Toxic Heritage and museum policies

In this paper, I discuss conservation practices in Scandinavian museums and their connections to toxic chemicals, museum politics, and sustainability.

During the late19th and most of the 20th century, chemical manufacturers introduced a wide range of new chemical products to keep nature at bay. Chemical museum aides like arsenic, methyl bromide, pentachlorophenol, mercury chloride, naphthalene, Lindane and DDT prevented biological deterioration and found their way into the museum collections and conservation practices (Tello 2022). These toxic chemicals also became a vital part of the museum politics in the sense that these products rendered fragile materials more stable and predictable at a time when collections were rapidly growing. The rate of decay often outpaced the curatorial capacity to care for objects in perpetuity. As such, the toxic chemicals played a pivotal role in the epistemological and political museum project, which was centred on long-life preservation.

In this paper, I will investigate and discuss the historical context of modern scientific museum conservation which enabled widespread use of toxic chemicals. How did toxic chemicals become domesticated and institutionalized in the Scandinavian museums and how did the techno-chemical innovation affect practices, objects, and museum politics? I will also make reflections about how museums may take the concept of sustainability into account.

My empirical point of departure is the Norwegian open-air museums and their built heritage collections that for a long period of time was conservated with coal tar derivates and later with DDT. As such these museums inhabit large amount of building collections which today makes disruptions within the heritage project as well as in the moral commitment these museums have to the concept of sustainability.

Discussing the relation between the industrial society and the heritage project in the museums, and the relations between these new chemical products and museum politics, I take a historical perspective. I will use both literature studies and archival work: including handbooks for museum work, political documents, letters, and maintenance protocols. With inspiration from Science and Technology studies (STS) these documents will be studied both as texts, material objects and technologies (Asdal and Reinertsen 2022). with an impact on museum practice and museum politics.

Connected to a larger project that aims to approach the toxic heritage in the Scandinavian museums from an ecological and “more than human-perspective”, this project takes a humanistic approach to the toxic disruptions. Within the natural sciences toxic heritage collections has been approach from the 1990s (Odegaard et al 2005). But from a humanistic point of view the role the industrial society and its new chemical products played in this history has rarely been discussed.



Anne-Sofie Hjemdahl