A Day in the Museum with Frogs, Firearms and Flames

Heather Davis with Gill Radford, Chair of U3A Todmorden. Photo by Gail Allaby.

Heather Davis is the Conservation and Collections Manager for Lancashire County Museums and, as U3A Todmorden discovered on Thursday 21st November, an expert on dangers that lurk in every object for the uninitiated, would-be museum curator.

Not for nothing is it that museum visitors are instructed not to touch exhibits, for besides possible damage from slippery hands or the natural greases on human skin, we may imperil ourselves from a wide-ranging variety of dangers.

Asbestos, for example. Who’d have thought that curators and the public must protect themselves from some cookers, boilers, bike lamps, gas masks and ironing boards – not to mention bakelite toilet cisterns and radios, magic lanterns, and cupboard units designed for post-war pre-fabs?

Or radiation! When dealing with items from mining industries and geological specimens (including torbenite, uranium and autunite), you have to beware of radioactive contamination.

Believe it or not, there was a time when radiation was considered friendly to

human beings. Tho-Radia produced a face powder containing thorium, and the ‘Radium Girls’ who painted luminous watch hands and numbers suffered from radiation poisoning.

And as for Laine Médicale of Paris, who promoted ‘Laine Oradium’ as a ‘Source précieuse de chaleur et énergie vitale’, as a woollen fabric suitable to clothe your grandchild in – Well, I ask you!

And no children’s toy such as ‘Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory’ containing four radioactive ores from Colorado would ever reach the shelves today.

So, Heather went on, if you’ve survived the museum so far, you need next to watch out for tetanus from rusty agricultural items, being cut by razors, glass, or knives, and encounters with explosives in powder horns, unfired rifle cartridges, unstable fireworks, or residual powders on miners’ tampers.

And a major double whammy! – a bag made of asbestos for holding (possibly live) dynamite.

Finally, if you’ve escaped so far, maybe poisons will get you. Simple poisons came in green bottles with ribbed sides: in the light, they could be easily identified, but in the dark the ribbing would have distinguished them from milk, or gin (for the midnight tippler).

More unexpected danger zones include fur and felt hats (smoothed to a sheen – by hand! – with a solution of mercuric nitrate), taxidermy exhibits (preserved with insect-proofing arsenic), and WW2 military uniforms (possibly still permeated with the delousing agent DDT).

Finally, let us consider the ordinary arrow. If it is South American, it may be lethally poisoned with strychnine derived from Phyllobates bicolour (the black-legged poison frog). And it may be accompanied by an innocuous-looking wooden box. Red alert! The box would have contained the poison.

This was an exciting Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not lecture from a careful and very well-informed museum curator. Heather’s students and assistants should feel very well looked after, and U3A Todmorden had a cracker of an afternoon.

Our next meeting:   U3A Todmorden’s next members’ meeting will be on Thursday, December 19th, 2019 in the Central Methodist Church Hall in Todmorden at 1.45. The meeting will feature our traditional quiz and our unique Radio Pantomime, written by the Creative Writing Group and performed by the Concert Party and Friends.

Our contact details are www.u3atod.org.uk (website), info@u3atod.org.uk (email), or 01422 886021 (phone).