Preserving History, Protecting Safety
An Interprofessional Approach to Controlling Hazards in Museums
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A condensed version of this article was originally published as a SynergistNOW blog post on July 26, 2022.
In many respects, the Indiana Medical History Museum (IMHM) is not a typical workplace. Most workplaces don’t occupy a building that’s more than a century old or come fully stocked with antiquated laboratory chemicals and medications, to say nothing of preserved human bones and tissue. IMHM even has literal skeletons in its metaphorical closet: Executive Director Sarah Halter, MA, so strongly suspected two human skeletal specimens of having been treated with arsenic that she did not permit other staff members to access the cabinet where they were kept.
But this type of work environment, and the hazards within it, is also not as rare as you might think. Holly Cusack-McVeigh, MA, PhD, a museum studies professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, stated that most collections in museums around the world were “acquired without an understanding of the inherent and acquired dangers these items present.” These hazardous collections, commonly including items treated with toxins to preserve them or to kill pests, “present dangers to health and safety for those who are charged with caring for those collections, for those who are charged with putting them on display, and to our museum-goers,” she said.
In many cases, objects in museum collections show no outward signs of being hazardous. And, like most museum professionals, IMHM staff lack formal occupational and environmental health and safety training. Neither does the museum currently employ a health and safety professional.
To address health and safety issues in the facility, IMHM staff are working with Purdue University’s occupational and environmental health sciences program and IUPUI’s museum studies program. But how can hazards be controlled when they have not been completely documented, identified, or understood? The answer may lie in collaboration between two vastly different professions.
CARING FOR HAZARDOUS COLLECTIONS IMHM is housed in a building that once operated as the Pathological Department of Indianapolis’ Central State Hospital, an institution that treated mental health patients between 1848 and 1994. After the Pathological Department closed in the 1960s, the building was reopened as a museum with its scientifically equipped interior still intact. Now, IMHM’s collection includes chemicals historically used for lab tests and experiments, film development, tissue preservation and embalming, and as pharmaceutical drugs.
There are surprising benefits to conserving medical and chemical specimens that may be more than one hundred years old. The Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields has used chemical stains from IMHM’s collection to test for fraudulent paintings, as chemicals in the stains were also used in historic paints. “It’s hard to find pure examples of these chemical stains from 100 or 120 years ago, but we have them in our collection,” Halter explained.
IMHM and its collections also do important work by connecting members of the public with those who worked or were patients at Central State Hospital and educating people about the history of mental health care more generally. The Rehumanizing the Specimen Collection exhibit, profiled in Smithsonian Magazine, is collecting biographical information for people whose remains were preserved as medical specimens in IMHM’s collection, with the goal of stressing their humanity. The Voices from Central State initiative encourages members of the public to read patients’ personal accounts or share their own experiences with Central State. IMHM is also a frequent point of contact for people wishing to learn more about family members and loved ones, often deceased, who were treated at the facility.
Anatomical Museum of IMHM's Old Pathology Building. Photo courtesy of Tom Muller Photography LLC and the Indiana Medical History Museum.
While the collection has definite cultural and historic significance, Halter and other IMHM staff had already developed health and safety concerns before the collaboration began in 2021. Aside from the skeletal specimens possibly treated with arsenic, many biological tissue specimens were very likely to have been preserved with formaldehyde, which NIOSH describes as a skin, lung, and eye irritant and a possible carcinogen. Some of the pharmaceuticals were believed to contain illicit substances such as cocaine and marijuana. Halter also worried about possible off-gassing from chemicals that could be harmful if inhaled and damaging to other artifacts and dermal exposures that could result if containers broke. “We had an idea that there were [hazards], but didn’t know specifically what they were,” she said.
But initial hazard identification was hindered by the staff’s incomplete knowledge of what, exactly, was inside every jar, vial, and container: the institution did not begin to keep documentation of the collection until a museum professional joined the staff in 1983. On top of the gap in record-keeping, pharmaceuticals were produced according to individual pharmacists’ recipes prior to regulation by the Food and Drug Administration, which makes it difficult to know exactly what’s in them and in what quantities. IMHM also cares for a collection of “patent medicines,” over-the-counter remedies notorious for neglecting to accurately disclose their ingredients and effects. When hazards haven’t been properly identified, it’s difficult to know what engineering and administrative controls or personal protective equipment are necessary and feasible.
Moreover, according to Halter, “it presents some issues” both for conservation and OEHS “when the health hazard is the collection.” Museum professionals are charged with preserving historically significant artifacts in perpetuity for future generations, so care should be taken to avoid altering, damaging, or destroying objects during testing or remediation. Although, for example, formaldehyde in specimen jars can be replaced with a less toxic alcohol solution, it’s not always easy to eliminate or substitute hazards without impacting objects’ historical significance.
