A HISTORY OF PEST CONTROL MEASURES IN THE ANTHROPOLOGY COLLECTIONS, NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION
Historical information concerning the use of pesticides and fumigants is important to understanding and evaluating the care and treatment museum collections have received in the past. An account of pest control measures for anthropology collections at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), Smithsonian Institution, illustrates many trends in collections management during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Pesticides and fumigants have long been used in various departments at the National Museum of Natural History to control and prevent damage from insects and rodents. At different times, departments preferred the use of specific chemicals. Poisons and pest control choices were dictated by the type of collection (botany specimens, for example, were treated differently from vertebrate zoology collections) and by concern for efficacy and human health and safety.
Interest in human safety and health hazards associated with pesticide use has long been of concern to natural scientists and museum professionals. In the 18th century the hazards of mercury compounds were recognized by Pierre-Jean-Claude Mauduyt: “Corrosive sublimate [mercuric chloride] is a dreadful poison, which should be entrusted only to an artist…. To place it into ignorant or reckless hands is to entrust them with a weapon with which by nearly touching it they can injure themselves” (quoted in Farber 1977, 556).
Pesticide use in museum collections has evolved from the application of a wide array of chemical compounds to the development of specific pest management procedures that recognize the effects of pesticide use on personnel and collections. Currently, the use of many fumigants and pesticides requires specific licensing and, in the United States, registration with the Environmental Protection Agency. For details regarding the properties and status of chemicals discussed in this article, see table 1.
TABLE 1 SUMMARY OF PESTICIDE AND FUMIGANT PROPERTIES
Pest control measures for anthropology collections have included an assortment of choices over the years as perceptions about the need for gross collections maintenance and individual object treatment changed. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, collections management staff at NMNH were referred to as “museum aides” or “museum preparators.” By the 1940s individuals caring for collections worked in the anthropology laboratory. In the 1960s, a separate Anthropology Conservation Laboratory (ACL) was created for restoration and preservation, and the Processing Laboratory was created for collections maintenance, including pest control, as well as loans and accessions.
Documentation of chemical use for anthropology collections has not been chronicled by specific object or collection group because such treatments were traditionally thought to be part of general collections maintenance. However, a survey of the use of individual pesticides over the years can indicate which collections were most likely treated with specific pesticides or fumigants. This information can then aid in evaluating past object treatments, determining the potential presence of residues, and evaluating the stability of various ethnographic materials.