Arsenic Preserved the Animals, But Killed the Museum

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Arsenic Preserved the Animals, But Killed the Museum


In the early days of natural history museums, preserving animal specimens was a challenging task. However, the discovery of arsenic as a preservation method revolutionized the field. Arsenic, a highly toxic element, was extensively used to halt the decomposition of animal specimens, allowing scientists to study them in great detail. This groundbreaking technique helped create impressive collections in museums worldwide. Nonetheless, as time went on, the dangers of arsenic became apparent, leading to a decline in its use and a significant challenge for museums in managing the preservation of their valuable specimens.

1. The Discovery of Arsenic as a Preservative:

The use of arsenic as a preservative can be traced back to the early 19th century when naturalists and taxidermists sought ways to prevent decay in animal specimens. Arsenic, with its remarkable ability to halt decomposition, quickly became the preservation method of choice. Its effectiveness was due to its toxic nature, which acted as a powerful deterrent against the activity of bacteria, fungi, and insects that cause decay.

2. Arsenic in Museum Collections:

The use of arsenic in museum collections became widespread during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Countless animal specimens, ranging from small birds to large mammals, were treated with arsenic to ensure their long-term preservation. This technique allowed museums to exhibit an astonishing variety of creatures, thereby expanding scientific knowledge and public fascination with the natural world.

3. The Dangers of Arsenic:

Although arsenic was an effective preservative, it posed significant health risks to those who handled the specimens. Arsenic, in its various forms, can be absorbed through the skin, inhaled, or ingested. Prolonged exposure to arsenic can lead to a range of health issues, including skin lesions, respiratory problems, and even cancer. Notably, taxidermists and museum staff who worked with arsenic-preserved specimens were at the highest risk.

4. The Decline of Arsenic Use in Museums:

As the dangers of arsenic became more apparent, the use of this toxic substance in museums gradually decreased. By the mid-20th century, alternative preservatives and methods, such as formaldehyde and freeze-drying, gained popularity, offering safer preservation techniques. The shift away from arsenic was driven not only by concerns for human health but also by the need to protect the museum environment from potential contamination.

5. Managing Arsenic-Preserved Specimens:

Today, museums face the challenge of managing their arsenic-preserved specimens safely. Proper storage conditions, including controlled temperature and humidity, are crucial to minimize the risk of arsenic release. Museum staff must be well-informed about handling and storage protocols to ensure their own safety and prevent the spread of arsenic contamination. Additionally, regular monitoring and maintenance are essential to identify any deterioration in specimens and take appropriate action.

Frequently Asked Questions:

1. Are arsenic-preserved specimens still exhibited in museums today?
While some museums still display arsenic-preserved specimens, they are often kept behind protective barriers to minimize exposure risks. Many museums have also replaced these specimens with safer alternatives or have undergone extensive conservation efforts to remove or stabilize the arsenic.

2. Can arsenic-preserved specimens be safely handled?
Due to the health risks associated with arsenic, it is strongly advised not to handle arsenic-preserved specimens without proper training and protective equipment. Museums have strict protocols in place to ensure the safety of staff and visitors.

3. How do museums dispose of arsenic-preserved specimens?
The disposal of arsenic-preserved specimens must be done following strict regulations and guidelines to prevent environmental contamination. Typically, specimens are either treated to neutralize the arsenic or are stored in specialized facilities designed for hazardous waste.

4. Can exposure to arsenic from museum collections still occur?
Exposure to arsenic from museum collections is highly unlikely for the general public. Museums take extensive precautions to prevent arsenic release, such as applying protective coatings on specimens and implementing rigorous maintenance and monitoring protocols.

5. What are the future preservation challenges for museums?
As museums continue to adapt and evolve, the preservation of delicate and historic arsenic-preserved specimens presents ongoing challenges. Developing new conservation techniques and ensuring the long-term stability of these specimens will be crucial to their preservation for future generations.


Arsenic played a significant role in the preservation of animal specimens, allowing museums to build impressive collections that expanded scientific knowledge and captivated the public. However, the dangers associated with arsenic ultimately led to its decline as a preservation method. Today, museums face the responsibility of managing and preserving these valuable specimens safely, while also ensuring the well-being of staff and visitors. The legacy of arsenic-preserved animals serves as a reminder of the pioneering techniques and risks undertaken by early naturalists and taxidermists.