Arsenic and Old Lace

While it’s common to find old lace in museum collections, you might be surprised to learn that hazardous materials like arsenic can also be found in many museums.  A few days ago, while cataloging a sad iron (sad being an old word for solid), I was surprised to find the name Asbestos Sad Iron printed on the iron.  Upon closer inspection, I found a layer of asbestos in the space between the iron and the handle.  This asbestos lining kept heat from reaching the handle and the hand of the person ironing.  Today, we know that asbestos causes serious health issues, but when this iron was manufactured in the early 1900s, the dangers of asbestos were unknown.

Asbestos is not the only harmful materials found within museum collections.  Arsenic was commonly used in taxidermy to help keep bugs from destroying skins and furs. Mercury, cyanide, formaldehyde, and strychnine are some of the other chemicals which can sometimes be found on or in museum artifacts.  Some museums even house radioactive artifacts.

Hopefully this list of hazardous materials won’t keep you from visiting museums!  In the average museum, artifacts containing these materials are only a tiny fraction of the entire collection.  These artifacts still tell important stories, and when the proper steps are taken, the risks associated with these items are minimal.

Artifacts like the Asbestos Sad Iron are individually bagged and clearly labeled, both on the artifact and in our collections database.  This ensures that the iron is not accidentally handled.  Using safety procedures like wearing gloves and respirators and, most importantly, interacting these objects as little as possible minimizes risks.  Many large museums have a cabinet or room dedicated exclusively to hazardous materials, which ensures that exposure to these artifacts is kept to a minimum.  In severe cases, museums can send affected artifacts to professionals for treatment.

Medical museums, geology museums, and museums with a large number of taxidermy mounts have to deal with these materials on a regular basis.  Fortunately, our collections are highly unlikely to contain these sorts of chemicals.  The Asbestos Sad Iron is definitely an outlier here at the Ephraim Historical Foundation!

-Guest Blogger Emily Irwin

Annual Cemetery Walk – September 11, 2017

Karen Ekberg as Ida Seiler Sohns

Have you ever wondered what it might be like to visit with someone who lived on this earth 100 to 150 years ago?  If you come to the Ephraim Moravian Cemetery on September 11, you will have the opportunity to do just that.  For the last several years the Ephraim Historical Foundation, in conjunction with the Ephraim Moravian Church, has presented a cemetery walk called the “DEARLY DEPARTED.” Read More

Wisconsin 101

We often talk about Wisconsin, Door County, and Ephraim history in terms of image and text-based artifacts, like photographs, diaries, scrapbooks, and postcards.  A project called Wisconsin 101: Our History in Objects is sharing Wisconsin history in a different way – through three-dimensional artifacts.  Specifically, it focuses on objects which tell distinctly Wisconsin stories, like the Babcock Butterfat Tester or Old Abe, the Live War Eagle.  Anyone can propose an object to be included on the Wisconsin 101 website, with object categories like Arts & Leisure, Education, and Transportation. Read More