Cusack-McVeigh agreed there should be special considerations for applying health and safety controls in museums. “In a warehouse or in an industrial space,” she explained, “you can remove the moldy, water-damaged panels, you can remove sheetrock, you can remove the problem. In collections, we can’t. The best we can do is isolate.”
COLLABORATION WITH PURDUE AND IUPUI The project team comprises Halter and IMHM staff, who supply expertise on operating the museum and preserving its collection, and a group of OEHS graduate students led by Mark Wilson, DC, PhD, who is a clinical assistant professor for Purdue University’s OEHS and biomedical sciences programs. Cusack-McVeigh organized elements within IUPUI’s museum studies program and secured grant funding from IUPUI’s Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research for a year-long graduate fellowship and graduate internship that will place museum studies students in IMHM, starting in the current academic semester (Fall 2022).
Cusack-McVeigh stressed that the collaboration is unique because it is founded on sharing information, decision-making, and authority; all partners participate in all stages, from proposal writing, to requesting funding, to designing and implementing its approach. “Many people use the word ‘collaboration,’ and they name partners on a project, but there isn’t really mutual learning that takes place,” said Cusack-McVeigh. “We share decision-making, and we formulate the approach together, rather than us coming into the community-based setting, in this case the museum, with the problem of toxic collections and imparting our knowledge as experts.”
Cusack-McVeigh and Wilson partnered to create an interdisciplinary university course that offers their respective grad students opportunities to learn from each other. For example, after the OEHS students presented slides on best practices for mold remediation, the museum studies students spoke up about their concerns that remediation would damage objects in museum collections, as discussed previously. Through this course, the students “are learning from one another as they take their own training and expertise and try to figure out how to tackle problems that are unique to the museum world,” said Cusack-McVeigh.
Elise Daugherty, a museum studies grad student who took the course, related that participants considered preventive conservation in the contexts of active housekeeping measures and preventive maintenance. The course also included sampling for heavy metals, dust, and mold in various museum collections, including IMHM’s. Along with the “mildly terrifying discovery of how many hazards there are in almost all collections,” and the “daunting task it can seem to be to take on and manage those hazards,” Daugherty’s takeaways also included understanding the need to establish better systems and methods for managing hazardous collections.
At AIHce EXP 2022, Daugherty and three other graduate students presented a poster on their findings from the data they collected during the course, titled “Dust, Mold, and Heavy Metals: Health Hazards in Museums.” The presentation was well received and generated a lot of interest, but to Daugherty, the most interesting part of the experience was working with her OEHS counterparts. She and Madeline Griem, the other museum studies participant, “gained a greater, though by no means comprehensive, understanding of the equipment we used, how [data] were measured, what certain [instrument] readings might indicate, and so on,” she said. Meanwhile, she believed that the OEHS students, Johnathan Klicker-Wiechmann and Kenneth Burnell, received “a large dose of museum history, as well as a better understanding of what object handling and care—even of hazardous materials—looks like.”
Graduate students from IUPUI and Purdue were among Best in Show winners for their student poster at AIHce EXP 2022. Pictured from left: grad students Elise Daugherty and Johnathan Klicker-Wiechmann; professors Holly Cusack-McVeigh and Mark Wilson. Not pictured: Madeline Griem and Kenneth Burnell. Courtesy of IUPUI Museum Studies Program.
NEXT STEPS Daugherty is also IMHM’s Health Hazards Fellow. In this position, she will spend the current academic year working full-time at IMHM, combing archival material with the goal of creating a comprehensive list of the chemical hazards within IMHM’s collection and confirming that they are accurately represented in the museum’s catalog. “Throughout the year,” Daughtery said, “we will be determining—if we are able—what chemicals we are working with, and following through on proper documentation, creating safety sheets, and establishing a safer system for the storage, handling, and maintenance of these potential hazards within the collection.”
With the data collected the previous semester serving as an initial assessment, Wilson explained that a more thorough inventory of the collection will allow the OEHS team to develop a sampling strategy aimed at “systematically determining hazards that are in the museum and how we can control those hazards in a way that preserves the items and makes it safe for everyone.” Work by Daugherty and IUPUI graduate intern Shelby Riley will help “prioritize and determine what we want to investigate first,” he said.
Throughout the second year of the projects, Cusack-McVeigh and Wilson’s students will focus on specific health and safety issues at IMHM. In addition to receiving guidance from Halter, students will also be advised by content experts including Kathryn Makos, MPH, CIH, the past chair of AIHA’s Museum and Cultural Heritage Industry Working Group. The program plans to investigate the chemical collection and fluid specimens, including whether containers are adequately sealed to prevent off-gassing within display cabinets. Although research will shed light on the contents, some will require testing to accurately identify the chemicals.
