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Modern Art Stinks

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Can analysing the smell of plastics help museum curators pre-empt signs of deterioration in heritage objects?

Modern Art Stinks

Dr Katherine Curran from The Bartlett's Institute for Sustainable Heritage analysing plastic objects at the Birmingham Museums Trust.

Credit: Birmingham Museums Trust

We live in the Anthropocene epoch and the material of the 21st-century is plastic. Named “material of the year” by the annual London Design Fair in 2018, it made an appearance in multiple new collections of new furniture and objects (albeit in recycled form) last year and is fast becoming accepted as an inevitable part of our material culture and artistic landscape as we seek to make use of our overabundance of polymeric substances.

This means we’re increasingly dealing with the presence of plastic in museum and gallery collections, and that its condition and degradation is becoming a concern for curators.

Last year, a project by The Bartlett’s Institute for Sustainable Heritage (ISH) attracted widespread media and public attention when it shed light on the role of smell in the preservation of heritage objects: researcher Cecilia Bembibre travelled to historical sites around England collecting the organic compounds emitted by various items, then analysed what made them up and how we experience them.

A technique that could quietly and non-invasively track chemical change continuously would be really valuable.

Katherine Curran

Modern Art Stinks

Cecilia Bembibre, a PhD student from The Bartlett's Institute for Sustainable Heritage analysing volatile organic compounds from historic materials.

The smell of history

Everyone is familiar with the smell of history – the musty odour of old library books, the heavy scent of opulent textiles, the fragrance of ageing wood – but plastic is notably scentless. Yet it does also emit the ‘volatile organic compounds’ that this research into older objects was based on. As such, these methods have the potential to change the way museum curators treat and look after their plastic collections, too.

“It’s a good approach because you don’t have to touch the objects or take a sample – the sniffing approach is completely non-invasive,” says ISH Lecturer Dr Katherine Curran, lead author of the 2018 paper Classifying Degraded Modern Polymeric Museum Artefacts by Their Smell. She points out that the use of smell is already well established in the field of medicine – for example, breath is analysed to diagnose certain diseases.

When certain plastics degrade, conservators often report something called the ‘vinegar syndrome’ – this can alert people to the fact that there is a problem. The ISH research aims to take a more rigorous approach by tracking changes in the composition of the volatile mixtures coming off objects that show signs of deterioration, so curators can catch problems before they become serious.

One of Curran’s PhD candidates, Mark Kearney, has been putting these findings into practice at London’s Tate gallery, looking at how techniques that work well in a lab can be implemented in an uncontrolled environment with varying temperature and humidity, and on objects of non-standard shapes and sizes.

“For example, he has looked at the role temperature plays by doing analysis at different times of year,” Curran says. Kearney is also working with a research group in Slovenia who are developing sensors that can be used in the museum environment, rather than taking samples to a laboratory.

The work has already sparked the interest of many museums and, for Curran, the ambition is for permanently installed sensors to one day become as common as those that track temperature and humidity. “Museums store thousands of objects and staff don’t have the time or resources to look at everything and take things out of the gallery. If you could have something that could quietly and non-invasively track chemical change continuously, that would be really valuable.”

The Institute for Sustainable Heritage is solving real-world cultural heritage problems through groundbreaking, cross-disciplinary research and teaching for future heritage leaders. It is part of The Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources (BSEER) in UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more:

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