You are here

Why Many Artifacts Require a Warning Label

Story by
Nancy Joseph

With the passing of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), museums are required to return sacred objects to the tribes that once used them. But what if those objects are now dangerous to human health? 

The question is not hypothetical, says James Nason, Burke Museum curator and UW professor of anthropology. 

“Since before 1900, museums have experimented with scores of chemical compounds to try to prevent insect damage,” he explains. “Many are serious stuff—as lethal to humans as to bugs. People didn’t realize until the 1950s that these chemicals left residues. Arsenic, lead, and mercury pesticides, for example, never degrade but remain as residues.” 

These toxic residues are particularly worrisome in this situation, says Nason, because the sacred objects will not be gathering dust in display cases. They will be used in Native American ceremonies. 

Concerned about the potential health hazards of using such objects and the need to advise tribes receiving repatriated objects, Nason has pioneered research on this problem with Rolf Hahne, acting director of the UW’s Environmental Health Lab. “Testing sacred objects is tricky,” says Nason, “because you can’t use a test that might damage the object.” 

Nason and Hahne found one solution in a small—but costly—instrument called an x-ray florescence spectrometer, which can scan an object and identify exactly what elements are present, in what concentrations. With that information, they are experimenting on means to remove or mitigate pesticide residues. 

The Burke Museum is a national leader in the testing and removal of toxic residue, thanks to Nason and Hahne’s efforts. Their work, often with tribal staff, will be ongoing for years. The Smithsonian and other major museums, aware of Nason and Hahne’s work, have now begun similar endeavors.