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Modern and Contemporary Heritage

Katherine Curran research
Figure: Dr. Katherine Curran from UCL ISH and Deborah Cane from Tate conducting a survey of plastic objects at Tate. Shown here is Naum Gabo, Model for Spheric Theme  c.1937, Tate T02172. The Work of Naum Gabo © Nina & Graham Williams/Tate, London 2014.

Modern and contemporary materials have made possible new forms of artistic expression such as photography or cinema, are found in social history items from the late 19th and 20th century, and demonstrate some of the key scientific advances of the last 150 years.  It is no surprise that these objects are collected in their thousands by museums. However, despite the perception that plastic lasts “forever”, these objects can be some of the least stable in museum collections, sometimes degrading suddenly and catastrophically.

As relatively recent additions to heritage collections, conservators, collection care managers and curators face multiple challenges including material identification, understanding degradation processes, developing conservation strategies and understanding and communicating the significance of these objects.  

It is for this reason that the conservation of modern materials has been identified as a priority need by the National Heritage Science Strategy.

At the UCL ISH, we provide solutions to these challenges. By taking an interdisciplinary approach that combines fundamental and applied science with approaches adapted from the social sciences we are exploring mechanisms of polymer degradation, developing new analytical techniques for material identification and for identifying deteriorating objects and advancing our understanding of the way in which such objects are valued.

Through our core expertise in polymer chemistry and collaborations with prestigious heritage partners such as the Victoria and Albert museum, the Museum of London and Tate, we are taking a lead in this challenging but fascinating area.

Some examples of our research in this area include:

In 2016, Dr. Katherine Curran of UCL ISH received a prestigious ERC Starting Grant to fund a five year project: ‘COMPLEX: The Degradation of Complex Modern Polymeric Objects in Heritage Collections: A System Dynamics Approach’. 

This aims to explore a new approach to understanding the degradation of polymeric materials as complex systems, with particular focus on the care of modern materials such as plastics in heritage collections.  It will run from 2017-2022.  Two PhD students, Ida Ahmed and Isabella del Gaudio and two postdoctoral researchers, Argyro Gkili and Simoni da Ros joined UCL ISH in the autumn of 2017 to take part in this project.  The UCL team will work with research partners Tate, the Museum of London, Lacerta Technology and Conservation by Design on this project.

There are also several SEAHA students conducting research in this area: Carolien Coon, Mark Kearney, Rose King and Anna Pokorska.

Carolien’s work is on the degradation of rapid prototyping materials, in collaboration with the National Museum of Denmark, Plowden & Smith Ltd, UCL Eastman Dental Institute, and University of Florence, Center for Colloids and Surface Science, which forms part of the Horizon 2020 funded Nanorestart project. 

Mark focuses on the study of volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions as a diagnostic tool for detecting deterioration in modern and contemporary heritage materials, in collaboration with Tate, Arkema, UCL Chemistry and the National Institute of Chemistry in Ljubljana, Slovenia, also as part of the Nanorestart project.  

Rose works in collaboration with the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute and Dow to use imaging and spectroscopic techniques to understand and quantify the dynamic processes of degradation caused by the loss of plasticisers from plastic objects in heritage collections.

Anna looks at the photo-oxidation of modern and contemporary heritage materials in collections, in collaboration with Philips, the Victoria and Albert Museum and UCL, Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering.  

If you are interested in further information on our Modern and Contemporary Heritage theme, send Katherine Curran an email or Matija Strlic an email.