Dangerous Donations

One of my more favourite things we bring into the collection are chemical sets. We’ve had chemist’s laboratory containers, microscope slide preparation kits with dozens of vials and most recently, an 1890’s Robert Best Ede home chemistry set.

RB Ede’s Portable Laboratory before processing (2014.0029)

Robert Best Ede’s Portable Laboratory before processing (2014.0029)


It is remarkable to me that the materials and products in this kit were available to the average enthusiast, with no apparent warning as to their dangers and toxicity. Our kit includes samples of copper nitrates, potassium dichromate, calcium hypochlorite and of course, our frequent friend, mercury. As you can see, these chemicals are in their original round cardstock boxes, some of which are damaged or completely broken open. It is more worrying to me to see an empty box of barium nitrate and a nearby pile of powder, than it is for me to come across a beautifully intact box of arsenic. Without chemical analysis, I can only hypothesize that my pile of powder is the missing barium nitrate.


As the above photo of the kit shows, this kit was packed up by a generous donor. There are bits of Kleenex and other papers wrapped around some of the glassware. The donor did a good job and it appears that no new damage occurred during delivery. Other donors of chemical sets take great pride in donating their items to the museum and we are grateful. However, considering what we know about current Health & Safety practices, I sometimes worry whether the owners of sets like this understand precisely what they have in their possession. Do they know that labels cannot be trusted? The box labelled Cinnabar might give an impression of aromatic deliciousness, but in fact is toxic mercury sulphide. Do they know what to do if they spill their cobalt chloride on their hand, or inhale borax particles? My guess is that owners and collectors might not consult Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), nor re-package every bottle and box in a leak-proof, chemically resistant container, with appropriate WHMIS pictograms and labels. Fortunately for me, studying and making these chemical artifacts as safe as possible is one of my favourite conservation tasks.


Some RB Ede’s chemicals after packaging and labelling.

Some RB Ede’s chemicals after packaging and labeling.


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