Friday, September 27, 2013

Collections & Original Contents

When I was studying at Fleming College, our amazing program coordinator Gayle would often remind us that people are far more important than artifacts or the museum. Health and safety always comes first. So with that in mind, I think it's time we had a little chat about all those old medicine bottles, apothecary kits, cleaning supplies etc etc.

These days, when an object is offered to the museum, staff & volunteers sit down and carefully discuss the item using a pre-acquisition review form, addressing any issues or concerns from the get go. But that doesn't exactly help with those age-old acquisitions that were collected long before anyone worried about the adverse health effects of museum collections. And since most of our institutions don't come with staff scientists, state of the art labs and serious dollars backing them, we need to come up with a manageable solution to the issue. Community museums exist to serve their communities, and if you have a bunch of old bottles full of their original contents that no one can go near, that's not really serving anyone.

I love authenticity as much as the next person, but we have to make sure that the museum is safe for our visitors, volunteers, and staff members. So let's start by talking about all those funny medicine bottles that are still partially filled with pills, liquids, powders, and goopy substances that probably weren't so goopy in their earlier days. I know I know, a lot of that stuff is so harmless that the odds of someone getting sick or hurt are very slim. But there's still a chance that someone could be allergic to the unlisted ingredients in the breast tea. There's a chance that pests will be attracted by the alluring smell and wreak havoc on the collection. And there's always that one kid who thinks it would be funny to eat or lick the grossest thing possible, and ends up getting sick as a result. Yay liability issues!

There's something really pretty about billowing clouds, except when they are clouds of lye billowing from a broken bottle. By keeping the original contents in the bottle, changing environmental conditions and chemical changes built up until they quite literally burst. The lye wanted its freedom and wasn't going to take no for an answer. And now we're left with a ruined bottle that can't be put out on display. If the museum had properly disposed of the contents during the accession process, or had a rule that they wouldn't accept anything with dangerous original contents, they'd have a lovely empty bottle to include in their exhibits and programming.

I can think of a number of museums that have such objects in their collection, and I know that sometimes they adopt an "out of sight out of mind" attitude. For items in storage, they've been in storage for years. No one intends to put the apothecary bag on display, so why mess with it? Or the objects have been in a locked display cabinet for ages and it's seen as a hassle to open and check on things. In a way, we seem to have aligned with the mindset of the general public in that museum collections are perpetual. Sure new items come in, but old items never leave; the collection is never reassessed. The only problem with this mindset is that it's wrong. Very wrong. If museums are vibrant and active organizations, that means the collection is constantly being reassessed, just like we are always mindful of our mission and mandate and everything else related to its operation. Relevance is key.

So the next time you come across a medical container with original contents, check out the label, and get on the phone wtth your local pharmacy. Tell them what you have and that you'd like to dispose of the contents but keep the container (assuming it's in decent shape and you'd like to keep it in the collection). If it's just a matter of dumping out some old pills or powders, the process will be very easy. Pharmacists are used to dealing with that stuff and will be happy to help. Make sure you take some pictures of the object for your records, documenting what was in the container before disposal. Add the pictures to your database (don't make them accessible to the public), add some descriptive info in your cataloguer remarks field, and you're off to the races. For any non-medicinal contents, call your municipal office and talk to the waste disposal people. It's the same process here - this is what we've got, we'd like to keep the container, and can you help us dispose of the contents in a safe manner.

So now it's time for your test. If you look at this image and think to yourself, "COOL!" rather than "YIKES!", it might be time to rethink your mindset. This room of apothecary bottles is totally accessible to the public. Yes there's a low wooden barrier, but that can be easily hopped over and then it's just a matter of picking out which bottle you want to play with first. Not good. So let's make a pact. People's safety comes first.

For the record, none of the images used in this post were taken in Nova Scotian museums. And no, I will not tell you in which museum they were taken.

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