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Monday, 28 March 2011 15:43

Museums and Art Galleries

Written By: Makos, Kathryn A.
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Museums and art galleries are a popular source of entertainment and education for the general public. There are many different types of museums, such as art, history, science, natural history and children’s museums. The exhibits, lectures and publications offered to the public by museums, however, are only one part of the function of museums. The broad mission of museums and art galleries is to collect, conserve, study and display items of artistic, historical, scientific or cultural importance. Supportive research (fieldwork, literary and laboratory) and behind-the-scenes collection care typically represent the largest proportion of work activities. Collections on display generally represent a small fraction of the total acquisitions of the museum or gallery, with the remainder in on-site storage or on loan to other exhibits or research projects. Museums and galleries may be stand-alone entities or affiliated with larger institutions such as universities, government agencies, armed services installations, park service historic sites or even specific industries.

A museum’s operations can be divided into several main functions: general building operations, exhibit and display production, educational activities, collection management (including field studies) and conservation. Occupations, which may overlap depending on size of staff, include building maintenance trades and custodians, carpenters, curators, illustrators and artists, librarians and educators, scientific researchers, specialized shipping and receiving and security.

General Building Operations

The operation of museums and galleries poses potential safety and health hazards both common to other occupations and unique to museums. As buildings, museums are subject to poor indoor air quality and to risks associated with maintenance, repair, custodial and security activities of large public buildings. Fire prevention systems are critical to protect the lives of staff and a multitude of visitors, as well as the priceless collections.

General tasks involve custodians; heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) specialists and boiler engineers; painters; electricians; plumbers; welders; and machinists. Safety hazards include slips, trips and falls; back and limb strains; electrical shock; and fires and explosions from compressed gas cylinders or hot work. Health hazards include exposures to hazardous materials, noise, metal fumes, flux fumes and gases, and ultraviolet radiation; and dermatitis from cutting oils, solvents, epoxies and plasticizers. Custodial staff are exposed to splash hazards from diluting cleaning chemicals, chemical reactions from improperly mixed chemicals, dermatitis, inhalation hazards from dry sweeping of lead paint chips or residual preservative chemicals in collection storage areas, injury from broken laboratory glassware or working around sensitive laboratory chemicals and equipment, and biological hazards from cleaning building exteriors of bird debris.

Older buildings are prone to mould and mildew growth and poor indoor air quality. They often lack exterior wall vapour barriers and have air handling systems which are old and difficult to maintain. Renovation may lead to uncovering material hazards in both centuries-old buildings and modern ones. Lead paints, mercury linings on old mirrored surfaces and asbestos in decorative finishes and insulation are some examples. With historic buildings, the need to preserve historic integrity must be balanced against design requirements of life safety codes and accommodations for persons with disabilities. Exhaust ventilation system installations should not destroy historic facades. Rooflines or skyline restrictions in historic districts may pose serious challenges to construction of exhaust stacks with sufficient height. Barriers used to separate construction areas often must be free-standing units that cannot be attached to walls that have historic features. Renovation should not mar underlying supports which may consist of valuable wood or finishes. These restrictions may lead to increased dangers. Fire detection and suppression systems and fire-rated construction are essential.

Precautions include the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) for eyes, face, head, hearing and respiration; electrical safety; machine guards and lock-out/tag-out programmes; good housekeeping; compatible hazardous material storage and secure compressed gas cylinders; fire detection and suppression systems; dust collectors, local exhaust and use of high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtered vacuum cleaners; safe lifting and material handling training; fork-lift safety; use of hoists, slings and hydraulic lifts; chemical spill control; safety showers and eye washes; first aid kits; and hazard communication and employee training programmes in hazards of materials and jobs (particularly for custodians in laboratories) and means for protection.

