philco dial_SW

Unstable Plastics: Preservation Challenges in Museum Collections

Plastics are so much a part of our lives that we don’t even think about them except when we check for the recyclable symbol. Plastics in museums (Figure 1), however, deserve much more attention as they present significant and constant collecting and preservation challenges.

Figure 1. The Temperature Control (TC) room in one of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation storage facilities provides constant and cool storage conditions for many small objects made of early plastics.

Figure 1. The Temperature Control (TC) room in one of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation storage facilities provides constant and cool storage conditions for many small objects made of early plastics.

The first synthetic plastic was patented in 1865, meaning that plastics are 150 years old this year. We collect plastic artifacts not as examples of the plastics themselves, but as part of a collection of technological and social history objects significant to Canadians (Figure 2). One of the earliest plastics was rubber, and it is not hard to imagine the amount of rubber in a collection of technological history….. tires, tubes, gaskets, seals, floor mats, fabrics, wires, elastics….everywhere.

Figure 1. (A) Embrittlement caused by degraded cellulose acetate is clearly visible in this car knob from a 1948 Chrysler Town and Country car. (B) The degraded cellulose nitrate is visible on the mouthpiece of this tobacco pipe. (C) Degraded ebonite on a 19th century stethoscope. (D) Signs of degradation due to exposure to oxygen and light, on the rubber of this WW1 gas mask.

Figure 2. (A) Embrittlement caused by degraded cellulose acetate is clearly visible in this car knob from a 1948 Chrysler Town and Country car. (B) The degraded cellulose nitrate is visible on the mouthpiece of this tobacco pipe. (C) Degraded ebonite on a 19th century stethoscope. (D) Signs of degradation due to exposure to oxygen and light, on the rubber of this WW1 gas mask.

 

The preservation of plastics is a growing concern in the field of Conservation due to the instability of some types. There is much study being done in Europe, mostly related to plastic in works of art and decorative objects. PoPArt, the Preservation Of Plastic ARTefacts in museum collections is a good example. There is far less being done for plastics in collections of technology, which is worrying for us. The Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property sponsored a workshop in 2010, that brought together some of Canada’s leading experts including Scott Williams and Julia Fenn. This workshop focused on plastics in the collection of the Canada Science and Technology Museum Corporation.

 

“The preservation of plastics is a growing concern in the field of Conservation due to the instability of some types”.

Why do we worry about plastics in our collection? Because we find them everywhere. They were arguably the material that most affected the electrification of the world: allowing for the production of cables (transatlantic cable 1854 to 1858, and again 1865-66), insulating materials, and moulded shapes for consumer products such as telephone receivers (Figure 3). In our transportation collection, we have plenty of rubber tires, and we also find plastic steering wheels, knobs, safety glass (which has a plastic layer sandwiched between glass), moulded dash and interior panels and fittings, and vinyl upholstery.   Aircraft contain a similar range of plastics materials; it being one of the great technological advancements between World War I and II that allowed for the huge innovations in aircraft construction between the Wars. From a design perspective, plastics, and the ability to mould complex shapes; permitted the creation of iconic decorative objects from the 20th Century, including radios, lamps, telephones, furniture and fashion accessories.

 

Figure 2. (A) The moulded shapes and colour effects of urea formaldehyde plastic are clearly visible on this Philco rotary dial. (B) A sample of an early marine telegraph cable, made of gutta percha, which is actually remarkably stable.

Figure 3. (A) The moulded shapes and colour effects of urea formaldehyde plastic are clearly visible on this Philco rotary dial. (B) A sample of an early marine telegraph cable, made of gutta percha, which is actually remarkably stable.

 

“Plastics are a fascinating class of material; and we owe a great deal to the early pioneers of chemistry,  whose achievements have allowed for the ubiquitous presence of this material in our lives today”.

 

There are some plastics that we know won’t last, such as rubber and PVC; but we do have strategies for prolonging their life expectancy. Some need to be stored in the dark, some in cold temperatures, and some in an oxygen-free environment. Some need all three. Private collectors should be aware of the type of plastic they have, so that they can care for it properly. Bakelite is one of the most stable plastics, and fortunately the majority of decorative items to be found at Antiques sales, are of this material.   Cellulose nitrate, on the other hand, also used to make decorative items; is inherently unstable.   Collectors should know this and take special care of it.

 

Figure 4.

Figure 4. Embrittlement

 

 

What does plastic deterioration look like? It can take the form of embrittlement (Figure 4), surface changes, stickiness, or a change of colour. Some (like cellulose nitrate) release an invisible gas which in the presence of moisture, can form acid on adjacent surfaces. This will cause organics to disintegrate, and metals to corrode. Cellulose nitrate buttons on an old gown, for instance, will eventually result in holes in the fabric, and corrosion of any metal decoration or button shanks. They should therefore be removed and stored separately, even if it breaks your heart to do so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Conservation and Collection Services Division is responsible for the long-term care, preservation, and housing of the National Collection for the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation.

