Lecture 015.006

DIPPING INTO COLORS. STUDIES ON THE COLORING OF PLASTICS
BY ANNE BIBER
Technisches Museum Wien, Vienna, Austria

How did the ability of being colored influence the use of plastics in design? Can color fashion be an indicator for the dating of plastic objects? How are plastics colored from a technological point of view? Is there a relation between the coloring and the ageing behavior of plastic materials?
Color is a pivotal feature of plastics. Despite this, we know little about the (history of) technologies of coloring plastics and the influence of coloration on plastics preservation. Answers to the questions above might help dating objects and could give conservators indications about special conservational requirements.
The Vienna Technical Museum holds two collections that might have the potential to give answers: The so called “Warenkundesammlung” is a collection of goods with the former purpose of training merchandise knowledge. It has been erased in the 19th century, extended until the 1980ies, and was consigned to the Vienna Technical Museum in the 1990ies. The collection involves around 1200 plastic objects like models, samples and plastic products. A second group of around 600 plastic objects trace back to two exhibitions about plastics in the Vienna Technical Museum, one in the 1940ies and one in the 1960ies.
For conservation science, these two collection groups are highly relevant as they were formed with the aim of depicting the variety of plastic materials, their production techniques, and their applications in industry and everyday life. The fact that around 50 color samples of many different polymeric materials from around 1900 until the 1980ies exist in the collections – like cellulose nitrate, casein formaldehyde, phenol formaldehyde resins, polystyrene, or polypropylene – led to the idea of focusing on the topic of colored plastics in a research project.
At this time, the collections have merely been surveyed or documented. The two collections are now, in the first step, being studied in detail by visual examination, archival research, and a condition survey. This will help to appraise the relevance of the objects as reference collection for the identification, dating, and risk assessment of colored plastics. It will also lay the foundation of acquiring financial and institutional support for the continuation of the research project. In a future step, networking with other collections will be of high importance to make comparisons and to gather missing information. There will also be a need for finding adequate methods for the analytical identification of coloring agents.
The paper will present the first outcomes of the collection survey of the approximately 1800 plastic objects. Furthermore, based on archival and literature research, an overview of the technology of coloring plastics will be given. The contribution will show potentials, means and limits in conservation science in the field of the coloring of plastics. It is meant to be a work-in-progress documentation at the starting point of a research project. It is an invitation to discuss and to network.

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