As the project progresses even further, IMHM and its university partners will work to develop appropriate controls, guidelines, and procedures. A previous intern at IMHM had created protocols for personal protective equipment use, but Halter said that the goals for the current project include developing guidelines for access to objects in the collection, procedural documents, and protocols for addressing safety issues and dealing with spills.
Ultimately, Cusack-McVeigh explained, the grant-funded project is working toward three long-term objectives. First, the collaborators hope to increase graduate-level health and safety training in the museum field. Second, they hope to establish an interdisciplinary, team-based approach to hazard identification and mitigation even outside of museum contexts. Third, they hope that the project will serve as a model for addressing health and safety issues in museum collections worldwide. “The problem exists in museums large and small. The problem exists in private collections around the world,” said Cusack-McVeigh. “And we truly believe that this collaborative approach can serve as a replicable model.”
TAKEAWAYS FOR MUSEUM AND OEHS PROFESSIONALS “For the OEHS perspective,” said Wilson, “my advice is to work together with museum professionals because they’ll be able to guide the process of identifying hazards.” He shared an anecdote in which the OEHS team had visited another museum to test a number of objects for heavy metal contamination. As the end of the day approached, Wilson had to develop a strategy for testing the remaining items. Wilson considered either testing each item in certain display cases or a random sampling of items from all display cases but ultimately chose to consult the museum director. The director identified items that he suspected of being contaminated based on his knowledge of the items’ origins, and testing confirmed his suspicions as correct. Wilson felt that the director’s expertise helped the OEHS program identify contaminated items they may have otherwise missed within their limited amount of time.
“Working together with the museum professional really helps get an idea of where to start and what’s the best approach,” Wilson said.
At IMHM, a similar situation occurred related to the skeletal remains that Halter had believed to be hazardous. But in this case, testing by Wilson’s team revealed there was no hazard. The assessment gave Halter needed peace of mind and freed her to focus on more significant problems. Many museum professionals, she explained, had similar apprehensions but were still wary of bringing in outside professionals.
“There’s fear, sometimes, about collections,” she said. “Not just fear of the collections but fear of public perception and getting into trouble. Don’t be afraid to start a project like this.”
She also urged museum professionals to talk with each other about their health and safety concerns. “There’s value in supporting each other, sharing knowledge, and developing a sense that you’re not alone,” she said. Both museum colleagues and OEHS professionals are able to help them navigate hazards known and unknown.
“We don’t have someone on staff who is an expert on [occupational safety],” Halter said, “so we rely pretty heavily on people who do know what they’re doing, and that’s one of the beautiful things about this project. It’s on such a large scale compared to what we’ve done in the past, and it’s nice to be moving toward having [protections] in place,” she added. “We can not only preserve our collection but keep all of our people and visitors safe as well.”
GET INVOLVED The partnership between IMHM, Purdue, and IUPUI originated from a project conducted by AIHA’s Museum and Cultural Heritage Industry Working Group. This project, titled “Interdisciplinary Teaching and Experiential Learning Opportunities Between Museum Studies and OEHS Campus Programs,” also known as the Core Curriculum Project, successfully created an OEHS curriculum tailored for museum studies students. For their efforts, AIHA recognized the Core Curriculum Project Team as an Outstanding Volunteer Group Project Team for 2021.
However, the Museum Working Group’s efforts are far from complete. The Core Curriculum Project Team is planning to develop similar collaborations with other institutions nationwide. If you’re an OEHS professional interested in joining their project to improve health and safety in an industry that traditionally lies outside the field, consider volunteering with the Museum Working Group.
To learn more about hazardous museum collections, read “Hazard or Artifact: How OEHS Informs Collection Management of World Trade Center Dust at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum,” the cover feature of the June/July 2021 issue of The Synergist, and “Hidden Hazards: Health and Safety in Museums and Art Galleries,” which appears in the May 2016 digital issue.
ABBY ROBERTS is The Synergist’s editorial assistant.
The author thanks Sarah Halter, Mark Wilson, Holly Cusack-McVeigh, and Elise Daugherty for their assistance with this article.
Dinara Sharipova/Getty Images
AIHA: “Museum and Cultural Heritage Industry Working Group.”
AIHce EXP Archive: “Dust, Mold, Heavy Metals: Health Hazards in Museums.”
Indiana Medical History Museum.
Indiana Medical History Museum: “Rehumanizing the IMHM Specimen Collection.”
Indiana Medical History Museum: “Voices from Central State Digital Archive and Memory Forum.”
NIOSH: “Formaldehyde.”
Smithsonian Magazine: “How One Museum Is Giving a Voice to Former Mental Health Patients” (July 2019).
The Synergist: “Hazard or Artifact? How OEHS Informs Collection Management of World Trade Center Dust at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum” (June 2021).
The Synergist: “Hidden Hazards: Health and Safety in Museums and Art Galleries” (May 2016).
SynergistNOW: “Preserving History, Protecting Safety” (July 2022).