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.
The first fully synthetic plastic was developed in the early twentieth century by Leo Hendrick Baekeland. His new plastic was named Bakelite. It heralded a new era, as this plastic was not only lighter than metal, but it could also be made into a wide variety of objects traditionally made from wood or metal. Although Bakelite has been superseded by plastics offering more advanced technical advantages, it was once considered the "Rolls Royce" of plastics.
This object is significant because it is a representation of L. Baekeland, considered by some to be the 'father of modern plastics'. The bust was commissioned by Arthur Penfold, made out of red coloured 'Bakelite' plastic, and put on display in the Museum in the 1950s. When Baekeland died in 1944, his products were in use by nearly every industry and his life's work had been recognised by numerous scientific and academic bodies throughout the world.
This object is 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.
The Plastics Historical Society , Bakelite Information Sheet [online], Available at: http://www.plastiquarian.com/LHB.htm, accessed March 2008.
Mossman, S., Morris, P. J. T., (eds.), 'The Development of Plastics', Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, 1993
Written by Erika Dicker
Assistant Curator, March 2008.