July 26, 2022 / Abby Roberts

Preserving History, Protecting Safety

The author would like to thank Sarah Halter, MA, and Mark Wilson, DC, PhD, for their assistance with this blog post.

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.

Many items in the museum’s collection are thought to be hazardous but have not been identified with certainty; not all hazards that staff and visitors may be exposed to are well known or well understood. And, like many museum professionals, IMHM staff lack formal occupational and environmental health and safety training.

To address health and safety issues in the facility, IMHM staff are working with Purdue University’s occupational and environmental health sciences program and the museum studies program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). 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.

A Hazardous Collection

The building in which IMHM is housed 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 reopened as a museum with the scientifically equipped interior still intact. Now, IMHM’s collection includes chemicals historically used for lab tests and experiments, developing film, preserving biological tissues, and as pharmaceutical drugs.

Some collection items have been definitively linked with health hazards. Formaldehyde, which NIOSH describes as a skin, lung, and eye irritant and a possible carcinogen, was historically used to preserve biological tissue. In other cases, potential hazards are only suspected. Prior to federal regulation by the Food and Drug Administration, pharmaceuticals were produced following individual pharmacists’ recipes, making it difficult to know exactly what’s in them and in what quantities. Some are believed to contain illicit substances such as cocaine and marijuana. IMHM also cares for a collection of “patent medicines,” over-the-counter remedies notorious for neglecting to accurately disclose their ingredients.

According to IMHM Executive Director Sarah Halter, MA, “it presents some issues” both for conservation and OEHS “when the health hazard is the collection.” One challenge is that museum professionals’ responsibility to preserve historically significant artifacts for future generations means that care should be taken to avoid altering, damaging, or destroying objects during testing or remediation. Formaldehyde in specimen jars can be replaced with a less toxic alcohol solution, but it’s not always easy to eliminate or substitute hazards without impacting objects’ historical significance.

And it’s difficult to know what engineering and administrative controls or personal protective equipment are necessary and feasible when hazards have not been properly identified. In addition to the uncertain chemical compositions of historical medications, the museum did not begin to keep documentation of the collection until a museum professional joined the staff in 1983. This gap in recordkeeping means that even IMHM staff aren’t certain of what’s inside every jar, vial, and container.

Before the collaboration with Purdue began in 2021, Halter and other IMHM staff had developed concerns. These included the potential for off-gassing from chemicals, which could be harmful if inhaled and damaging to other artifacts, and the potential for dermal exposure if containers broke. “We had an idea that there were [hazards],” she says, “but didn’t know specifically what they were.”

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. Another key participant is Holly Cusack-McVeigh, MA, PhD, a professor and public scholar with IUPUI’s museum studies department. Under Cusack-McVeigh’s leadership, museum studies grad students will have opportunities for hands-on learning at IMHM and work with the OEHS team to find health and safety solutions that won’t damage IMHM’s artifacts.

The collaboration is progressing in phases, starting with an initial assessment using X-ray fluorescence to detect the presence of heavy metals. After a more thorough inventory of the collection, Wilson and the OEHS grad students will be able 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,” says Wilson.

Concurrently, the museum will host a full-time intern enrolled in the IUPUI museum studies program, who will be responsible for researching the history of items in the collection. The intern will help “prioritize and determine what we want to investigate first,” Wilson says. Funding for this endeavor is possible thanks to efforts by Cusack-McVeigh.

When students return for the fall semester, the OEHS program plans to investigate whether containers are adequately sealed to prevent off-gassing. Although research will shed light on the contents, some will require testing to identify the chemicals accurately.

As the project progresses, 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 says 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.

Advice for Museum and OEHS Professionals

“From the OEHS perspective,” says 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 says.

At IMHM, Halter recounted a similar situation in which she suspected two human skeletal specimens to have been treated with arsenic, which made her unwilling to permit staff to access them. In this case, testing by Wilson’s team revealed there was no hazard, but the assessment gave Halter peace of mind and freed her to focus on more significant problems. Many museum professionals have similar apprehensions but are wary of bringing in outside professionals, she explains.

“There’s fear, sometimes, about collections,” she says. “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 says. Both museum colleagues and OEHS professionals are able to help navigate hazards known and unknown.

“We don’t have someone on staff who is an expert on [occupational safety],” Halter says, “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

If you’re an OEHS professional interested in improving health and safety in an industry that traditionally lies outside the field, consider volunteering with AIHA’s Museum and Cultural Heritage Industry Working Group. And 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

Abby Roberts is the editorial assistant at The Synergist.


HETA 96-0264-2713 Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument

Little did I know that this 'Preserving History, Protecting Safety' project at the start of my IH career would be my most-cited work. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/hhe/reports/pdfs/1996-0264-2713.pdf

By Timothy Jiggens on July 26, 2022 2:37pm

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