Costume in museum collections can be dangerous because of what it is, how it was made, where it has been, or how it has been treated.
- contamination: dust, mercury, DDT, heavy metals
- dangerous or poisoned costume
- contagious residue
- heavy and awkward handling
Contamination: examples of dangerous contaminants that can be found in museum costume collections, and which care should be taken.
- dust, fiber dust
- mercury, for example on small mirrors or top hats
- DDT or other chemicals used as pesticides
- arsenic, lead and other heavy metals in paints, dyes, finishing treatments
Protection from dust: dust masks
- Keep work areas and storage areas as clean as possible. When examining dusty and/or deteriorated textiles (before they are received into storage), consider wearing protective clothing and a mask, as dust and small fiber particles can be breathed into the lungs.
- Dust masks are worn to protect against inhaling dust and fiber particles while examining, mounting or cleaning museum objects. The mask must fit well in order to protect you, but remember that dust masks only protect against dust, not against chemicals in vapors and mists, which require the use of respirators. Approved dust masks may have the NIOSH N95 rating, indicated by ‘N95’ printed on the mask itself.
Mercury was traditionally used to make mirrors in the 16th-19th centuries, as well as being used to impart a sheen to top hats in the 19th and 20th centuries.
- touching mercury or breathing mercury fumes is dangerous to your health. Always do a risk assessment with items that are thought to be dangerous, isolate them and mark them with danger symbols.
- alchemists, embalmers, gilders and mirror makers traditionally used mercury, leading to illness and deaths.
- treating rabbit and beaver fur with mercury nitrate before it was made into felt for hats was common from the 18th century, being first banned in the United States in 1943 but still in use today in Europe. The fumes caused tremors and psychic disturbances, being the origin of the descriptive term “mad as a hatter”.
- Hats in museum collections can still give off mercury vapors, when touched, manipulated and in particular if steam is used to reshape them. See Graham Martin and Marion Kite: Conservator Safety: Mercury in felt hats (2003), in Changing Views of Textile Conservation, ed. Mary M. Brooks and Dinah D. Eastop, Getty Conservation Institute, California 2011.
DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and other chemicals have been used as pesticides in museums in the 20th century to combat moths and carpet beetles in costume collections. This practice has later required massive clean-ups. DDT is toxic and is linked to diabetes, cancer and neurological disorders, among others.
- Keep a record of any known use of pesticides in your museum collection and mark objects which have been treated. Physical evidence may be crystalline residues on objects, persistent odors such as from moth balls, fly strips, old stocks of chemicals in supply storage, etc. See Nancy Odegaard, Alyce Sadongei, Marilen Pool: Addressing the Problem: The Team Approach (2005) on compiling a history of museum pesticide use. In Changing Views of Textile Conservation, ed. Mary M. Brooks and Dinah D. Eastop, Getty Institute 2011.
- DDT is an organochlorine insecticide which is a colorless, crystalline solid, tasteless and almost odorless chemical compound.
Arsenic , lead and other heavy metals have traditionally been used in gilding, paints, dyes and all manner of production and finishing of textiles. It is safest to assume that garments in museum collections can be dangerous until they are proven safe.
- Lead from coffins, and arsenic and mercury from embalming fluids may be present in textiles taken from graves.
- Learn to identify lead buttons, decorative lead hair combs, and lead weights in gowns and avoid handling them.
- Clean areas carefully where there is lead, as lead dust and lead fumes are highly irritable and poisonous.
An allergen is any substance, most often eaten or inhaled, that is recognized by one’s immune system and causes an allergic reaction. Dust, pollen and pet dander are all common allergens (below), but it is possible to be allergic to anything. These materials in museums objects may be considered historical evidence, and it is important to consider their importance before removing them.
- residue of perfume from personal garments
- residue of dyes and industrial or hand finishing treatments
- individual allergies to metals, soaps, synthetic materials
- mold, fungus
- dust mites
- dog/cat hair
Protecting oneself against allergens
- Learn if you yourself have any specific allergies you need to protect yourself against
- Assume that historic objects may contain or be contaminated with allergens - which may have historical significance - and use appropriate safety procedures
- Document any concerns and have analyses made of suspected objects
- Isolate suspected problem objects so they don’t contaminate other museum objects, and label accordingly
Residues of poisonous compounds may be found in any kind of garment in a museum collection, and care should be taken in exposing oneself, one’s colleagues or the public to them.