Exhibit and Display Production

The production and installation of museum exhibits and displays can involve a wide range of activities. For example, an animal exhibit in a natural history museum could involve the production of display cases; the construction of a reproduction of the animal’s natural habitat; the fabrication of the animal model itself; written, oral and illustrated materials to accompany the exhibit; appropriate lighting; and more. Processes involved in the exhibit production can include: carpentry; metalworking; working with plastics, plastics resins and many other materials; graphic arts; and photography.

Exhibit fabrication and graphics shops share similar risks with general woodworkers, sculptors, graphic artists, metalworkers and photographers. Specific health or safety risks may arise from installation of exhibits in halls without adequate ventilation, cleaning of display cases containing residues of hazardous treatment materials, formaldehyde exposure during photography set-up of fluid collection specimens and high-speed cutting of wood treated with fire retardant, which may liberate irritating acid gases (oxides of sulphur, phosphorus).

Precautions include appropriate personal protective equipment, acoustic treatment and local exhaust controls on woodworking machinery; adequate ventilation for graphics tables, silkscreen wash booths, paint-mixing areas, plastics resin areas, and photo development; and use of water-based ink systems.

Educational Activities

Museum educational activities can include lectures, distribution of publications, hands-on arts and science activities and more. These can be directed either towards adults or children. Arts and science activities can often involve use of toxic chemicals in rooms not equipped with proper ventilation and other precautions, handling arsenic-preserved stuffed birds and animals, electrical equipment and more. Safety risks may exist for both museum education staff and participants, particularly children. Such programmes should be evaluated to determine what types of precautions are needed and whether they can be done safely in the museum setting.

Art and Artefact Collections Management

Collections management involves field collection or acquisition, inventory control, proper storage techniques, preservation and pest management. Fieldwork can involve digging on archaeological expeditions, preserving botanical, insect and other specimens, making casts of specimens, drilling fossil rocks and more. The duties of curatorial staff in the museum include handling the specimens, examining them with a variety of techniques (e.g., microscopy, x ray), pest management, preparing them for exhibits and handling travelling exhibitions.

Hazards can occur at all stages of collections management, including those associated with field work, hazards inherent in the handling of the object or specimen itself, residues of old preservation or fumigation methods (which may not have been well documented by the original collector) and hazards associated with pesticide and fumigant application. Table 1 gives the hazards and precautions associated with some of these operations.

Table 1. Hazards and precautions of collection management processes.


Hazards and precautions

Field work and handling of specimens

Ergonomic injuries from repetitive drilling on fossil rock and heavy lifting; biohazards from surface cleaning of bird debris, allergic response (pulmonary and dermal) from insect frass, handling both living and dead specimens, particularly birds and mammals (plaque, Hanta virus) and other diseased tissues; and chemical hazards from preserving media.

Precautions include ergonomic controls; HEPA vacuums for control of detritus allergens, insect eggs, larvae; universal precautions for avoiding staff exposure to animal disease agents;.and adequate ventilation or respiratory protection when handling hazardous preserving agents.

Taxidermy and osteological preparation

Health hazards in the preparation of skins, whole mounts and skeletal specimens, and in the cleaning and restoration of older mounts, arise from exposure to solvents and degreasers used to clean skins and skeletal remains (after maceration); residual preservatives, especially arsenic (internal and external applications); osteological preparation (ammonium hydroxide, solvents, degreasers); formaldehyde for preserving organ parts after autopsy (or necropsy); frass allergens; contact with diseased specimens; asbestos-plaster in old mounts. Safety and fire risks include heavy lifting strains; injury from use of power tools, knives or sharps on specimens; and use of flammable or combustible mixtures.

Precautions include local exhaust ventilation; respirators, gloves, aprons; use of brushes and HEPA vacuums to clean fur and rearrange nap instead of low-pressure compressed air or vigorous brushing alone; and use of disinfectants in necropsy and other handling areas. Check with local environmental authority on current approval status for taxidermy and preservation chemical applications.

