The Glossy Surfaces project, composed by an international consortium of museums – Museu do Design e da Moda (MUDE, Portugal), ModeMuseum Antwerpen (MoMu, Belgium) and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET, USA) – as well as scientific partners – Department of Conservation and Restoration from NOVA School of Science and Technology (Portugal) and Centexbel (Belgium )- seeks conservation solutions for thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) coatings in fashion collections. The project started in June 2021. 


As important research has already been conducted on PUR foams, our focus will only be on TPU coatings (often found in 20th and 21st century imitation leathers and coated fabrics). This material appears in most contemporary fashion and design collections, but is often not recognized or is mistaken for plasticised polyvinyl chloride (PVC-P). Prone to inherent vice, there are currently no accepted treatments for this material beyond preventive conservation measures, and identifying the material takes sophisticated technology, like Fourier Transform InfraRed (FTIR) spectroscopy techniques and often sampling. 


This multi-year project will progress in stages. The first year’s focus is on analysis of objects held in important fashion collections and creating a benchmark. The second year’s focus is on the study of the preventive conservation of TPU coatings. The third year’s focus is on writing the outputs and focus deeper on the preventive conservation of TPU Coatings. One active conservation treatment is taken in the scope, the removal of blooming.


The use of plastics has evolved during the last century and the presence of synthetic polymers is unmistakably present in fashion collections and museums. By the 1960s, synthetic materials like imitation leathers and impermeable fabrics became popular, and shiny coated surfaces have grown in popularity ever since because of the enormous aesthetic and functional possibilities of the material. Despite the fact that these materials are so commonly used by designers, from a conservation point of view, the short lifespan and the broad range of aging characteristics of synthetic polymers are challenging for the preservation of this material. Conserving plastics poses demanding challenges, since thousands of different polymers can be used for the production of plastics, complicated by the presence of plasticisers, stabilizers, colorants, fillers, coatings, and different kinds of production. The lifespan of plastics is short and it is the task of conservators now to extend it. Significant cultural artifacts made from plastics are present in many museum collections, so their conservation cannot be ignored. This project thus investigates new ways to prolong the lifespan of the plastics cultural heritage. 


While there are many plastics that pose problems in museum collections, this consortium has chosen to give its full attention to TPU-ester coated fashion objects, which are significantly present in modern and contemporary fashion and design collections. Starting from the second half of the 20th century, many polyurethane coated garments, furniture and accessories show signs of degradation such as peeling, blooming, stickiness, and powdering. Sometimes these degradation signs are showing very soon after the production of the material. According to production standards the lifespan of a newly produced TPU coating varies from one to five years.


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