 

 

 

 

Alyssum 1

Nickel in a Haystack: The Adventures of an Oral Historian

When asked where metals such as nickel comes from, most people would tell you that it is found in the ground. Evidently it is a metal you mine. But what if I told you nickel can actually be grown? What if instead of mining the nickel ore, you were able to farm and harvest it every year? I was a little skeptical too, until I had a chance to sit down and chat with Dr. Bruce Conard, the man behind an unconventional initiative to clean up the surface soils of an Ontario community.

 

Born in St-Louis, Missouri, Dr. Conard joined Inco (International Nickel Company) shortly after having received his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Iowa State University. He began working in the Mississauga labs where he gained years of varied experience in pyrometallurgy, electrochemistry and hydrometallurgy, which eventually earned him the position of director of process research. His most remarkable work came afterwards when he became Vice President of Environmental & Health Sciences within the company. Thanks to his extensive experience in metallurgy, Dr. Conard’s primary task was to study the effects or impacts of metals on the environment, which consisted of ecosystems, animals, people and the company’s own workers. Although much of his work consisted of making the workplace a healthier and safer environment, he often found himself assessing the risks of metals in hopes to better educate outside organizations and the general public on the matter. One of the marking events of his career came in 2001, when the citizens of Port Colborne filed a class action lawsuit against Inco after it had become evident that the local refinery’s early activities had polluted the soil surface of the area with high levels of nickel, copper and cobalt.

Alyssum, Port Colborne. Photo courtesy of Bruce Conrad.

Alyssum, Port Colborne. Photo courtesy of Bruce Conrad.

 

At the end of the war in 1918, the Canadian government and the Allies had pressured Inco to build its refinery in Port Colborne. Its location on Lake Erie, would facilitate transportation of nickel to the US and Western Europe. “There was no nickel in Port Colborne. It had to be shipped from Copper Cliff (Sudbury). And during the years, the unloading of the nickel we did ship, and the way in which we refined the nickel, caused quite a bit of dust,” shared Conard. “And the dust went up the stack and floated with prevailing winds and then came down on land. A lot of residential land and a lot of farm land in Port Colborne.”

 

After several years of risk assessments conducted by both Inco and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MOE), Dr. Conard had publically stated that Inco’s early operations had been the cause. The people of Port Colborne decided to file the class action lawsuit as a result but the assessment also determined that the metals in the soil did not pose considerable risk to the environment, and most importantly, to the local population. The lawsuit continued on grounds that the high nickel concentrations decreased the area’s real estate value. A long court battle ensued and the judge determined that Inco was to pay $36 million to the land owners. Nonetheless, Inco appealed and the Ontario Court of Appeal reversed the lower court decision on the basis that there was no proof of property devaluation. In addition, Inco’s refinery had complied with all the environmental and government regulatory laws applicable for the time, which unfortunately had been much different before the 1960s.

 

“They developed certain genotypes of these plants that we tested in the Port Colborne soils,” said Conard. “We even tested one tonne of ash accumulated from incinerating the harvested biomass by putting it into the converters to recover the nickel. And it works!” he said. “Instead of corn, you’re farming nickel!”

∼ Dr. Bruce Conard

 

 

“The legacy of the metals in the soil still confronts us today” stated Conard, having worked on the case for nearly a decade, trying to eliminate as much of the nickel presence as possible. “I had the dream […] to have Inco soak the nickel out of the ground […] and put it into the converters to recover the nickel.” But what exactly did he mean by soaking the nickel out of the ground? “I wanted to use hyper-accumulating plants,” he explained to me, “plants (called Alyssum) that love to accumulate nickel into their biomass.”

 

He worked with some researchers from the US department of agriculture who selectively bread different types of hyperaccumulating plants to maximize their uptake of nickel both in quantity and speed. “They developed certain genotypes of these plants that we tested in the Port Colborne soils,” said Conard. “We even tested one tonne of ash accumulated from incinerating the harvested biomass by putting it into the converters to recover the nickel. And it works!” he said. “Instead of corn, you’re farming nickel!”

 

 

Testing Alyssum plants in a Port Colborne field. Photo courtesy of Bruce Conrad.

Testing Alyssum plants in a Port Colborne field. Photo courtesy of Bruce Conard.

 

This technique of acquiring nickel could be used in soils where the nickel concentration is too low to be economically viable to mine. It would also be a much less intrusive technique of collecting metals. Furthermore, it could be a way of regreening an exhausted mine site while still extracting small amounts of nickel. Conard envisioned bringing this technique of phytoremediation to warmer countries such as Indonesia. “You may get three seasons in one year [there] because of the climate. […] It would also be a social boon as subsistent farmers could make more money farming nickel than farming anything else,” stated Conard. His team got to the stage of testing Alyssum in Indonesia, making sure the plant would not be invasive in a foreign country. “That’s about the time I retired and it, unfortunately, hasn’t gone any further,” said Conard.

