Beyond the Walls of the Museum
Safely Returning Cultural Heritage to Native American Communities
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Figure 1 (pictured above). Citizens of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan and community members carry the remains of their ancestors to the reburial site. Image courtesy of Marcella Hadden, Niibing Giizis Photography. More than three decades ago, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Under this law, Native American tribes, Native Hawaiian organizations, and lineal descendants may legally reclaim sacred items, funerary objects, objects of cultural patrimony, and the remains of their ancestors from museums and other institutions. The congressional report submitted with the bill states that human remains “must at all times be treated with dignity and respect,” regardless of ancestry. In 2023, the Department of the Interior estimated that museums falling under NAGPRA still held approximately 96,000 ancestral remains and over 680,000 funerary objects in their collections. Following a lengthy period of public comment from Native American tribal leaders and community members, Native Hawaiian organizations, and other repatriation experts, revised NAGPRA regulations went into effect on Jan. 12, 2024. The intent of these newly revised regulations is to ensure expeditious return of items and ancestral remains that fall under NAGPRA. While these regulations are a huge step forward in upholding the basic human rights of Indigenous people, repatriation of items and ancestors still comes with challenges for the communities reclaiming, receiving, caring for, and, in many cases, reburying them. Repatriating objects and ancestral remains is made more challenging by a history of routine chemical treatment of museum items to protect them from pest damage and destruction. Because artifacts composed of organic materials such as fur, feathers, and skins were most vulnerable to pests, ethnology and natural history specimens were frequently treated with heavy metals, including arsenic and mercuric salts, during the 1800s. By the late 1930s and early 1940s, synthetic organic pesticides, such as DDT, were employed.
Today, we know that arsenic and mercury have significant human toxicity and that a wide range of chemicals commonly applied to collection items are carcinogenic. We also know that poisoning may have acute, chronic, cancerous, or reprotoxic effects and that pathways include ingestion, dermal, and inhalation exposure. However, the museum workers who used these chemicals were unaware of the serious health risks.
Further complicating the issue, past museum workers rarely kept records indicating what, when, and how pesticides were applied. According to Kathryn Makos, MPH, CIH, a past chair of the Museum and Cultural Heritage Industry Working Group, “[m]any acquired hazards are unknown to the user, as documentation of preservative treatments is often poor.” While pesticides leave substantial quantities of residue on treated objects, these hazards are rarely observable. In some cases, museum workers report visible white powder-form arsenic on collections storage shelves or exhibit deck mounts, but more often, there is no visual cue that an artifact is contaminated.
Therefore, managing cultural heritage collections involves high-hazard occupational exposures. However, most museums lack resources and access to evidence-based best practice guidelines for identifying and managing toxic heritage. Many cultural heritage professionals do not have the occupational risk management tools needed for this work, whether in collections or public exhibition spaces. Graduates of museum studies or conservation programs typically receive few lectures on occupational and environmental health and safety in their curricula and enter the workforce without training in hazard identification and control. Similarly, the hazards faced by museum staff are not well known to most practicing OEHS professionals.
COMMUNITIES’ CONCERNS ABOUT CONTAMINATED ITEMS How can museums safely identify, assess, and manage toxins lurking in their collections when they lack the necessary knowledge and resources? More importantly, if museum workers lack this training, how can they ensure the safe return of ancestors and objects to Indigenous communities? Unfortunately, the effects of this problem extend well beyond the walls of the museum and pose real, ongoing dangers to Indigenous communities worldwide.