Illustrators and microscopic examinations by curators and their technicians

Exposure to hazardous storage media at close range and xylene, alcohols, formaldehyde/glutaraldehyde and osmium tetroxide used in histology (sectioning, staining, slide mounting) for scanning and transmission electron microscopy.

See laboratory research for appropriate precautions.

Fumigant and pesticide use

Insect damage to collections cannot be tolerated, but indiscriminate use of chemicals can have adverse side effects on staff health and collections. Integrated pest management (IPM) programmes are now utilized as practical means for pest control while reducing health and collection risks. Commonly used chemical pesticides and fumigants (many now banned or restricted) include(d): DDT, naphthalene, PDB, dichlorvos, ethylene oxide, carbon tetrachloride, ethylene dichloride, methyl bromide and sulphuryl fluoride. Many have poor warning properties, are extremely toxic or lethal to humans at low concentrations and should be applied by professional, licensed exterminators or fumigators offsite or outside occupied areas. All require complete airing in a well-ventilated area to remove all off-gassing products from porous collection materials.

Precautions include PPE, respirator, ventilation, splash protection, medical surveillance, HEPA vacuums, regulatory licensing for applicators and air sampling before reentry into fumigated spaces.

Laboratory research

Hazardous tasks involve molecular systematics; DNA research and general storage of living cells and tissue cultures (growth media); DMSO, radioactive isotopes, a wide variety of solvents, acids, ethyl ether; cryogenic liquids for freeze-drying (nitrogen, etc.); and use of benzidine-based dyes.

Precautions include cryogenic protection (gloves, face shields, aprons, well-ventilated areas, safety relief valves, systems for high-pressure transport and storage), biosafety cabinets, radiation laboratory hoods and respirators, local exhaust enclosures for weighing and microscope stations; clean benches with HEPA-grade filters, gloves and lab coats, eye protection, HEPA vacuums for control of detritus allergens, insect eggs, larvae; and universal precautions for avoiding laboratory and custodial staff exposure to animal disease agents.

Shipping, receiving and preparing of loaned collections for exhibitions

Exposure to unknown storage media and potentially hazardous shipping material (e.g., crates lined with asbestos paper) from countries without stringent environmental reporting requirements.

Precautions include appropriate hazard warnings on outgoing loaned exhibitions, and ensuring that incoming exhibition documents stipulate contents.


There are also hazards associated with the collection objects themselves. Wet collections in general have the following risks: exposure to formaldehyde used for field-fixing and permanent storage; sorting specimens from formaldehyde to alcohol storage (usually ethanol or isopropanol); and “mystery liquids” on incoming loans. Dry collections in general have the following risks: residual particulate preservatives, such as arsenic trioxide, mercuric chloride, strychnine and DDT; and vaporizing compounds leaving residues or recrystallization, such as dichlorvos/vapona pest strips, paradichlorobenzene (PDB) and naphthalene. See table 2 for a list of many of the particular hazards found in collection management. This table also includes hazards associated with conservation of these specimens.

Table 2. Hazards of collection objects.

Source of hazard


Botanicals, vertebrates and invertebrates

Storage media containing formaldehyde, acetic acid, alcohol, formaldehyde used in field fixing, sorting to alcohol storage, mercuric chloride on dry-mounted plant specimens, arsenic- and mercury-preserved birds and mammals, dry-mount adhesives; insect frass allergens.

Decorative arts, ceramics, stone and metal

Pigments or preservatives may contain mercury. Silver- or gold-plated objects may have cyanide bound into finish (which can be liberated by water-washing). Celluloid objects (French ivory) are fire hazards. Fiesta-ware and enamel jewellery may contain radioactive uranium pigments.


Naphthalene, paradichlorobenzene (PDB) exposures while replenishing storage drawers or observing specimens; field collection bottle preparations using cyanide salts.


