February 13, 2019

Potomac Local Section Co-Hosts Seminar on Health, Safety Hazards in Museums

By Janice Ruggles

On Nov. 7, 2018, the AIHA Potomac Local Section co-hosted a professional development seminar focused on control of health and safety hazards in museums, historic sites, conservation treatment, and collection care. The event was held at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in collaboration with the Washington Conservation Guild; the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Safety, Health, and Environmental Management; the National Collections Program; and the Lunder Conservation Center. Attendees included professionals from a variety of backgrounds—including conservators, exhibit specialists, industrial hygienists, safety professionals, engineers, and architects—who share a common goal of controlling safety and health hazards while preserving cultural heritage.

Planning for this year’s event started early, and increased publicity yielded a strong response to the call for abstracts. To include as much content as possible, the seminar was organized into eight 30-minute presentations and a “lightning round” of seven five-minute presentations. The format allowed presenters to share a significant amount of technical information on a wide variety of topics, including unknown hazards and management of hazards in museum collections; safety assessments of education collections; managing exposures associated with treating corroded cadmium plating; arsenical wallpaper; and preventive conservation. Additional presentations covered research on the structural behavior and post-disaster assessment of buildings, safety protocols related to historic building conservation, airtight museum cases, and the challenges of prescriptive standards for lighting while maintaining safety for museum visitors and staff. During lunch, docents provided tours of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collections while additional staff conducted technical tours of the Lunder Conservation Center and the Luce Center for American Art.

Thanks to increased advertising efforts and word of mouth, this event grew from about 100 professionals in 2016 to 140 professionals in 2018. Each year, approximately 50 percent of attendees represent the conservator and collection care professions, and the other half come from the health, safety, fire protection, and engineering professions. This year’s event welcomed speakers and attendees from across the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions of the U.S. as well as Europe. Participants represented 22 museums and cultural institutions, eight universities, the New York State Education Department, seven federal agencies, 22 private industries, and seven of the Smithsonian’s supporting organizations.

Attendees continue to provide positive feedback, with many expressing an interest in attending future seminars and presentations. Participants are especially appreciative of the collaborative environment and the ability to network and discuss topics with experts and colleagues.

If you or your local section are interested in working with local museums and conservation guilds, or if you would like to hold a seminar in your area, please email AIHA Potomac Local Section member Kathryn Makos.

Janice Ruggles, CIH, of the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Safety, Health, and Environmental Management, is past president of the AIHA Potomac Local Section.

Related: In May 2016, The Synergist re-published an article from its archives titled “Hidden Hazards: Health and Safety in Museums and Art Galleries.”