A woman photographs a large PVC sculpture

Curators may one day be able to assess the health of polyvinyl chloride artworks — such as Anish Kapoor’s 155-metre-long sculpture Marsyas — from their smell. Credit: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty


Sniffing out damage to ageing artworks

The odour of pieces made from plastic holds clues to their condition.

The smell of a modern artwork can reveal how much it has suffered from the ravages of time.

Museum collections include a growing number of sculptures and other objects made from plastic, prompting conservators to seek non-invasive methods for assessing degradation. Researchers led by Katherine Curran and Matija Strlič at University College London investigated a plastic’s ‘molecular odour’ — the molecules it emits into the air.

The team artificially aged objects made of plastics common in museum collections, such as polyvinyl chloride and cellulose acetate, by heating them for periods of between two and ten weeks. This caused each material to waft a unique set of molecules into the air. Materials treated for four weeks or less released different proportions of each molecule compared with materials treated for six to ten weeks.

The researchers applied the technique to three artworks from the 1920s and 1930s that are part of the Tate Collection in London. Two, made of cellulose acetate, showed minimal degradation; the third, formed of cellulose nitrate, had greater age-related damage.