The Image Permanence Institute (IPI), housed in RIT’s College of Art and Design, received a National Leadership Grant for Museums from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) for a research project titled, “Mapping Environmental Conditions That Prevent Plastic Deterioration While Contributing to Sustainable Preservation and Environmental Management.”
The grant funds three years of research into plastic deterioration of modern heritage collections, specifically their physical response to storage and display environments. The funds will support a 30-month post-doctoral researcher position and enable the purchase of advanced analytical instrumentation, namely a dynamic mechanical analyzer that can measure how objects physically respond to certain environmental conditions.
While the general perception of plastics is one of prevalence and persistence, their chemical and physical forms are known to change overtime, presenting a variety of challenges for their long-term care and preservation in collections.
“Cultural institutions and museums are trying to preserve materials that were not designed for long- term storage and display. Plastic objects were often mass-produced and manufacturers would change the plastics’ composition on a fairly regular basis,” said Emma Richardson, director of research at IPI. “So, trying to predict the lifetime of these objects can be challenging.”
Plastics have long been present in museums and cultural institution collections, but there is little research regarding how an object’s physical responses to its environment is influenced by the object’s material composition. These physical responses are not always problematic, according to Richardson, and this research aims to find the “tipping point” of when these responses may cause issues in a collection.
“If we can start to find a relationship between the different ingredients of the plastics and how these relate to the moisture content, temperature, and dimensional changes of the object, we may be able to predict when we get dimensional changes that are problematic within certain storage environments,” said Richardson. “Then, we can start to tailor the storage environments accordingly to the composition of our objects.”
Richardson says the outcome of this research may also enable museums and cultural institutions to employ more sustainable climate control protocols in their collection vaults, reducing an institution’s environmental impact.
IPI has conducted research about plastics in cultural institution collections in the past. However, as with most preservation research globally, the previous work has primarily focused on how plastics degrade chemically.