Collections For All

Natural Science Collections

Knock ‘em dead?

Paolo Viscardi, the then Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens, and now the Curator at Grant Museum of Zoology, provides some practical pointers on health and safety relating to natural history specimens used in handling.

Collections are a fantastic resource for engaging the public, but it’s worth keeping in mind that they may have some health and safety issues that you should probably be aware of. Some of these will be fairly obvious, but others less so.

Hazards in collections

  • Handling
  • Toxic treatments
  • ‘Scary’ specimens


First and foremost we have the handling hazards. These relate to things like heavy objects that can crush little fingers (perhaps rock specimens or elephant teeth), or sharp objects that can cut them (such as shark jaws and hedgehog spines).
Usually these simply need to be flagged with users so that the risk is apparent and if young children are involved in an activity they should be supervised when handling these sorts of specimens.

Jaw of Silky Shark on a volunteer handling trolley at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. Image by Paolo Viscardi 2015

Less obvious are the hidden sharps and specimens with the potential to become sharp if handled roughly. These may include objects containing glass and bone, or even taxidermy specimens containing pins and wire armatures. For example see the image of X-rays of taxidermy showing hidden hazards and New Light On Old Bones blog for more details.

Toxic treatments

Of course, taxidermy is more renowned as a potential handling hazard due to the possible presence of arsenic from arsenical soaps or mercury from mercuric chloride that were once used by taxidermists to help pest-proof specimens.
The risk of arsenic poisoning from handling is low for members of the public, but for staff and volunteers who handle specimens repeatedly and for extended periods it can be more of a concern.

Historic taxidermy Dollarbird from the Horniman Museum & Gardens. Image by Paolo Viscardi 2015

To feel more confident about handling taxidermy:

  • Check the specimen history – if it was made after the 1960s it’s less likely to contain arsenic or mercury (although they was still used by some taxidermists into the 1980s). If there is a good record of specimen conservation there may be results from chemical testing and notes about any pesticide treatments.
  • Look out for white powder or crystals in crevices and at the base of feathers/fur. If these signs are present you should get the specimen tested before using it for public handling.
  • Test for arsenic using one of the available chemical tests (see Péquignot et al. 2004 pages 5-7  or use an appropriate spectroscopy or X-ray fluorescence technique.

Pesticides may also have been used on other natural history (and indeed non-natural history) specimens, so it’s worth cautiously checking for aromatic odours that may indicate residues of compounds such as naphthalene or dichlorvos.

For fluid preserved specimens you should also check to make sure that the container doesn’t leak – ideally it should remain fluid tight even if it gets knocked over, since accidents can and do happen. Formaldehyde poses a recognised health risk and ethanol can be an irritant and fire hazard, so it is important to have a safe clean-up plan
in case of breakages.

Fluid preserved Octopus specimen from Horniman Museum & Gardens. Image by Paolo Viscardi 2014

To help mitigate risks from pesticide contaminants or other chemical residues it is best to advise members of the public, volunteers and staff to wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water immediately after handling specimens (alcohol hand sanitizer alone will not do the job).

‘Scary’ specimens

Some natural history objects don’t need to be treated with chemicals to be dangerous. For example, Abrus seeds are commonly used as beads in making personal adornments in parts of the world, but unless they are appropriately treated with heat they are highly toxic and can lead to illness and death. The outer casing of Abrus seeds is hard and not toxic, so if left intact the seeds pose little risk, but drilled or chewed seeds can be fatal (Fernando 2008), so unless you can be sure that the seeds used in handling have been heat treated, it’s probably best to not use them.

Image: Arbus seeds

Minerals can also be of concern. Cinnabar may look attractive, but it can release elemental mercury which is toxic. Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral that is infamous for the damage it can cause to lungs if inhaled. Granites can release radon gas and a number of minerals can emit radioactive particles or shed radioactive dust that can be inhaled.

Even some fossils can be radioactive, particularly specimens from the Siwalik Hills of India. Less significant, but still worthy of note are some of the fossil fish from Caithness and megalodon shark teeth from South Carolina. It is good practice to have specimens radiation tested, to understand the specific risks they may pose.

Radioactive Carcharodon megalodon shark tooth from South Carolina in the collections of the Horniman Museum & Gardens. Image by Paolo Viscardi 2015

While hot rocks, such as pitchblende and torbernite that are uranium ores, should definitely be off the handling table, mildly radioactive specimens that fall within safety guidelines could still be included.

Exposure is key when dealing with radioactivity, so once again it is staff and volunteers rather than the public who at increased risk. Keeping mildly radioactive specimens in boxes or behind glass will provide some shielding from radioactive particles and keeping a little distance from the specimen (leaving it on a table rather than holding it for example) will also reduce exposure.

Image: Radioactive minerals in box

If boxes containing mildly radioactive objects are opened it should be in a well ventilated space, to minimise risk of inhalation of radon gas or dust particles shed by the object. The last thing anyone wants is to be exposed to unnecessary carcinogens.

Final words, so stay safe and sound

There are risks associated with using handling collections, but with a good knowledge of what you have, and a common-sense approach to how it’s used, will ensure that the public, volunteers, staff and objects should remain safe and sound.

Help and support

If you have any questions, or need help you can join the jisc mailing list of the Natural Science Collections Association and ask advice from natural science curators throughout the UK or tweet me @PaoloViscardi

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Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith