April 13, 2023 / Abby Roberts

An Interprofessional Approach to Controlling Hazards in Museums

This blog post is based on a presentation given by Kelsey Babik, Holly Cusack-McVeigh, Sarah Halter, and Mark Wilson at AIHce EXP 2022. An expanded version was published in AIHA's 2022 ebook, The Essentials of OEHS Communication.

When reaching out to workforces outside of the traditional OEHS purview, OEHS professionals commonly realize that they are unfamiliar with those workers' priorities, concerns, and ways of doing things. Meanwhile, these workers are often equally unfamiliar with OEHS professionals' strategies to anticipate, recognize, evaluate, and control hazards and confirm protection from risks. AIHA's Museum and Cultural Heritage Industry Working Group aims to overcome these differences in knowledge and understanding through robust interprofessional communication and collaboration.

The AIHce EXP 2022 session "Museums, Part 1 - Exploring Interdisciplinary Teaching and Community Collaboration with Museum Studies and OEHS Campus Programs" was the first of a two-part series on OEHS issues in the museum and cultural heritage field. This session covered how professors and graduate students from Purdue University's occupational and environmental health sciences program and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis' (IUPUI) museum studies program worked with staff of the Indiana Medical History Museum (IMHM) to improve health and safety in the museum's facilities. Session presenters Holly Cusack-McVeigh, MA, PhD; Sarah Halter, MA, CFRM; and Mark Wilson, DC, PhD, each spoke of their roles in the collaboration.

The Museum Studies and Cultural Care Program's Perspective 

It's not unusual for museums to have toxins in their collections. "What I've discovered over the years is that many museum professionals know something about hidden dangers in collections, but they don't know a lot about it," said Cusack-McVeigh, a professor in IUPUI's museum studies program.

In 2014, to serve students seeking careers in collections care, she designed a course on preventative conservation, a discipline that aims to eliminate or modify conditions that encourage deterioration. As many such conditions also result in risks to human health, such as mold growth, the preventative conservation course included a one-week health and safety unit. But Cusack-McVeigh realized this also wasn't enough to cover all the conservation-related health and safety issues that her students needed to know about.

Cusack-McVeigh knew she couldn't teach students everything they needed to know about all the hazards they might encounter, but she could send her students into their careers both more aware of hazards and better able to reach out to other disciplines, like OEHS, to get the support they need. She reached out herself through the Museum Working Group to experts who could offer her students guidance. She updated the preventative conservation course to include weekly health and safety units, with each unit featuring guest lectures and readings. Eventually, the weekly units became a separate, permanent course at IUPUI.

At about this time, she also supervised a program that placed graduate students as interns in local museums. A student interning at IMHM put Cusack-McVeigh in contact with Halter, the museum's executive director. The intern, who happened to be a nontraditional student with a background in pharmacology, had begun to develop protocols to protect IMHM staff from hazards associated with the extensive chemical collection, which included historic pharmaceuticals. Cusack-McVeigh and Halter realized that IMHM needed a spill plan, inventory, and risk assessment. But as the contents of so many containers hadn't been identified with certainty, they didn't immediately know where to start.

The collaboration between IMHM and IUPUI to address health and safety issues related to IMHM's chemical collection began in 2021. A third institutional partner joined when Cusack-McVeigh reached out to Wilson, a clinical assistant professor with Purdue University's occupational and environmental health science program. Under Wilson's leadership, OEHS graduate students conducted an initial risk assessment for IMHM in spring 2022. The project's next phase began in the fall of the same year, with IUPUI's museum studies program having obtained funding for fellowship and internship positions to enable museum studies students to dive deeper into health and safety through working with Halter at IMHM.

The Museum's Perspective

IMHM is housed mainly in the Old Pathology Building, which formerly operated as the pathology department of Indiana's Central State Hospital. When it opened in 1896, the building featured what was then one of the most modern laboratories in the country. However, the institution never found the money to update the facility before it closed in 1968. One year later, the site reopened as what Halter described as a "very authentic and immersive historic site." In addition to caring for the building, collections, and six acres of grounds, staff members host tours of the museum for individual visitors and groups.

Halter, who graduated from the IUPUI museum studies program a few years before Cusack-McVeigh joined the program, said that her education and training didn't prepare her for many things she has encountered at IMHM. First, the collection includes human remains. This is not uncommon for museums, Halter explained, but IMHM has an unusually large collection that includes specimen jars containing human organs preserved in formalin, histological slides containing biological tissues and body fluids, and skeletal materials used as teaching aids. In addition to potential health and safety hazards, the museum must navigate ethical concerns related to displaying and accessing human remains and collections management concerns related to storing them.

Some of IMHM's historic medical equipment and devices either once contained or still contain heavy metals and radioactive elements. For example, Wilson's grad students identified arsenic in some of the collection's glass jars during their risk assessment.