 

To date, a few other countries such as the US and France have studied and experimented with Alyssum but none seem to have moved past the experimental phase of harvesting the metals. From the available research, we could conclude that there may still be much to learn about the plant, its optimal harvesting phase and its invasiveness in certain regions. “I still have a pipe dream of it,” confessed Conard, “but these things need a champion.” Perhaps the dream simply needs a new Dr. Bruce Conard.

 

 

Dr. Bruce R. Conard, Vice-President, Environmental & Health Sciences, Inco Limited. Photo courtesy of Bruce Conard.

Dr. Bruce R. Conard, Vice-President, Environmental & Health Sciences, Inco Limited. Photo courtesy of Bruce Conard.

 

Acknowledgement:

Thank you Bruce for taking the time to meet with me. The passion and pride that you have for your work resonated in person which made for quite a captivating interview.

 

Sources:

Conard, Bruce. Interview with Bruce Conard, Mining and Metallurgy Legacy Project, August 23, 2015. Toronto, Ontario, in person (William McRae)

Werniuk, Jane. “Cleaning Up a Community.” Canadian Mining Journal. June 6, 2004. http://www.canadianminingjournal.com/news/cleaning-up-a-community/1000156424/

Bowal, Peter and Sean Keown. “Nickel Shower: An Environmental Class Action.” Law Now. February 28, 2013. http://www.lawnow.org/environmental-class-action/

 

 

 

 

 

Photo:  Located at 4000 Rue St. Ambroise in Montreal, Coleco Canada was one of the few companies to have ever manufactured a video game console in Canada. Art. no. 1987.0457, CSTMC.

Going digital: crossing the physical divide?

Over a year ago, I was asked to research “Canadian” video games and suggest how we might be able to develop an artifact based exhibition opening in 2016. There was just one small problem, the Museum did not have an extensive video game collection.  Would this mean that I could start from scratch and shape a new collection?  The Museum did have a few intriguing video game related artifacts that I could use as a starting point.  My initial exploration of these objects and their history would shape the way I think about physical objects, digital objects, and the often blurred line between the two.

Photo:  Developed by Flim Flam and distributed by G.A.M.E. Ltd. in Canada.  The cabinet featured four playable games: Flim Flam Tennis and Flim Flam Hockey, Knockout and Knockout Doubles (all of which were Pong clones). Art. no. 1985.0580 CSTMC.

Photo:  Developed by Flim Flam and distributed by G.A.M.E. Ltd. in Canada.  The cabinet featured four playable games: Flim Flam Tennis and Flim Flam Hockey, Knockout and Knockout Doubles (all of which were Pong clones). Artifact no. 1985.0580 CSTMC.

The first true video game collected by the Museum was a cocktail table arcade game (1985.0580).  The first video game system in the national collection was quickly followed by the acquisition, in 1987, of the TELSTAR home system (1987.0457) manufactured by Coleco Canada.  Although, both of these artifacts are examples of video game hardware, the software, or games, are integral to the artifact.  Unlike a computer, where games can be played or not, the hardware and software in the first two video game artifacts cannot be separated.  In both cases the software, or games, is a Pong clone.

Photo:  A video of DeLuSioNaL Arcade’s restored Flim Flam cabinet gives a sense of how the games were played (English only https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVKOjKl3dPU).

Photo:  A video of DeLuSioNaL Arcade’s restored Flim Flam cabinet gives a sense of how the games were played (English only https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVKOjKl3dPU).

Many manufacturers, created versions of the smash hit Pong to capitalise on the success of Atari’s Pong.  The original Pong is regarded as the first commercially successful arcade cabinet and is also responsible for creating the home console market (whether the Magnavox Odyssey or the Atari Home Pong console). Both artifacts are important, in their own right, in the development of a video game industry and culture in Canada.  Although they were collected separately, I can’t help but think that both video games systems were always meant to be seen as a pair in the collection. When paired, they illustrate the rise and popularity of video games in Canada during the mid-1970s.  The arcade cabinet and the home console highlight the proliferation of locations where we, as consumers, were expected to play and how the gaming industry was formed by building copies of popular software rather than innovation.  The first video game artifacts act as an excellent starting point for discussions about technological uptake and the cultural/social value of video games.

Photo:  Located at 4000 Rue St. Ambroise in Montreal, Coleco Canada was one of the few companies to have ever manufactured a video game console in Canada. Art. no. 1987.0457, CSTMC.

Photo:  Located at 4000 Rue St. Ambroise in Montreal, Coleco Canada was one of the few companies to have ever manufactured a video game console in Canada. Artifact no. 1987.0457, CSTMC.

The quick analysis of these two artifacts suggested something more than the material nature of the object.  Until I started digging into the holdings of the collection I had been treating the hardware and the software of video games as discreet entities, as something to be examined on their own.  What these early video game artifacts show is that the physicality of the object is interwoven with its digital component and only by examining them together can deeper meaning be drawn.