- Poisonous chemicals have been used in both traditional and industrial textile production and finishing
- Poisonous chemicals have been used in bleaching and cleaning textiles
- Heavy metals such as arsenic and lead were used as face powder or in textile dyeing or finishing, as well as in paints
- Poisonous gases and chemicals have been used for disinfection and pest control
- Costume examples: poisoned gloves, fatal garters
Protection against poisons
- Don’t ever taste anything in the museum collection, and don’t lick your fingers
- Wash hands before and after contact with all museum objects and wear gloves when handling questionable objects
- Wear protective clothing if it is necessary to work with objects that may contain poisons
- Follow standard health and safety rules
- When in doubt, get information from the health and safety authorities
- Document what you find or suspect so others are warned and the information is saved
Examples of deadly or poisoned costume and accessories
- A gift of poisoned gloves was thought to have been used by Catherine of Medici (1519-1589) to murder her daughter’s future mother-in-law, Jeanne de Navarre. Her death in 1572 set off the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Huguenots. Further information on the web, for example: (Russian article) http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/32318719
- There are many legends of poisoned khila’t (honorary robes) from India, dating from the 1600’s to the early 1900’s.
- Poison rings or lockets were popular in Europe in the sixteenth century. Poisons could be discreetly dropped into the food or drink of one’s enemy, or could be used for suicide if the wearer needed to escape capture or torture.
- Dangerous accessories caused a man to be condemned death
Dangerous costume accessories caused the death of the Danish King’s physician in 1772. A pair of garters was found in the possession of Johan Struensee, the physician of King Christian 7th of Denmark, when he was arrested in 1772.
The garters were presented as incriminating evidence when he was accused of intimacy with Queen Caroline Mathilde and misuse of power. He admitted to having bought the pink pair of silk garters for the Queen, at her request, but explained that she had paid for them herself. The Queen’s chambermaid gave testimony that she had been ordered by her mistress to help her tie them every day, as they were especially dear to her. She had no knowledge of the second pair.
After the notorious trial, the garters were kept in the files of the Royal Archives as evidence and are today deposited in the Royal Danish Collections.
The affair between Queen Caroline Mathilde and the King’s physician resulted in his being arrested, imprisoned, convicted of misuse of power, subsequently executed, drawn and quartered. Their tragic story has since been the subject of numerous books and a popular film.
Caroline Mathilde, sister of King George of England, was sent in exile and died just a few years later of a fever. Her son, Prince Frederik, later became king of Denmark, while her daughter with Struensee, Louise Augusta, was given status of princess and raised at the Danish court. Louise Augusta was always close to her brother, was well-educated and active in court politics. She married a count - and her daughter Caroline Amalie married the future king of Denmark, Prince Christian (8th) Frederik and became Queen of Denmark in 1840.
The garters are made of a brightly colored silk and silver ribbon, now quite degraded, with white ribbon ties. The central area is edged with a narrow ruche of pink silk ribbon. They are lined with white silk and lightly padded with cotton wool. There are stains on the reverse, perhaps from perfume. Royal Danish Archives and Royal Danish Collections, Denmark.
- Archaeological finds from graves can contain bacteria and virus in addition to traces of embalming chemicals, heavy metals used in coffins and caskets, and preserved or deteriorating human flesh that can contain disease-causing organisms. Anthrax, tetanus, cholera, smallpox and tuberculosis are resilient diseases and can survive in soft tissue in drying or frozen remains. Special care should be taken in working with archeological textiles, not only to protect them from contamination from modern DNA, but also to protect the scientist from the risk of disease.
- Improperly or incompletely sanitized garments from hospitals, sickrooms and unclean areas can be contaminated and should be isolated in museum storage or cleaned.
- Fabrics dyed in the past - or industrially, now - may contain residue which is allergenic or poisonous. New fabrics used in exhibitions or reconstructions should be accompanied by reliable information about how they were dyed, particularly if they come from a country with different industrial safety standards from your own.
Heavy and awkward handling
- Costume, either in storage boxes or on dressed mannequins, can be heavy and awkward for museum staff to handle or move. Working positions are often determined by the object or the space rather than by us.
- Responsible museum professionals should generally focus first on the safety of the museum object, so we often lift and move pieces without considering the risks to our own health and safety.
- Make sure to discuss with your employer, your colleagues and professional organisations how to minimize risks to health and safety.
- Learn proper lifting techniques, use approved safety gear such as safety shoes, and invest in trays, tables on wheels and other mechanical aids for lifting and carrying.