SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — As the future of the Brockhouse collection of animal mounts remains in flux, the topic of arsenic in museum collections was the topic of discussion for a webinar hosted by museum services organization called Connecting to Collections Care.    

Fran Ritchie, a conservator for the National Park Service at Harpers Ferry Center, works on care and preservation of natural history collections was the primary speaker for the online webinar attended virtually by museum specialists around the county. 

The main takeaway to people working with museum collections is to handle safely and display safely. 

“There are people who specialize in working on the conservation and preservation of taxidermy,” Ritchie said during the webinar. “Just because something looks a little worn out, doesn’t mean that all hope is lost.” 

Ritchie highlighted she’s not an industrial hygienist. She pointed out people who work as industrial hygienists would be the scientists and engineers who specialize in collection holding institutions and assess the actual risk to humans of hazards with a collection. 

Ritchie said the biggest risk for arsenic is long term exposure when arsenic enters the body through inhalation, ingestion or dermal eye contact. 

“It can lead to an increased risk in skin cancer and other different types of cancer if you do have that long term continuous exposure to a large quantity,” Ritchie said. “We know that if we don’t lick our museum objects that we greatly decrease risk to ourselves and to the object too.” 

Ritchie said museum workers need to work with industrial hygienists to figure out exactly what the risks of each object are and how to decrease long-term and short-term exposure. She said research on collections is important and to use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) like latex gloves, lab coats or a smock, and masks. Ritchie also highlighted how a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) vacuum is helpful when dealing with artifacts with arsenic. 

Sioux Falls city council member Greg Netizert cited the webinar with Ritchie on how to handle the issue of arsenic in museum artifacts on Tuesday. Neitzert said Ritchie would not recommend destroying collections or closing museums over arsenic in collections. 

“You’d have to close virtually every natural history museum in the world based on the presence of chemicals in artifacts,” Neitzert said on Tuesday. 

What’s next with the Brockhouse collection? 

The Delbridge Museum of Natural History at the Great Plains Zoo opened in 1984 and the city of Sioux Falls was granted full, true and legal ownership of the entire Brockhouse collection. 

The museum was closed by zoo and city officials on Aug. 17 because about 80% of the mounts tested positive for arsenic. The closure was a precaution for safety because the zoo doesn’t not have the needed mitigation in place, officials said.

City officials said nearly 30% of the collection is impacted by federal/international regulations restricting transfer and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told KELOLAND News there’s a lot of factors on how to deal with taxidermy mounts. 

“Several factors influence whether taxidermy specimens may be sold or donated. The protection status of the species, age, and method of acquisition are just a few of the things that can influence whether taxidermy may be legally commercialized or even transferred to another owner,” USFW’s Dan Coil said in an emailed statement to KELOLAND News. “In some cases, permits may be required, or the transfer may be prohibited. It is the responsibility of the possessor to ensure all sales and transfers are conducted in compliance with the law.” 

Becky Dewitz, the chief executive officer and president of the zoo, told city council members the cost of a new building for the Delbridge collection is estimated at about $13 million. 

Dewitz also said costs to upgrade the current space of the Delbridge Museum would cost an estimated $3.4 to $4.2 million but does not include the mount restoration or updated dioramas and interpretations. 

Zoo and parks and recreation officials including the mayor recommended the collection be declared a surplus and be decommissioned. The city council would need to declare the specimens as surplus and they would be decommissioned.

A meeting of the Sioux Falls Parks and Recreation Board scheduled for noon Wednesday to weigh the surplus motion was canceled. 

Parks and rec director Don Kearney told KELOLAND News the city and partners at the Great Plains Zoo are outlining next steps for the public and elected officials.

“More details will be forthcoming,” Kearney said in an emailed statement.