Toxic agents and their agency -

an exploration of the open-air museums and their contaminated vernacular buildings.

Anne-Sofie Hjemdahl (Telemarksforsking, Norway) and Terje Planke (Norsk Folkemuseum, Norway)

This paper has its empirical starting point in the project X-GiB - Toxins in the built heritage. Here the chemical conservation practice that took place in Norwegian open-air museums between 1890s-1990s is explored and questioned. The archives tell us that Creosote, Carbolineum, Bernakre, DDT and hydrocyanic acid were used to care for the buildings and make them resistant to fungi, insects, and rot. The X-GiB-project unfolds how this toxic materiality disturbs and challenges the built vernacular heritage ontology of today. It also focuses on how the museums through their restoration work and with different methods, try to bring their contaminated buildings into the future.

Inspired by actor-network theory (ANT) we approach this built heritage as a network of relations between the open-air museum and its staff, the authorized heritage bureaucracy, the authorized heritage discourse and values, the materiality of the buildings, the craftsmen’s restoration practice with their skills and bodies, and the public. We ask: What type of agency do the toxins have in this network of relations of today? To what extent do we find that the toxins affect and move the discourses about heritage value, restoration principles, restoration solutions and heritage ontology?

Combining an ethnographic approach inspired by the STS tradition and the study of science's exploration of knowledge production (see Latour and Woolgar 1979, Latour 1983; 2005), with action research, we seek to understand how the toxins affect, challenge and maybe also change the said network.


Anne-Sofie Hjemdahl