The development and mass manufacture of plastics over the last century has resulted in their widespread use in modern life. Due to the versatility of these polymeric materials, their use has become common in the engineering and creative industries. Consequently they may comprise the whole or part of many contemporary art and design objects and may be found in many different areas of a museum’s collection. This is the case for the Victoria and Albert Museum, which houses over 8000 polymeric artefacts ranging from early synthetic plastics to those used in the present day.
The stability of plastic artefacts is dependent on both their composition and the conditions to which they are exposed. Degradation typically results in an alteration to the appearance of the object and can therefore change the aesthetic nature and integrity of the original design. While cleaning can improve the appearance of some objects, there are concerns that it can also alter the appearance or stability of the work. The diversity of polymeric materials available also means that they display very different behaviours and therefore require different treatment protocols.
Polystyrene and poly (methyl methacrylate) (PMMA) have historically been used to create both design objects and works of art. In this work, a range of wet and dry cleaning treatments have been applied to these two plastics to determine their effect on the polymer surface. Advanced analysis techniques have been used to examine the substrates for changes that are not visible to the naked eye or at low magnification. Time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometry (TOF-SIMS) is a highly surface sensitive technique that has been used to examine the substrates for contamination before and after cleaning while physical changes have been quantified via microscopic examination. These experiments together with the effects of ageing on these polymeric substrates will be discussed.