Classifying degraded modern polymeric museum artefacts by their smell

Curran, Katherine and Underhill, Mark and Grau-Bové, Josep and Fearn, Tom and Gibson, Lorraine T. and Strlič, Matija (2018) Classifying degraded modern polymeric museum artefacts by their smell. Angewandte Chemie. ISSN 1433-7851 (

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Volatile organic compound (VOC) analysis is a successful method for diagnosing medical conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. However, despite its relevance to heritage, it has found little application in museums. We report the first use of VOC analysis to ‘diagnose’ degradation in modern polymeric museum artefacts. Modern polymers are increasingly found in museum collections but pose serious conservation difficulties due to unstable and widely varying formulations. Solid-phase microextraction gas chromatography/mass spectrometry and linear discriminant analysis were used to classify samples according to the length of time they had been artificially degraded. Classification accuracies of 50-83% were obtained after validation with separate test sets. The method was applied to three artefacts from collections at Tate to detect evidence of degradation. This novel approach could be used for any material in heritage collections and more widely in the field of polymer degradation.