A Hidden Legacy: The Importance of Asbestos Management in Museums, Ancient Collections and Historic Objects

Thu 14/02/2019 - 12:05

The risk of asbestos goes beyond the presence of Asbestos Containing Materials (ACMs) in buildings. Due to its strength and heat resistant properties, asbestos has been widely used in many products and objectives for hundreds of years.

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The risk of asbestos goes beyond the presence of Asbestos Containing Materials (ACMs) in buildings. Due to its strength and heat resistant properties, asbestos has been widely used in many products and objectives for hundreds of years. 

In fact, asbestos items can be traced back to 3000BC, when asbestos cloth was used in Ancient Egypt to embalm Egyptian Pharaohs. Even back then, it seems the valuable properties of asbestos were acknowledged; woven or spun into other materials, or mixed into cement, resins and rubbers, without realising the dangers and significant health hazards as a result of asbestos exposure.

Because of its extensive history asbestos is commonly present among many geological and social history museum collections - which, without the appropriate awareness, can pose a risk to museum staff, visitors and those transporting the goods.

Asbestos management for museums and their collections is important – as are the historic objects that help to document our history. Whereas asbestos in building materials can be removed and replaced, asbestos in objects and artefacts are an essential part of a nation’s heritage and must be cared for.

Collection managers who are responsible for the care and preservation of the objects also have a responsibility to risk assess and manage the presence of any hazardous materials in museum collections – including the presence of asbestos in objects.

Approaching asbestos

Just because an object contains asbestos, it does not necessarily conclude that the object must be removed from the collection and disposed of.  For collection managers, understanding how to encapsulate, manage, store, label and protect the Asbestos Containing Objects (ACOs) is the key for ensuring those items remain in the collection, without impacting on the safety of those viewing.

Without appropriate knowledge of asbestos, many ACOs can present a significant risk to collections care staff and, in some cases, the general public as a result. So how can the sector move towards a greater awareness and understanding?

Legislation: behind the glass

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 determines that all risks at work must be assessed and any significant findings must be recorded. Although the regulations do not specifically mention asbestos, asbestos is considered to be a significant hazard and needs to be assessed. Additionally, the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 requires suitable assessment to determine if asbestos has the potential to be present.

It is prohibited within the UK for articles containing asbestos fibres to be placed on the market. The REACH Exemption Certificate No.1, however, allows for asbestos-containing artefacts dating before 2005 to be sold or used for the purposes of museum exhibitions - assuming that there is a high level of protection to human health.

Where an object contains asbestos, there are restrictions in place as to how that object can be transported, cleaned, handled, displayed and maintained. Ironically, high value items were often transported in asbestos-lined boxes to mitigate any potential fire damage that may occur before the 1999 ban of asbestos in the UK ceased the use of these.

For any likely event that may disturb the integrity of the object, and therefore the asbestos fibres contained within it, a risk assessment is required. Even simply moving the object requires risk assessing, to consider appropriate controls on how to reduce the risk of damage and, ultimately, exposure to asbestos fibres. For example, an item that is particularly heavy may be more prone to accidental damage through dropping which would result in the asbestos fibres becoming airborne and being inhaled.

Other documents and guidance can support a collections manager in understanding their role and responsibility, including the

Taking control

Properly caring for and managing the storage, conservation and record-keeping of the objects is the responsibility of the Collections Manager. Key steps to take in ensuring the safety of human health – and compliance with guidelines – include:

  1. For all potential acquisitions or donations, complete a Preliminary Asbestos Risk Assessment Checklist (PARAC) prior to items coming into the collection. This assesses if the item is likely to contain asbestos, by considering if the object has any parts or components that requires thermal protection, sound/electrical insulation and reinforcement, or protection against corrosion or moisture.
  2. Clearly labelling any ACO with appropriate warning label when the object is to be transported or changing hands through purchase, supply or loan. Labels are not required for displaying purposes
  3. Having a clear and documented understanding of objects that contain asbestos, and maintaining information on the Collection Management System (CMS)
  4. Checking the printed asbestos register and database for information
  5. Have a plan for dealing with emergencies; for if there is an uncontrolled release of asbestos fibres due to accidental damage, vandalism etc

If the asbestos within an item can be easily removed, it may be worthwhile. However, if the removal of the asbestos will damage the object or detract from its appearance or function, the ACO can be treated to prevent the release of the fibres such as sealing the fibres in.

Examples of asbestos in objects

Depending on the museum, the type of collections can be incredibly different. Quite famously, Benjamin Franklin had a purse made from asbestos to prevent money burning a hole in his pocket.  This purse is in the possession of London’s Natural History Museum.

Gas masks and World War II helmets are other examples of ACOs. Used in modern history, they are now commonly displayed in museums – or used for educational purposes. In some museums, these artefacts are protected by sealing the filters of the gas masks suspected of containing asbestos, stopping them from functioning without altering their appearance.

Asbestos gas mask

Other items in museum collections known to have contained asbestos fibres includes miner safety lamps, asbestos tongs, hydroceels in pianos, historic cremation urns, pottery collections, gauzes, heat mats, items made from phenolic resin.

Asbestos safety lamp


Sampling and inspection

To better understand the presence of asbestos in items, sampling of ACOs could be undertaken as long as any small damage to the item is permitted – such sampling must only be carried out by personnel with the appropriate training, risk assessment, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). It may be necessary that they work under supervision of a conservator. The protocol in place for sampling ACOs is fully intended to protect the health and safety of everyone who may be at risk, with varying procedures outlined to control. Preventative exposure methods will be in line with the risk assessment and, in addition to PPE and RPE, sampling can include using a wetting agent to minimise airborne fibres, shadow vacuuming to absorb any potential dust produced, and be undertaken in an area that is unoccupied.

Asbestos within museum buildings

It’s not just the artefacts themselves, museum buildings are highly likely to contain asbestos due to the fact most were constructed prior to the asbestos ban in 1999. As a non-domestic property, the building falls under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 with the ‘duty to manage’ being required. To find out more about the duties to manage a non-domestic property, click here.

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