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Detail of Gros Ventre Moccasins (NMNH catalog no. E391185)
Pesticide Contamination

Issues of Concern: Pesticide Contamination of Collections
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was common practice in museums to treat objects with pesticides in an effort to protect them from damage by rodents, insects, and other organisms. This was especially true for ethnological items made of wood, feathers, hair and hide. This poses a special problem for Native communities interested in repatriating objects that they intend to enter back into ceremonial use. While it is known that a wide range of poisons were used to try to preserve museum collections, museums usually lack records of what specific items were treated with which poisons or the quantities that were applied. When a specific object documented in museum records as having been treated with a pesticide is offered for repatriation, the museum informs the affiliated group of the contamination. The Native community can then work with the museum to explore ways to minimize any potential hazards to people handling the items in the future. The Repatriation Office of the National Museum of Natural History is actively exploring ways to improve detection of pesticides and other potentially hazardous substances in an attempt to improve safe handling of its collections.

Poisoned tag on item in collection

Poison tag showing the cultural object was treated with pesticides in 1884. Photo by Betsy Bruemmer, Smithsonian Institution
Please see our Pesticide Detection Initiative project page to learn about our Pesticide Detection Initiative, and read the NMNH Statement on Potential Hazards (Inherent and Acquired) Associated with Collection Objects (pdf file).

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Smithsonian Institute - National Mueseum of Natural History