Cellulose nitrate was one of the first semi-synthetic plastics to be commercially exploited and as such many museums contain a large number of artefacts illustrating the versatility of this plastic for the creation of a wide variety of functional and aesthetic artefacts. Conservators find themselves faced with the challenge of preserving these ageing artefacts which are showing evidence of significant degradation. The challenge is enhanced by artefacts of similar age and type exhibiting different degrees of degradation. This paper reports the analytical study of selected historical artefacts to explore the origins of these differences. A connection between the durability of the artefacts and the quality of the original synthetic process is identified, indicating the influence of inherent chemical factors on stability. The major contributory factors determining degradation appear to be the sulphate content remaining from the stabilization process and the rate of loss of the camphor plasticizer. A simple swab test is proposed to aid the identification of artefacts which are potentially susceptible to degradation. The test involves analysis of swab extracts by ion chromatography to reveal the presence of oxalate, which is indicative of cellulose nitrate chain scission.
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