By May of 2022, however, Halter was most concerned with IMHM's chemical collection. Some containers weren't labeled. Others, including thousands of patent medicine bottles, were labeled with information that was probably inaccurate, as pharmaceutical manufacturers weren't obligated to list ingredients in medications prior to the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. Consequently, IMHM staff members weren't sure what chemicals they had been charged to care for. With new items being added periodically and the potential for old items to deteriorate or degrade, the museum didn't have a good sense of what health and safety risks are present or which require the most urgent attention.

Therefore, the museum needed to make a thorough inventory of the chemical collection before the project could begin identifying and controlling health and safety hazards. This inventory needed to list what each bottle contained, its storage and safety implications, and what to do if it broke or spilled. IMHM also needed policies for storing, accessing, conserving, and handling the chemical collection—policies for access were particularly necessary because IMHM is frequently contacted by scientists who want to use IMHM's chemicals in their own research.

There was also a chance that an inventory and hazard assessment would reveal unknown hazards that IMHM wasn't yet aware of. "I'm always learning new and scary things about silica dust, and mirrors that drip with mercury, and poisonous book covers," said Halter. "What else is there that we don't even have on our radar yet?" 

But most importantly, Halter stressed that IMHM and the museum field in general need guidance and training. Even though more research is being published on hazards in collection work, many museum professionals aren't aware of the findings, don't know what to do with the information, or lack the funds for mitigation. "We want other museums and other museum professionals to benefit from this work too," Halter added.

IMHM intended to collect data on hazards in its collection throughout the second phase of the collaboration with IUPUI and Purdue, which was planned to take place in fall of 2022 and spring of 2023. This would help IMHM staff make their case for funding to address hazards and incorporate controls into their collections policies, disaster plan, and daily operations.

The OEHS Program's Perspective

In spring 2021, Wilson and his OEHS students were invited by Cusack-McVeigh to work on a project with her museum studies students. Wilson said he wasn't familiar with the museum studies field at the time, but he thought the project sounded like a good opportunity for him and his students to learn. This resulted in Wilson's students putting together a lecture on mold hazards and remediation techniques. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they presented and answered questions from Cusack-McVeigh's students online. The students found the class to be productive, and Wilson worked with Cusack-McVeigh to plan more opportunities for the students to learn from each other.

To lend more structure to the collaboration, Wilson created a museum health and safety independent study course. OEHS students taking the course participated in activities to learn about working in museums and the hazards they might encounter, including two visits to IMHM. First, the students conducted a hazard assessment by using X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy to test items in the collection for heavy metals contamination. On their second visit, they repeated the presentation on mold. Meeting at the museum in person helped generate a lively discussion between students in both programs, as there are different considerations for remediating contaminated items in a museum context. "It was a very interesting dialogue that really had our students thinking about how they could come up with ideas outside the box," said Wilson.

Wilson's students in the independent study course also worked with museum studies students to process items recovered by the FBI's art crime team. This activity gave them valuable experience in identifying items that may be contaminated. Students also visited an ornithology center to test taxidermy mounts, identified some with high levels of arsenic contamination, and worked to make those items safe for staff and visitors.

The point of the independent study was not only for students to engage in those activities—Wilson's assessment process also required the students to write reflection papers for each visit. He reported that students' comments indicated that the visits led them to consider nontraditional environments' need for OEHS services. "It brought them out of the idea that industrial hygiene is strictly related to a factory or industrial environment," he said.

Moreover, students from both programs learned from each other to appreciate the challenges faced by both professions and to understand each other's language. The OEHS students had to explain and make health and safety concepts relatable to people who didn't share their background, and in turn, the museum students had to explain their concerns to the OEHS students as well. They learned to communicate the results of the XRF testing meaningfully, as shown by a student poster session created by two of Wilson's students and two of Cusack-McVeigh's. This student poster on health hazards in museums was awarded Best in Show at AIHce EXP 2022.

As of the 2022 conference, Wilson aimed to further involve his students in the collaboration with IMHM and IUPUI, which provided a needed service to the museum and a good learning experience for the students. At the time, he was developing a methodology and curriculum with the goal that the independent study course would become a permanent class.

Further Reading

The AIHce EXP series on OEHS issues in museums and collections will be continued in an upcoming blog post, which will discuss outreach by OSHA's On-Site Consultation Program. The project to address hazards at IMHM was also covered in detail in a July 2022 SynergistNOW blog post and a November 2022 Synergist article, both titled "Preserving History, Protecting Safety." The June 2021 Synergist article "Hazard or Artifact? How OEHS Informs Collection Management of World Trade Center Dust at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum" provides additional information about caring for hazardous collections.


Babik, Kelsey; Cusack-McVeigh, Holly; Halter, Sarah; and Wilson, Mark. "Museums, Part 1 – Exploring Interdisciplinary Teaching and Community Collaboration with Museum Studies and OEHS Campus Programs." AIHce EXP, AIHA, May 23, 2022, virtual. Conference Presentation.

Abby Roberts

Abby Roberts is the editorial assistant for The Synergist.


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