LEOMINSTER -- "The two most common questions we get," declares 81-year-old Keith Lauer, curator of the National Plastics Center & Museum and self-described Plastorian, "are: `Where are the restrooms?' and `Why Leominster?' "
Answer No. 1: They're on all four floors.
Answer No. 2: That's because Leominster bills itself as "The Pioneer Plastics City," part of an area of north-central Massachusetts that still boasts about 150 plastics-related firms and has produced thousands of plastic products ranging from early celluloid combs to latter-day pink flamingo yard ornaments.
So where else would you expect to find a former schoolhouse devoted entirely to plastics? Home to such attractions as the Plastics Hall of Fame, a trio of touring PlastiVans, the Plastics Reading Room, and a gaggle of plastic artifacts, the National Plastics Center & Museum is considered the foremost cultural attraction in this blue-collar city. Nevermind that the 22-year-old nonprofit institution is hoping to break even this year after two money-losing years, or that it has only four full-time employees, or that it is open to the public only 20 hours each week. If you want to learn about the likes of Bakelite, Tupperware, or Teflon, this is where you want to be."We strive to be the place you'd go for information about plastics," says David Hahn, the museum's president. "Unfortunately," he adds, "we're a well-kept secret."
Here, Plastic is Good. You do not hear from environmental groups such as Greenpeace lamenting pollution caused by plastics production. You are not presented with data from the US Environmental Protection Agency pointing out that only about 6 percent of consumer plastics that become waste are recycled. Instead, plastic is embraced and promoted, just as you would expect from an institution that receives much of its financial support from the plastics industry and whose board of directors is made up entirely of plastics professionals.
For his part, Hahn does not think a positive image of plastics is a tough sell. "I grew up in an era when plastics didn't have acceptance, but I think that's changed," the 62-year-old former plastics executive says. "I think the perception of plastics has improved. It's been years since I've been faced with people saying to me, `You pollute the environment.' Those days are behind us."
If Plastic is Good here, there is another theme as well: Plastic is Everywhere. Although much of the mission is educational -- 5,500 visitors, most of them in school groups, took part in in-house programs in fiscal 2003 -- walk-ins, too, get the message that plastic is a contributor not only to the good life (check out the lightweight plastic shopping cart) but also to life itself (notice the plastic incubator).
If you're lucky, you might get to tour the museum with Plastorian ("I coined the word") Lauer, a man who seems to know everything about plastic and isn't afraid to pass the information along. Paid by the hour and working out of a tiny office in a former bathroom, the retired machine company executive will gladly tell you that the first celluloid combs were made in Leominster in 1901, will explain the workings of a circa 1935 injection molder from FosterGrant, and will take you piece by piece through a collection of antique celluloid artifacts that are housed in the museum but that belong to the Plastorian himself."See that little figure?" he asks, pointing to a plastic child shooting dice. "One of those sold on eBay for $340. That's when I put a lock on the case."
Perhaps Lauer will even take you inside a locked storage closet packed with such items as a 1930s radio, a 1950s guitar, and a toy troll of indeterminate vintage. Once there, he might show you what he considers to be the museum's Holy Grail: the leather-bound, handwritten notes from the 1890-1905 executive committee meetings of the Celluloid Company, founded by no less a figure than John Wesley Hyatt. It was Hyatt who invented celluloid, the first true plastic, in the late 1860s, and who is therefore referred to as "The Grandfather of the Plastics Industry." "Someone found it in a dumpster in New York City," Lauer says, reverently running his hand over the book. "We paid $1,000 for it."
Hyatt is the centerpiece of the Plastics Hall of Fame, housed on the second floor. It is here that the men of plastic -- and one woman -- are immortalized. Where would we be without the contributions of, say, Earl Tupper (Tupperware), Roy Plunkett (Teflon), Raymond Boyer (Saran Wrap), or Stephanie Kwolek ( Kevlar, from which bulletproof clothing is made).
Hyatt, meanwhile, used his newly developed celluloid to fill the demand for billiard balls. His contribution is further recognized here by the presence of the hydraulic press he used to create the balls. A visitor to this former Victorian elementary school might have the building to him- or herself, but Hahn talks of plans for a spiffy new automotive display and a renewed environmental exhibit dealing with energy conservation, health, and safety. "We recognize the fact that Leominster isn't Boston or New York," he says, suggesting that, while the Pioneer Plastics City may be a fitting site for this museum, it's not what the travel industry likes to call a destination city. Still, the National Plastics Center & Museum remains a place that, like the businessman who offers unsolicited career advice to a baby-faced Dustin Hoffman in the 1967 movie "The Graduate," has only one word to say: plastics.The National Plastics Center & Museum is at 210 Lancaster St., Leominster. Call 978-537-9529 or visit www.plasticsmuseum.org. It is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission prices range from $3 to $5.