Under NAGPRA, cultural items and ancestral remains have been returned to communities, but these returns have not come with proper notification or warning of potential health risks to living people. Tribal historic preservation officers, repatriation coordinators, other authorities, and community members receive and welcome repatriated items home according to their cultural protocols, but they often lack detailed information on past chemical treatments, proper facilities for safe storage, or the protective equipment for handling these items. The 2024 NAGPRA amendments stipulate that museums face civil penalties from DOI if they fail to report “any presently known treatment of the cultural items with pesticides, preservatives, or other substances that represent a potential hazard to the objects or to persons handling the objects,” but museums are still not required to test for contamination when communities request them to do so. The amended NAGPRA states:
Testing or removal of hazardous substances should be a part of consultation on human remains or cultural items, specifically under the duty of care requirements in § 10.1(d). We cannot require testing for or removal of hazardous substances or who should pay for that testing or removal as there is no such requirement in the Act. We can and do require information about hazardous substances be shared, but only when a museum or Federal agency knows about the presence of any potentially hazardous substances.
Increasingly, Indigenous communities are calling for noninvasive, inexpensive methods of detecting hazardous substances on repatriated items and ancestral remains. In particular, they request forms of testing that can be carried out locally rather than those that rely on outside experts to handle sacred and ceremonial items, operate X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) equipment, or interpret test results in laboratory settings.
Figure 2. Contents of the Museum Poisons Test Kit.
Figure 3. Sample collection during the Museum Poisons Test Kit Project.
OUTREACH TO INSTITUTIONS AND COMMUNITIES In 2022, textile conservator Paulette Reading collaborated with environmental health and safety specialists Brandy Howard, PE, CIH, CSP, and Charles Koch, CIH, MPH, to develop a low-cost test kit for metal contamination. They intended the Museum Poisons Test Kit project to provide a conceptual model that museums could use to sample dust from their collections for laboratory analysis, with the overall goal of creating a process that could be used by people with no previous training in chemistry, material science, conservation, or OEHS. This project was primarily funded through a grant from NIOSH’s Mountain and Plains Education and Research Center.
Conservators often use portable XRF spectroscopy as a non-destructive metal contamination testing method, but many institutions and people in the larger cultural heritage community face barriers to using this technology, since the equipment is expensive to own or rent. Additionally, professionals carrying out analysis on cultural property must consider that some metals commonly applied as pesticides may also be inherent to an object’s construction, such as its pigmentation. Understanding an object’s history and construction is important to interpreting the results of chemical testing.
Four museums in Colorado participated in the study: the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History in Boulder, the Greeley History Museums and Centennial Village, the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, and the History Colorado Center in Denver. Two of History Colorado’s community museums, the El Pueblo History Museum and the Trinidad History Museum, also participated. Each institution provided the researchers access to their collections and staff.
The project work was carried out in three phases: first, increasing awareness and establishing baseline knowledge; second, developing and using a test kit designed to detect the presence of metals in museum dusts; and third, providing practical, low-cost recommendations, training, and resources to address any metals detected during testing.
Testing was performed by museum staff members working side by side with OEHS professionals and following ASTM International Method D6966, Standard Practice for Collection of Settled Dust Samples Using Wipe Sampling Methods for Subsequent Determination of Metals. The results of this study indicated that metals could be detected in wipe samples collected by the museum staff members at levels similar to those found in samples collected by the OEHS professionals. This implied that people without OEHS backgrounds can receive training in sampling methods, collect dust samples themselves, and submit these samples to a laboratory for relatively inexpensive analysis. The Museum Poisons Test Kit research team’s future aims include developing indirect testing methods for organic pesticides and creating workshops that will help people collect and understand their data.
Figure 4. Lee Wayne Lomayestewa, NAGPRA coordinator for the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office and team member on the Hopi Pesticide Testing Project, presents at AIHA’s annual meeting in Phoenix, Arizona (2023).
Figure 5. Members of the AIHA Museum and Cultural Heritage Industry Working Group test sacred items at the conclusion of the AIHA annual meeting in Phoenix, Arizona (2023).