The furniture may have been treated with pentachlorophenol-containing wood preservatives, lead and other toxic pigments. Cleaning and restoration may involve treatment with mineral spirits, methylene chloride paint strippers, varnishes and lacquers.


Radioactive specimens, natural ores of high-toxicity metals and minerals (lead/asbestiform), noise from section preparations, epoxies for slide/section preparation.

Miscellaneous hazards

Old pharmaceuticals in medical, dental and veterinary collections (which may have degraded, are illegal substances or have converted into reactive or explosive compounds); gunpowder, firearms; carbon tetrachloride in nineteenth- and twentieth-century fire-extinguishing devices; vehicle battery acid; PCBs in transformers, capacitors and other electrical collections; mercury felts in static generators, lighthouses and science collections; asbestos from plasters in trophy mounts, casts and a variety of household appliances, ceramic glazes, wiring and textiles.

Paintings, print and paper

These may contain high-toxicity pigments of lead (white flake, white lead, chrome yellow), cadmium, chromium (carcinogenic in chromate form), cobalt (particularly cobalt violet or cobalt arsenate), manganese and mercury. Cyanide may be present in some printers’ inks and in old (nineteenth century) wallpapers; mercury was added to some paintings and fabrics as mildew prevention; lampblack and coal tar dyes are carcinogenic. Cleaning and restoration of these materials can involve the use of solvents, varnishes, lacquers, chlorine dioxide bleaches and more.

Paleobiological specimens

Ergonomic and health risks from fossil preparation involving drilling or chipping rock matrix containing free crystalline silica, asbestos or radioactive ore; epoxies and liquid plastics for fossil casts; noise; solvents and acids for rock digestion (hydrofluoric most hazardous).


Nitrocellulose film has the risk of spontaneous combustion, and nitric acid burns from decomposing film. It should be copied to modern film. Selenium toning restoration can involve hazards of selenium and sulphur dioxide exposure, and requires adequate ventilation.

Storage cases

Lead and cadmium surface paint, arsenic-treated felt gaskets and asbestos insulation render cases difficult to dispose of. Residues and chips containing these substances pose hazards during interior and exterior case cleaning; vacuum debris may be considered hazardous waste.

Textiles, clothing

Hazards include dyes (particularly benzidine based), fibre levels, arsenic for lace and other component preservation, mercury for felt treatment; poisonous plant materials used for clothing decorations; mould, mildew, allergens from insect parts and excrement (frass).

Conservation Laboratories

 Occupational health and safety considerations are similar to those of general industry. Precautions include occupational maintenance of a good inventory of collection treatment methods, personal protective equipment, including vinyl (not latex) gloves for dry specimen handling, and impervious gloves and splash protection for liquids. Medical surveillance with regard to general and reproductive hazards; good hygiene practices—lab coats and work clothes laundered separately from family clothes (or best at work in a dedicated washer); avoidance of dry sweeping (use HEPA vacuum cleaners); avoiding water-trap vacuum cleaners on suspect collections; proper hazardous waste disposal methods; and chemical hazard information training for staff are some examples.

Conservation work, often in full-scale laboratories, involves the cleaning and restoration (by chemical or physical means) of items such as paintings, paper, photographs, books, manuscripts, stamps, furniture, textiles, ceramics and glass, metals, stone, musical instruments, uniforms and costumes, leather, baskets, masks and other ethnographic objects. Hazards unique to conservation range from highly intermittent exposures to dropper-size amounts of restoration chemicals, to potentially heavy exposures when using large quantities of chemicals to treat statuary or large vertebrate specimens. Ergonomic injuries are possible from awkward hand-and-brush positions over painting or statuary restoration work, and heavy lifting. A wide variety of solvents and other chemicals are used in cleaning and restoration of collection objects. Many of the techniques used for the restoration of damaged artwork, for example, are the same, and involve the same hazards and precautions as those of the original art process. Hazards also arise from the composition and finish of the object itself, as described in table 2. For precautions see the previous section.



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