Toxic housekeeping, coal tar, chemical conservation and elemental exposures in Norwegian open-air museums

Exposure to the elements has characterized buildings in Scandinavian open-air museums since their emergence in the late 19th century. Relocations always involve an environmental transition which affects buildings. Open air exhibitions are conditioned by the change of seasons, the vagaries of climate, airborne pollution, the surrounding flora and insect populations of a given milieu. In the course of history, vernacular wooden buildings were also exposed to preservative chemicals in an attempt to extend their life in the museum. In this paper, we will explore practices of care which introduced preservatives manufactured from coal tar on the wooden surface of historic buildings in Norwegian open-air museums. Measures which may strike present-day conservators as drastic, reckless or even “care-less”. We employ a “double vision of care” to interrogate past practices critically while also trying to understand the range of possibilities that coal tar wood preservatives constituted at a time when their precise properties were uncharted. Chemical conservation rendered fragile materials stable and predictable at a time when collections were growing and the rate of decay outpaced the curatorial capacity to care for buildings in perpetuity. The relation between care and chemicals is complexly entangled in the history of modern conservation. We ask how and to what effects these relations played out on building surfaces? What kind of new temporalities and epistemologies were engendered through this material alliance forged in the name of perpetual care and how do we deal with the legacy of toxic housekeeping in the museum today?


Anne-Sofie Hjemdahl, Torgeir Rinke Bangstad