If you are a thrill seeker, or like to live life dangerously, maybe you should consider museum work. Caring for and conserving the artifacts in the museum collection comes with its fair share of dangers and risks. Yes, the fear of dropping and breaking something that is super old does get the heart racing, but what I’m taking about it is caring for those artifacts that contain hazardous materials that could be harmful or toxic to humans and our surroundings. It happens, and more likely than you probably think. Part of museum work is testing for, and taking the appropriate care measures, for such objects.
This summer, our Collections Technician Tanya, and her summer student Hannah, have undertaken the fear-inducing task of testing clothing accessories, particularly top hats, fur stoles, muffs, and shawls, in the museum collection for arsenic.
Yes, arsenic: the toxic chemical, the poison.
But, there was a time in history when its danger to humans was not known. In the nineteenth century Victorian Era, arsenic was quite literally everywhere. In wallpaper, on window curtains, in women’s skin care regimes. Since it dyed fabric brilliant shades of green, women’s dresses, gloves, and fashionable hair accessories were regularly treated with arsenic. It was used in the form of sprays to preserve mounted and stuffed birds and animals. And because of its preservation qualities, arsenic also matted the furs used for men’s top hats for that highly desirable finish. (If you want to learn more about “killer fashion”, read this National Post article).
Though arsenic isn’t so fashionable anymore, artifacts in a museum’s collection can still contain this toxic substance. Therefore, in order to properly care for these objects, as well as to ensure the safest possible work environment, the St. Catharines Museum tests suspected artifacts for arsenic through our Hazards Control Program.
Recently, Tanya took us behind-the-scenes to the conservation laboratory so we could be a part of the thrill, and see first-hand how Collections Technicians test artifacts for arsenic. Let’s see what the testing process looks like:
The artifact in question: a traditional top hat dated between 1850-1910 (STCM 1971.43.4). Arsenic was commonly used on clothing accessories like top hats up until the twentieth century, as it effectively matted the furs on the hat.
Our Collections Technician Tanya takes a swab of the fur on the top hat.
And now we wait. The swab must sit in distilled water for 60 minutes.
Inside the fume hood, Collections Technicians mix the sample with the two testing agents in a special reaction container. It turns the sample a dark shade of grey. A test strip in then placed in the container. We now wait 20 minutes, being sure to stir the sample every five minutes. This will give the chemical agents enough time to react.
After the 20 minute wait time, we remove the test strip from the reaction container and dip the strip in distilled water.
Now, it is show-time, the moment we’ve all been waiting for! We then compare the test field with the colour scale. This will tell us if our artifact contains arsenic. Watch our video to see the results!
Our top hat DOES NOT contain arsenic! Hooray! As you can hear in the video, that was a suspenseful ride! What a relief…
So far in our testing, we have not found any objects in the collection that contain arsenic. However, we have found traces of led, mercury, nitrocellulose, asbestos as well as other dangerous toxins in other artifacts. The St. Catharines Museum takes this very seriously and we follow a detailed procedure to properly label and store these in our collection.
All toxic substance-suspected artifacts must be labelled with a WHMIS label and segregated from the remainder of the collection in a sealed, plastic enclosure. All enclosures are inspected annually by full-time staff and can only be handled by staff in a controlled lab with the proper personal protection equipment.
Though we live for the thrill, handling harzardous materials is no joke. These are only some of the unique challenges we face in preserving out community’s history. Luckily, we love that #museumlife!
Sara Nixon is a Public Historian and Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre. She thanks Tanya and Hannah for letting her watch them as they work and gasp every so often at the suspenseful parts.
Hi there, I was hoping you could tell me the brand of your arsenic testing kit and possibly where you purchased it. Thanks!
I have an antique couch and chair that I got at a consignment store a few years ago. They happen to both be a brilliant green (it’s what I loved about them). How would I go about testing these for arsenic?
We would recommend that you ask Poison Control about testing for arsenic in furniture. Most test kits are quite expensive and require laboratory conditions, Personal protective equipment and training for safe usage. We wouldn’t recommend that untrained individuals try to do this kind of testing on their own.
Great write-up! Can you share what brand of test-kit you used?