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Dear eBay, I Love You. Sincerely, Conservation Science

Measuring Barbie headspace: Namely, the smells coming off their PVC plastic bodies. ©M. Strlic

Dear eBay,

I love you.

Yours Sincerely,
Conservation Science

I’ve been conducting a rather unconventional poll.

It consists of a single question posed to unsuspecting conservation scientists, typically during conference coffee breaks or at the hotel bar thereafter:

“Um. So have you ever bought anything on eBay… I mean, for your scientific work?”

What’s amazing is that researchers working with cultural heritage objects as diverse as Picasso paintings, plastic sculpture & toys, and digital art have all answered “yes.”

Plastics: So that awesome photo of the Barbies in the sample holder? Several of the PVC dolls were purchased by Matija Strlic on eBay for the Heritage Smells! project. He’s part of a team of researchers trying to find a way to diagnose the health of plastic and paper artifacts in museums and archives by sniffing the gases that percolate off the objects.

When a plastic (or paper) artifact begins to degrade it produces breakdown gases. But before Strlic can build a hand-held electronic nose that museum staff can then use to assess the health of their collections, his team needs to develop the analytical tool on old, non-valuable plastic objects. And that’s how he started buying Barbies on eBay.

Ripolin paint cans bought on eBay by museum scientists. Credit: Art Institute of Chicago

Picasso and friends: Between 1900-1950 many contemporary artists (Picasso, Miró, Kandinsky) began experimenting with using the newly invented industrial wall paint called Ripolin for their artwork instead of hoity-toity artist paint.

According to Francesca Casadio, this was for a couple of reasons:

First: It dried faster than the professional artist paint—a useful feature for procrastinating painters working on deadline.

Second: Using industrial paint was a snub to the stodgy art world who wouldn’t dream of using anything but traditional oil paints.

Third: Some artists liked the glossy finish of industrial paint. In trying to find a way to identify a painting produced with industrial paint, Casadio needed examples of Ripolin paint from the early 20th century to practice on. And so she turned to eBay…

A Commodore PET 4016 currently on sale at eBay for £199.99

Digital art: Since the advent of computers and other forms of electrical recording technology (such as audio cassettes or video), artists have been using this media to produce artworks.

But how do you watch art stored on an old floppy disk, or on a Commodore 64’s hard-drive, or on a now obsolete form of Bulgarian video?

You need the hard-ware and you need cables to connect that hard-ware to a compatible screen.

Leo Konstantelos told me it’s the esoteric cables that are sometimes the hardest to find.

But he’s been successful on—you guessed it—eBay.


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  • Sep 12th 201212:09
    by qvxb


    1.Bride of Chucky doll heads would really have been creepy.
    2.I think artists may have liked Ripolin because it was glossier than traditional oil paints, as was stated in your May 30, 2011 post.
    3.How many people know what PET means?

  • Sep 12th 201212:09
    by Sarah Everts


    1. Ha! 2. They also liked that wrinkled textured effect when the surface dries faster than the base… 3. Are you referring to the Commodore brand name? I actually don’t know what it stands for… Just assumed it was some company acronym. Do you know? I’m guessing it is neither Polyethylene terephthalate nor Positron Emission Tomography!

    • Sep 12th 201213:09
      by qvxb


      PET = Personal Electronic Transactor Introduced in 1977

  • Sep 12th 201213:09
    by Sarah Everts


    Thanks! My iPhone is also a PET :)

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