In spring 2023, members of the AIHA Museum and Cultural Heritage Industry Working Group partnered with the Hopi Tribe to address health and safety concerns related to sacred cultural items that had been recently returned to them from a museum. During AIHce EXP 2023, the working group invited Lee Wayne Lomayestewa, the NAGPRA repatriation coordinator and researcher for the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office and a member of the Hopi Tribe, to discuss the tribe’s ongoing challenges with toxins in repatriated collections. Members of the AIHA Social Concerns Working Group and Workplace Health Without Borders were invited to attend the session. Following Lomayestewa’s presentation, the museum working group facilitated a community service project in which a team of OEHS professionals tested Hopi sacred items that had been repatriated without any testing for contamination. Afterwards, the museum working group provided a detailed report of the OEHS professionals’ findings to the Hopi Tribe.
FUTURE DIRECTIONS: EDUCATION AND COLLABORATION Further education, outreach, and multidisciplinary collaborations are key to addressing chemical contamination of repatriated objects and ancestral remains. Many museum professionals and Native American community members alike lack background, knowledge, and training on this critical issue, and they may have only basic knowledge of the chemical hazards found in their collections. Although the problem may seem overwhelming, an interdisciplinary, team-based approach that incorporates OEHS professionals’ expertise in identifying, mitigating, and managing hazardous exposures can help address these ongoing threats to the health and safety of communities receiving repatriations.
Professionals and experts in OEHS and related fields may consider how they might partner with local communities to address these threats. The authors and other members of the Museum and Cultural Heritage Industry Working Group also encourage you to reach out and learn more about this work.
HOLLY CUSACK-MCVEIGH, PhD, is an associate professor of anthropology and museum studies at Indiana University. She holds appointments as a public scholar of collections and community curation and in the Native American and Indigenous Studies program. Her work focuses on repatriation, cultural heritage, looting, toxic heritage, and social justice. Cusack-McVeigh has worked in the field of repatriation with and for Native American and Indigenous communities for decades, including those in Alaska, the continental United States, Canada, New Zealand, Peru, and South Africa.
BRANDY HOWARD, PE, CIH, CSP, is the group manager of industrial hygiene and asbestos at Terracon’s Denver office. Howard works with clients in various industries to deliver cost-effective environmental, health, and safety solutions to support their operations. Howard currently serves as secretary for the AIHA Museums and Cultural Heritage Industry Working Group and was a research partner on the Museum Poisons Test Kit project.
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AIHA: “Museum and Cultural Heritage Industry Working Group.”
AltaMira Press: Old Poisons, New Problems: A Museum Resource for Managing Contaminated Cultural Materials (2005).
ASTM International: Method D6966, Standard Practice for Collection of Settled Dust Samples Using Wipe Sampling Methods for Subsequent Determination of Metals (2018).
The Canadian Journal of Native Studies: “Toxic Representations: Museum Collections and the Contamination of Native Culture” (2014).
Collection Forum: “Hazard Identification and Exposure Assessment Related to Handling and Use of Contaminated Collection Materials and Sacred Objects” (PDF, 2001).
Collection Forum: “Historical Survey of the Sources of Contamination of Ethnographic Materials in Museum Collections” (January 2001).
Collection Forum: “Use of Handheld XRF for the Study of Pesticide Residues on Museum Objects” (2006).
Cultural Resource Management: “Inherent and Acquired Hazards in Museum Objects: Implications for Care and Use of Collections” (PDF, 2000).
Federal Register: “Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Systematic Processes for Disposition or Repatriation of Native American Human Remains, Funerary Objects, Sacred Objects, and Objects of Cultural Patrimony” (December 2023).
Hopi Cultural Preservation Office.
Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act: “Facilitating Respectful Return.”
NPS Data Store: “Fiscal Year 2023 Annual Program Report.”
Public Law: Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.
Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections: “Contaminated Collections: Preservation, Access, and Use” (April 2001).
University of Gothenburg: Studies in Pest Control for Cultural Property (2012).
U.S. Department of the Interior: “Interior Department Announces Final Rule for Implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act” (December 2023).