The Triumph of Bakelite: Contributions for a History of Plastics in Portugal
Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia (PTDC/IVC-HFC/5174/2014)
This work aims to investigate aspects of the history of plastics in Portugal, by basing itself on technical-scientific, industrial, social-historical studies, as well as studies pertaining to the history of science and technology and material culture.
This interdisciplinary project is coordinated by a researcher, which has developed considerable work about the history of plastics. It is undertaken by a well classified skilled team composed of researchers with expertise in many different areas, such as: history of science and technology, social history, anthropology, industrial archaeology, museology and chemistry and society.. Through their partial studies, will be able to perform a full history of plastics, in order to bring to light : the techno-scientific aspects of plastics (and its communication to the general public); the need to preserve plastic objects; the role of plastics in the development of the industrial design, not just as corporate strategy but also in everyday life; the relationship of the plastic industry with their bodies (local workers and elite) and other industries (electrical and glass); energy and environmental issues related to plastics. We intend to set up a museum, to carry out studies on conservation, historical and technological and scientific research of plastics. For, such project already benefits from previous historical work done in Portugal about factories and other places, from where the objects will be collected. On the other hand for the museum there are facilities provided by Leiria Council.
Plastics daily infiltrate themselves in everyday life in the most diverse forms and functions. Even those with a negative image of plastics and that consider them a synonym of the artificiality of society, use them freely. In general the public does not see the plastics as a special class of materials maybe because plastic is only associated with inexpensive and easily accessible objects. But, it owes much to scientific and technological research: it is a synthetic polymer, manufactured by man, the result of thorough research of generations of scientists. To produce the synthetic materials, man can make a list of the properties he would like to incorporate in a material and, within certain limits, customize it. However, this task requires the greatest creative investment, whether from the chemist, physicist, the engineer, designer and the historian, in a field that is ever more open to exploring new materials and improving the existing ones.
Thus, one of the purposes of this project is to study the impact of plastics in the Portuguese society, since his arrival in the mid-1930’s, through Bakelite, the first true plastic, in an agricultural country, without chemical research and technology nor an industrial tradition, in contrast with the more advanced industrial nations, where plastic had already assumed its position as an emblem of modernity. With Bakelite, both the inter-war and post-war periods took part of the mass consumption of thermoplastics such as amino-polystyrene, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene, ´acrylics`, ´Teflon`. After World War II, many first-generation objects eventually disappeared, others may not be in good condition of conservation due to physical or chemical changes. Hence for preserving them it would be interesting to recover them through institutions, businesses and/or private entities engaged in their dissemination.
Starting with Baquelite Liz, a company that has worked in this area since 1940, our intent is to carry out tasks such as the surveying and cataloguing of its estate, respective manufacturing methods, in addition to its impact on the social and cultural life of the region, and expand this work to other similar businesses. Leiria will probably be the first place in which this investigation is started due to the fact that it was the birthplace of the plastics manufacturing industry, and there is a great possibility that a space to safeguard the memory of plastic and, bearing in mind a de-centralized perspective, which will probably be a future museum, will be established.
Institutions that were very receptive to participate in this project were contacted: Rede de Química e Tecnologia (REQUIMTE) - Departamento de Conservação e Restauro - Faculdade de Ciências e Tecnologia/Universidade Nova de Lisboa (FCT-UNL), Associação Portuguesa da Indústria de Plásticos (APIP), Associação Portuguesa de Museologia (APOM), Associação Empresarial da Região de Leiria (NERLEI), an important link with potential partners in this region -industries, Town Hall, Instituto Politécnico de Leiria, Comunidade Intermunicipal do Pinhal Litoral (CIMPL), entrepreneurs, namely, the Administrative Board of Baquelite Liz. In the end, we intend to reflect on man's relationship with these materials.