By Preservation Technician Manda Kowalczyk
Owney was a stray mutt that rode the rails with Railway Post Office clerks, becoming not only their unofficial mascot but also their best friend. When Owney died, his human companions had him preserved to share his story with people for years to come. Today, the Postal Museum’s Preservation Department continues the important job of preserving and caring for Owney—but methods have changed.
In order to tan and preserve animal furs, skins and other textiles, it was common practice in the 1800’s to use soaps and compounds made of arsenic, mercury, lead and other heavy metals. Arsenic was considered a great insecticide and some say it even smelled pretty nice, too. Scientists saw the application of these metals as improvements to the short-lived results of such “preservatives” as herbs and spices. However, we all now know the health hazards associated with accumulative and direct contact to arsenic, lead and mercury (ever wonder how the Mad Hatter got his famous moniker?), so fast-forward 200 years. What does this mean for staff working with natural history specimens in museum collections and specifically for Owney the dog and his handlers?
Currently the National Postal Museum is preparing for an upcoming restoration of Owney and, like the scientists of the 19th century, the Preservation Department wants to improve on the methods of the past and use restoration techniques that will ensure Owney’s sustainability and safe handling for years to come. For his restoration, Owney will essentially be getting a shampoo bath to wash off the past 200 years of dust and dander. Instead of using arsenic, or insecticides to keep pests at bay, we will follow principles established in our Integrative Pest Management plan.
To ensure the safety of those that will be bathing and handling Owney, we turned to the Smithsonian’s Office of Safety, Health and Environmental Management (OSHEM) and the museum’s representative Industrial Hygienist (IH) , Steven Cohn, for guidance. Linda Edquist, head of the Preservation Department, set up an appointment for Steven to take samples off of Owney’s fur to test for arsenic, lead and mercury. While Owney is on display inside the exhibit case, he is safe for everyone to enjoy. However, when Steven worked directly with Owney in the Preservation Lab, he donned latex gloves and a half-mask respirator. He used a high volume air pump to get samples right off of the fur. It will take several weeks to get the results from these tests. In the mean time, staff will wear nitrile or latex gloves, lab coats and a half-mask respirator whenever we handle him. I just completed my annual Respirator Medical Clearance Exam so I’m ready to go if we ever decide to take Owney for a walk.