Taxidermy – More Dangerous Dead Than Alive?
Historical Taxidermy and the Conservator
Figure 1 – Chicago Field Museum Bird Taxidermy
While taxidermy is not appreciated by everyone, I have always enjoyed looking at the beautifully colored bird specimens that are on display at the Chicago Field Museum, but how could these incredibly beautiful creatures be more dangerous dead than alive?
Figure 2 – Chicago Field Museum Bird Display
This is a question that conservators and museum curators have begun to ask as the collections age and require conservation. In the 18th century, before the advent of contemporary taxidermy processes and scientific advances, it was common practice to use arsenic to preserve specimens for Natural History Museums throughout the world and was advocated for use on specimens to deter attack from insects as long ago as the 17th century (Hendry 1999; Marte et al. 2006). Taxidermy specimens were brushed with a thick arsenic paste that was applied to the interior skin as a preservative, insecticide and fungicide that continues to be identified in contemporary prepared specimens as recently as the 1980’s (Cockerline et al. 2009). Many of these potentially dangerous specimens were acquired by the Chicago Field Museum that show case thousands of specimens of both common place and extinct bird species.
Today, it is the responsibility of the curator and conservators to educate all individuals that will come in contact with these potentially hazardous elements of the proper handling, care, and disposal of these chemicals This means it is a vital priority to identify which specimens are contaminated so that preventative measures to mitigate exposure can be employed (Marte et al. 2006). When curation records are missing or incomplete, visual inspection of each specimen can provide conservators with some of the first clues associated with the method of preservation (Marte et al. 2006). Specimens that exhibit traces of white powder or crystalline deposits at the base of feathers, surrounding the eyes or bills can indicate that arsenic dust may be present; however, conservators are cautioned that the lack of these traits does not mean the absence of arsenic (Marte et al. 2006). Standard precautions are typically utilized as though every specimen contains arsenic such as nitrile gloves, respirators, and disposable coveralls to avoid direct physical contact or cross contamination (Cockerline et al. 2009).
Figure ‑3: Cleaning and inspection of owl exhibit at the Chicago Field Museum
Testing of specimens has become increasingly more important and inexpensive with the development of specialized spot tests that use paper strips, much like a pH test, that are able to identify arsenic in taxidermy collections (Marte et al. 2006). Once a specimen has been tested a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) vacuum can be used to partially eliminate the danger. Precautions should continue to extend to the storage and handling. Most importantly, the continued display of these specimens must also be managed to reduce the risk of exposure to the general public (Marte et al. 2006). Displays that are sealed in what have been called ‘tight chests’ have proven effective in maintaining not only the preservation of specimens but also decrease the likelihood of pest infestations or exposure to arsenic, allowing museums to continue exhibition of these specimens safely (Hendry 1999).
Figure 4: Chicago Field Museum – Hall of Birds
Although proper handling precautions are relatively easy to implement another potentially hazardous concern is the possibility of a disaster, such as fire (Muething et al. 2005). Burning arsenic releases toxic fumes that are especially hazardous if respiratory exposure is not mitigated and can result in potentially serious health risks and even death (Cockerline et al. 2009). Museums and conservators have responded in earnest to this concern by developing risk management (Muething et al. 2005) and collection disaster plans that provide emergency responders access to curation records that identify those items containing arsenic so proper safety precautions can be assessed to minimize exposure (Cockerline et al. 2009).
After learning about the hidden hazards of bird taxidermy prepared through arsenic preservation methods one might ask “why would museums continue to display or even store such hazardous specimens?” In my opinion the answer is simple: ‘conservators’. Their dedication, knowledge, and expertise make it possible for museums to maintain these specimens for the education and enjoyment of future generations through the practice of responsible methods and treatments that mitigate the risk.
Cockerline, N., and M. Markell. 2009. “The Handling and Exhibition of Potentially Hazardous Artifacts in Museum Collections.” History News 64(4): technical leaflet 248.
Marte, F., A. Pequignot, and D. W. Von Endt. 2006. “Arsenic in Taxidermy Collections: History, Detection, and Management.” Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education Collection Forum 21(1–2):143–150.
Hendry, D. 1999. “Vertebrates.” In Chapter 1: Care and Conservation of Natural History Collections, edited by D. Carter and A. Walker, 1-36. Oxford: Butterwoth Heinemann.
Muething, G., R. Waller, and F. Graham. 2005. “Risk Assessment of Collections in Exhibitions at the Canadian Museum of Nature.” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 44 (3): 233-243.
Photos courtesy of: http://www.fieldmuseum.org/science/blog/ronald-and-christina-gidwitz-hall-birds