaker Pro 8.


Earlier surveys on the condition of plastics in museums showed that cleaning is required in 75% of these collections. Fingerprints, dirt and degradation products can accelerated the ageing of museum objects and thus lead to loss of significance and value.

As part of the POPART project on plastics, an extensive evaluation of mechanical, aqueous and non-aqueous cleaning techniques were carried out on the cleaning possibilities for polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polyvinyl chloride with plasticizer (PVC), high density polyethylene (HDPE), high-impact polystyrene (cast and extruded) and cellulose acetate (CA). These plastics were selected because they are well represented in museum collections and there are no existing cleaning procedures for them.

The RCE was responsible for cleaning sheets of cellulose acetate as part of this project. The influence of mechanical cleaning materials and aqueous and non-aqueous solvents was investigated and evaluated. The results have led to the formulation of a fact sheet, in which the best cleaning agents and solvents were set down in the form of a decision-making model. In addition, the RCE took on the task of distributing the gained knowledge through symposia, workshops and the Internet, among other means.