Mitigating Unwelcome Bugs and Dust, but Preserving Petrified Puke

Author: Christina Hansen

When exploring the hallowed halls of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, guests might expect to find themselves enraptured by dinosaur skeletons, mesmerized by walls of butterfly and beetle displays, or have their breath taken away by award-winning nature photography. But, as a conservation intern, I focused my personal queries on the “yucky” stuff – unwelcome creepy crawlies, dust bunnies, and the powdery remains of historical vomit!

During the Spring 2020 semester, I interned under the guidance of Gretchen Anderson, conservator and head of the Section of Conservation. Gretchen’s philosophy for collections care is preservation through preventative action and reducing the risk of damages before they occur. Therefore, most of my time was spent carrying out annual housekeeping tasks to remove dust, stray Cheerios and other surface contaminants that build up in public-facing displays over time. Not only do these measures keep displays looking beautiful for guests, but they also mitigate conditions favorable for insect habitation and feeding.

One Tuesday, with the museum closed, a crew of collections management specialists and a slew of giant suction cups removed the glass on the Alcoa Native American Basketry Cases. Gretchen and I were joined by Deborah Harding, collection manager of the Section of Anthropology, to assess the condition of the encased objects for the first time since the exhibit’s installation. Over those past twenty-odd years, the collection had accumulated a light layer of dust and developed areas of salt crystals, but overall maintained its previous condition.

We worked under the illumination of spotlights, gently removing surface contaminants, while Deborah pointed out design motifs and shared stories associated with the museum’s vast basketry collection. There are some objects that contain “ethnographic materials” ranging from cornmeal and pollen residue, to traces of human vomit once deposited during ceremonial emetic purification practices. These types of samples pose additional conservation concerns for mold growth and require specific storage solutions, but contribute to the object’s cultural context and should be preserved along with the object itself.

Due to the unique circumstances of COVID-19, my physical experience in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History has been digitally supplemented with online Integrated Pest Management training. Armed with the spring’s cumulative knowledge, I move forward better prepared to protect collections of baskets, furs, feathers, or even preserved puke from unwelcome critters and the ravages of time.

Christina Hansen, Spring 2020


Constellations Group