Dangerous objects in our collections

Some of the items in our collections are more dangerous than they appear!
Published on 28 May 2021


Miranda Garrett, Collections and Exhibitions Manager

When you think of someone working in a museum, what do you imagine? I'm guessing it's something along the lines of a tweed-clad curator researching objects in dusty books, or a nerdy conservator in a fluffy cardigan gently dusting a piece of porcelain. A nice, safe, cosy line of work.

Far from it! It's a surprisingly dangerous job, and we're constantly fighting a variety of terrifying hazards. I want to take you through some of the more sinister things lurking in our collection store, and some of the measures we take to keep ourselves safe.

Firstly, what is a hazard? In context of the objects in our collection, it's anything that could pose a risk to the health of people working in our museum, our visitors, or objects in the collections themselves.

Objects can be hazardous for a lot of different reasons. It can be due to their size or shape, what they are made of, something they have been treated with, or because they degrade in a way that produces hazardous materials.

Let's go through and look at each of these four categories in turn:

Physically hazardous objects

This one is quite obvious, but it's important not to underestimate the risks. Maybe the object is heavy and potentially dangerous to lift. Maybe it has sharp edges or a pointy end and could cause an injury. Or maybe it's designed to do some damage! Here are a couple of examples we have:

This rusty Roman knife is part of our archaeology collection. It was found when Bank of England was being rebuilt in the 1930s. Anyone handling this would definitely need to have an up-to-date tetanus shot!

Roman knife from our archaeology collection

Museum reference number: 181

We have quite a few firearms in the collection, too. Most of these were used to defend the Bank of England at some point in  our history. We do not have a firearms license (because of their age and historic importance), but we regularly check in with the City of London police to make sure we're following guidelines properly.
Firearms from the Bank of England museum collection

Museum reference number: A177

Objects made from hazardous materials

These hazards are often tricky to spot unless you have a lot of experience and know what to look for. Lead is a fairly common one. It’s often found in things like sculptures, stained glass, old food cans, and types of paint and ceramic glaze.

Mercury also crops up more than you might think – it was used in old mirrors, and in objects like barometers and thermometers.

There is mercury in this barometer. It is used to measure atmospheric pressure. If properly contained, mercury is fine. But if there's a spill, it releases a toxic vapour that you definitely don't want to breathe in.

Barometer containing mercury

Museum reference number: A01846

Asbestos is another nasty material which is surprisingly common. It is sometimes found in things like gas masks, and in early types of moulded plastic.

This telephone is made of bakelite (an early form of plastic). If it is badly damaged, it can release a dust full of all kinds of horrifying materials, including asbestos and formaldehyde – yikes!

Old telephone made of bakelite

Museum reference number: 1999/012

Objects treated with hazardous materials

If you're working with things made of furs, feathers and cloth, this is a big one to be wary of. In the past, some items were treated with nasty pesticides (containing scary ingredients like DDT, arsenic and mercury) to prevent insect damage. Fortunately, we don't have many of these kinds of objects.

But some of our historic clothing and uniforms, like this Edwardian top hat, could have been doused in chemicals to keep the bugs at bay. So we still need to be careful when we're handling them.

Edwardian top hat with potential chemicals

Museum reference number: 2002/059

Objects that produce hazardous material when they degrade

Again, to the untrained eye these hazards aren't always very obvious. 

Nitrate film made in the 1950s is extremely flammable. When the film is stored inside metal reel cans, it risks building up dangerous levels explosive gases as it degrades.

As some types of plastics age, they release chemicals called plasticisers in the form of a sticky film on the surface of the object. Some are toxic, and others give off acidic gases which can build up in closed boxes.

One that's particularly relevant to us is cellulose acetate - a thin, transparent plastic. Some of our banknote design work from the early 1900s contains this unfortunately. When it breaks down, it releases acetic acid (which is super stinky - it reeks of vinegar). This can cause a nasty irritation if you breathe it in or touch it.

Old banknote containing cellulose acetate

So that's some of the ways our collections team risk their lives to keep the Bank of England’s collection safe on a daily basis! You might be wondering how on earth we manage to keep ourselves alive considering the museum collection is constantly trying to kill us.

Well, of course we're very careful. We also follow the two golden rules of museum hazards:

  1. Anything collected before 1900 should be considered contaminated
  2. Anything collected before the 1960s should be handled with caution

If we need to handle anything risky we carry out some checks. We can also get the object tested or make sure we've had appropriate training before we go anywhere near it.

We'll only handle a hazardous object if it's safe, and after we've put in place a range of protective measures (e.g. wearing PPE or making sure we’re in a well-ventilated area).

Documentation is also really important here, so we make sure we record which objects are dangerous and clearly label them. We also do regular training to make sure we are aware of the latest guidelines.

So there we have it – working with objects can be fascinating and dangerous in equal measure!