During its 15-year life, the National Plastics Center has become the hub of the industry's past and future, from its 2,000 artifacts and library to its popular PlastiVan, which brings the wonders of plastics to schools around the country.
But it took roughly the same number of years before that to plan, raise money and generate plastics industry support to establish the center. Members of the Pioneer Valley Section of the Society of Plastics Engineers and several Leominster, Mass., plastics historians developed the idea of a separate plastics museum in the mid-1970s.
Leaders held grand opening ceremonies June 14, 1992, at the facility, housed in a former schoolhouse the city of Leominster sold for $1.
The imposing brick building has 32,000 square feet of space in three floors and a basement. On the top floor is the Doyle Library and the Keville room, named for longtime NPC supporter John Keville.
The upstairs is a comfortable place for social functions or historical research, complete with high ceilings, classic woodwork and a large, open space. But when Plastics News visited the building in 1992, it was still pretty rough. A story compared the big empty room with Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory.
Fundraising continued in fits and starts. As money came in, the building was renovated a floor at a time.
Originally it was called the National Plastics Center and Museum. But the word “museum” was dropped in 2004. Nevertheless, history remains an important mission. NPC hired Marianne Chalifoux Zephir about three years ago to organize the library and its collection of items — from Celluloid hair combs and Bakelite radios to a vintage set of Tupperware and a Foster Grant injection press from the 1930s.
“My first project was to organize the archives,” Zephir said. “When I came here, nothing was really recorded, or organized. So I started just digging into the closets and the collections.”
NPC is building a database to describe each of its historical items. So far, about half of the 2,000 artifacts are in the database, Zephir said.
Eventually, the searchable database of artifacts will be on NPC's Web site, www.plasticscenter.org. That's already happened with the entire library collection, which went live on the Web site July 19. Now you can search for, say Bakelite, and find that the Doyle Library has eight books on the subject.
The library has 1,600 books and 35 separate collections of materials, including product literature, photographs and employee newsletters. In the future, Zephir said, NPC will scan photos into the online system.
Library materials do not circulate out of the center, so access via the Web site will allow researchers to see what the Leominster facility has, and help to organize visits.
The first executive director, Valerie Wilcox — with 35 years of work experience in museums, plus degrees in chemistry and mathematics — was instrumental in reshaping NPC from an aging school into a renovated center.
A major improvement came when the Plastics Hall of Fame moved to Leominster from the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in Washington, where the hall archives were packaged in storage boxes. In 1999, dignitaries toured a new Plastics Hall of Fame exhibit.
The PlastiVan program began in the mid-1990s, when Robert A. Hoffer Sr., owner of Hoffer Plastics Corp., bought the first traveling van. Three other industry leaders donated money to cover operating expenses: Robert Schad of Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd., Gordon Lankton of Nypro Inc. and Stephen Uhlmann of Tech Group Inc.
Over the years, other industry officials have stepped up, so today, four PlastiVans travel to schools and trade shows, delivering hands-on chemistry demonstrations to students and teachers. Marjorie Weiner, North American outreach director, runs the program. She can mix up a mean batch of Slime.
In mid-2001, Wilcox announced she would retire from NPC, and in early 2002 she was replaced by David Hahn, an industry insider with experience in machinery at Milacron Inc., including a stint as president of its Autojectors Inc. subsidiary. He retired from NPC on April 1, 2006.
A few months after Hahn retired, SPI took over management of the center, covering its educational programs and day-to-day operations.