The Perils of Posterity

Formaldehyde spill response kit
Formaldehyde spill response kit
Rot your lungs, make you choke,
See that pension go up in smoke,
but the boss don’t give a shit
Formaldehyde spill response kit

Natural history collections are treasure troves, cabinets of curiosity containing a world of magical delights. But museums have a dark side. Rickety ladders, broken glass, and hazardous chemicals; these are the perils of posterity.

As a rule, natural history collections should be housed in windowless basements. This prevents solar damage to specimens, reduces temperature fluctuations, and minimizes the available entrances for insect pests. Such an environment however, poses many innumerable threats to the safety of curators and museum staff. Here we have the crux of the issue, namely the safety of the collection cannot always be reconciled with the safety of the employees. Historically to solve this conundrum, spaces were designed solely with the safety of the collection in mind…

In modern practices, more of a balance is struck. For example, reptiles and amphibians are typically stored in fluid. Formaldehyde is by far the better preservative, but the fumes of ethanol are not nearly as toxic. Hence it is common to ‘fix’ a specimen first using formalin, before transferring it into ethanol for long term storage. As I write, the vast majority of fluid collections are now housed in ethanol. Confined spaces and vast quantities of alcohol however, is a disaster waiting to happen. Indeed, with the increasing strictness of modern health and safety policies, particularly with regard to fire, many older collections are no longer up to code. Add crumbling infrastructure to this volatile mixture and disasters are almost inevitable. Small natural history collections exist in a catch-22 situation, whereby they rely on public support to stay afloat, but too much publicity could spell disaster if it attracts the attention of the wrong people.

So much for the fluid collections, what about the dry stuff?

Insects pose one of the greatest threats to bird and mammal skins. To deter would be pests, many older specimens are laced with arsenic. Arsenic does a great job but the practice has stopped for obvious reasons. Much like in agriculture, as we strip back the use of chemicals, insect infestations become more common. If caught early, insect pests can be dealt with by heat treating or freezing specimens. Fumigation is still employed in extreme cases. As is often the case however, prevention is the best approach; cabinets with tighter seals and more formalized pest management plans can be as effective as a cocktail of deadly reagents. It can be considerably more expensive (again like organic farming), but that is price we pay for health.

Moths and dermestid beetles are top of the museum’s most wanted list. Both can eat their way through an entire collection in a staggeringly short amount of time. Moths will destroy a wolf pelt quicker than your favorite sweater and the beetles will munch down a carcass to the bone like something out of a cartoon. Ironically in the case of the beetles, most dermestid outbreaks originate from the museums themselves; curators often maintain their own dermestid colonies precisely because of their voracious appetites. The beetles work wonders to clean skeletal material and prepare specimens before they are accessioned into the collection. From personal experience however, I can say with great confidence that dermestid colonies should be housed in a separate building to the main collection. In hindsight that seems rather obvious.

Every preservation technique or restoration procedure has the potential to destroy biological information, thereby reducing the utility of the object for future scientific enquiry. Every preservation technique also has the potential to jeopardize the health of collections managers and curators. The balance is still being sought to make institutions as safe as possible whilst also being effective in the preservation of housed materials. For the safety of staff and specimens alike, we must err on the side of caution with our preservation techniques. Natural history collections are young enough that such techniques are still improving and methods are constantly being developed. Without public support and constant funding sources however, many museums are falling behind, with staff and specimens suffering as a result.

At present, natural history collections are more hazardous working environments than they ought to be. Money is really the only thing that would improve the situation. Unfortunately, the public side of museums, the main revenue source, has been hit hard by COVID19; it seems likely that funds to manage and maintain these invaluable collections must be sought from somewhere else. Even before the pandemic money was tight; many small collections have no full time staff and large collections are often afforded only one or two curators to oversee millions of fragile specimens. If we do not address our financial problems, the situation will only get worse – existing perils will be exacerbated and new perils will emerge.

Formaldehyde spill response kit
Formaldehyde spill response kit
Or a bag of sawdust and an oven mitt,
Don’t budge on the budget, the budget’s plenty,
We’ve only got so much for 2020,
Ask for more and they throw a fit,
If not now, then maybe in a bit.
Formaldehyde spill response kit

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