Plastics have been described as "materials that can be moulded or shaped into different forms under pressure or heat." They were a cultural phenomenon in the twentieth century when they changed the way objects were produced, designed and used. It was also in the twentieth century that most plastic products moved away from natural raw materials to synthetically produced ones.
The museum's plastics collection began in the 1930s with the acquisition of specimens of plastic raw materials and finished products. The collection was driven largely by Arthur de Ramon Penfold (1890-1980), a former industrial chemist, who worked as curator and later director of the museum from 1927 until 1955.
Synthetic fibres comprised an important part of the Museum's plastic collection. Arthur Penfold stated "the production of synthetic fibres is still more or less in its infancy, the future is unpredictable. They have revolutionised women's dress; they have caused an ever-widening range of attractive fibres to be made available at prices to suit the pockets of all classes in all countries. The textile market appears to be an expanding one; the capacity of the world to absorb new fibres is unknown".
Aralac and Lanital are synthetic fibres made from the milk protein casein. The fibre was first developed in Italy in the 1930s and became a popular material to mix with wool and fur to create inexpensive clothing and textiles. These samples of synthetic fibre were donated to the Museum in 1945 by the Australian Wool Board, as examples of the different textiles being mixed with wool at the time.
These objects are a part of a large collection of plastics and plastic moulding powders acquired by the museum during Arthur Penfold's career. This collection gives an insight into a period of great social, material, technological and scientific development as well as the collecting practices of the museum at the time. Plastics continues to be an area that is explored and represented in the museum's collection, however today it reflects some of the more ambivalent attitudes towards plastics and their use, particularly in regards to the environment and sustainability.
Sunday Telegraph, 'For plastics he saw great things', 11 November 1945.
M. Kaufman, the First Century of Plastics, The Plastics Institute, London, 1963. pg55
Penfold, A. R., 'Plastics and Synthetic Fibres', A.H. Pettifer, Government Printer, Sydney, 1956
Assistant Curator, May 2008.