UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage



COMPLEX aims to understand, model and predict the degradation of plastics in museum collections.


COMPLEX’s vision is to consider plastic objects in their environment as complex systems and thus to provide a new way of understanding polymer degradation, while providing practical advice to heritage professionals caring for plastic artefacts.

The development of plastics during the 19th and the 20th centuries has changed people’s lives in a remarkable way and has had an impact on society that could not have been foreseen. Plastics are everywhere nowadays and are now being considered as part of history and part of our material heritage.

In museums, contemporary plastic artefacts degrade faster than many more traditional materials and some modern art pieces have already fallen apart. COMPLEX aims to understand the complicated mechanisms that take part in degradation and provide more evidence-based ways of preserving plastic artefacts so they can still be displayed and stored for future generations.

COMPLEX has created an interdisciplinary approach where conservators work together with scientists towards the development of innovative methods to maintain objects’ integrity and significance in collections. Rather than focusing on specific chemical or physical processes, plastic objects are treated almost akin to living organisms and thus as a system. A systems dynamics approach is used to model objects in their environments so that the complexity of the multiple, inter-connecting interactions between material and environmental parameters can be reflected.