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Plasticity – 100 years of making plastics

From Bakelite to biodegradable cars: a century of plastics goes on display at the Science Museum
The Science Museum will tell the story of how plastics have changed the world in Plasticity – 100 years of making plastics, a new exhibition to open on 22 May 2007.

Running until January 2009, the free to enter exhibition will celebrate the centenary of the world’s first entirely synthetic material, Bakelite, invented by Leo Baekeland in 1907. It will display the plethora of plastics spawned in Bakelite’s wake and show how they have transformed consumer society.

The exhibition will cover the history, development and future of plastics and present some of the most practical, ingenious and strange uses of polythene, PVC, nylon, polyester and many others in fashion, the home, design, transport and more.

The exhibition, supported by SITA Trust and Defra, will look at the environmental issues surrounding plastics and some of the ways that plastics can become greener as natural resources become more scarce. Plastics are still overwhelmingly produced from non-renewable sources, and more than 90% are not recycled. In this more environmentally aware age, with pressure on landfill sites and the earth’s resources, demand is growing for new plastics to be sustainable. This issue will be brought to visitors through a stunning installation showing the range of plastics the average person uses in Britain, and a thought-provoking interactive exhibit. A look into a green transport future will be provided by Toyota’s astonishing i-Unit vehicle, seen for the first time in Britain. And the exhibition will show the revolutionary effect of the humble plastic bucket in the developing world.

Among the 400 exhibits are design classics such as Ekco radios and Art Deco mantle clocks, beautifully engraved cigarette boxes, the 1960s Finnish Futuro House whose design was inspired by the Apollo space mission craft, a 1960s PVC mac and boots, a polyurethane 2006 World Cup football, a working chandelier made from hundreds of Bic biros, an ergonomically designed Herman Miller Mirra office chair, made from recyclable materials and itself 96% recyclable, and even an extremely rare Bakelite coffin together with a phone made from plant-based plastics.

The exhibition will reveal the simultaneous but separate work of Baekeland and British scientist Sir James Swinburne to discover the formula for Bakelite – Baekeland pipping Swinburne to the patent by 24 hours – and will draw on the Museum’s collections to present an array of Bakelite products.

Plasticity will be brought up to the modern day with new uses of plastics, such as plastic blood, a wondrously light and resilient ski suit, a plastic model-producing printer and aeroplanes which are able to change shape during flight to optimise flight at different speeds.

Dr Susan Mossman, Science Museum exhibition curator and author of a history of early plastics, said: “The story of plastics is a key story of the material world over the past century. Plastics allowed a consumer revolution with the cheap mass production of an array of goods such as radios, televisions, computers, synthetic clothing and disposable biros and razors. However, whilst we have become reliant on plastics for a variety of consumer goods, this exhibition will enable visitors to consider the changes needed in the production, reuse, recycling and disposal of plastics to continue enjoying them in the future.”


Admission to Plasitcity – 100 years of making plastics is free of charge to all visitors.

Science Museum is open daily from 10am – 6pm.

Nearest tube is South Kensington. For more information visit www.sciencemuseum.org.uk or call 0870 870 4868.

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