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Iroquois Mask Testing
and Decontamination Project


In 2007, the Rochester Museum & Science Center was awarded a National Park Service grant to address possible chemical contamination of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) medicine faces in its collections. The project was a collaborative effort between RMSC staff, the Tonawanda Seneca Nation Council representatives, and other Native American and non-Native consultants.

As a result of this project, RMSC and the Haudenosaunee community have:

  1. Developed methods to test and treat Haudenosaunee wooden medicine faces in RMSC collections for contamination
  2. Tested 97 medicine faces and 7 turtle rattles for organic and inorganic contamination
  3. Trained RMSC staff and Native American representatives in non-destructive testing and treatment of wooden medicine faces
  4. Trained RMSC staff in the safe and culturally sensitive handling of Haudenosaunee medicine faces
  5. Developed an RMSC Procedures Manual that is respectful of tribal beliefs for the testing and treatment of potentially contaminated collections
  6. Developed a long range plan to test and treat Haudenosaunee medicine faces in RMSC collections
  7. Used the internet to communicate with tribal communities and the general public about this project

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ's)

  1. Why would museum collections be contaminated?
  2. What contaminants could be on collections objects?
  3. What collections objects are affected by contamination?
  4. What are the effects of object contamination on humans?
  5. Why has decontamination recently become a priority?
  6. What can museums do about object contamination?
  7. Why does this decontamination project focus on Haudenosaunee wooden medicine faces?
  8. How did RMSC test and treat wooden medicine faces for contamination?
  9. What were the results of testing?
  10. How did RMSC treat the medicine faces for contamination?
  1. Why would museum collections be contaminated?

    From the 1700's through the 1990's, museums and private collectors commonly used potentially poisonous chemicals to treat collections objects. Some chemicals were used as preservatives to prevent collections from deteriorating over time. Other chemicals were used as pesticides to prevent insects and rodents from damaging collections.

    Additionally, some hazardous chemicals are found naturally in the earth. Some object contamination may be a result of the original manufacturing process, such as the historical application of certain pigments and lead glazes or the use of heavy metals in the manufacture of glass beads, gold, and felt hats and clothing.

  2. What contaminants could be on collections objects?

    Heavy metals like mercury and arsenic, and their many derivative compounds, were commonly used as preservatives. Around 90 different types of pesticides have also been identified in treatments used by museums. Sometimes chemicals were used alone in powder form, but other times they were combined with other chemicals or compounds and used as solutions or soaps. Many different recipes were used, and the recipes often varied with each application. Objects may have been sprayed, brushed, dipped, or rubbed with chemical contaminants.

  3. What collections objects are affected by contamination?

    Organic materials (i.e. things that were once living) were most often treated with chemicals because they are most likely to deteriorate over time and to be damaged by pests. However, the practice was so common that it often was not recorded, especially not on the individual object level. It was also common to apply toxic chemicals to storage cabinets, display cases, and specimen mounts. This practice made it possible for cross-contamination to occur.

    Like most museums worldwide, the incomplete nature of RMSC's records makes it impossible to know what objects have been treated with hazardous chemicals without testing them for contamination.

  4. What are the effects of object contamination on humans?

    The presence of a poisonous chemical on an object does not necessarily mean that it is toxic. The type and amount of the chemical present are important factors in determining its health risks. Other factors that affect the toxicity of a chemical include the way it enters the body, the age of the affected individual, and the health condition of the individual.

  5. Why has decontamination recently become a priority?

    Museum personnel across the country did not become widely aware of problems relating to object contamination until the late 1980's. The issue became more serious after the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990. This law requires institutions that receive federal funding to return human remains, sacred objects, and other culturally significant objects to the native communities from which they came. When Native American tribes made it known that they may wear, handle, or use repatriated museum objects in other ceremonial ways, the issue of object contamination became an important safety concern.

    RMSC is working closely with Native American communities to respond to NAGPRA. RMSC strives to test and treat NAGPRA-related items for contamination so they are safe to handle and use.

  6. What can museums do about object contamination?

    Once a museum is aware of possible object contamination, it can take steps to manage this problem. Managing possible object contamination should involve surveying any potentially affected areas and collections, testing individual objects for the presence and amount of contamination, creating guidelines for safe handling and use of contaminated collections, and educating anyone who might handle these objects about contamination issues. Museums should also make sure that they follow federal and local requirements for handling and disposing of hazardous material. Other resources for dealing with these issues include local health and environmental agencies, research scientists, and other museums that have already been through this process.

    RMSC has just begun to address possible object contamination issues related to its collections. The 2007 NAGPRA Consultation/Documentation grant project is a first step toward testing and treating collections that might be affected by contamination. This project has resulted in the establishment of guidelines for testing and treating wooden medicine faces and safe standards for the presence of certain chemicals.

    Further information about the problem of contamination of museum collections is available through the following links:

    Bibliography on Use of Biocides in Museum Collections

    Decontaminating Sacred Objects of the Haudenosaunee

    Pesticide Contamination: Working Together to Find a Common Solution. The Current State of Affairs.

    Preserving the Trust: The Pesticide Residue Project at the Museum of Anthropology

    Testing for Pesticide Residues in the Public Program Collections at the Royal B.C. Museum

  7. Why does this decontamination project focus on Haudenosaunee wooden medicine faces?

    Ongoing collaboration between Native American groups and RMSC involves the loan of RMSC collections objects to source communities for use. One collection for which this is especially true is the Haudenosaunee wooden medicine faces, making this collection a priority for decontamination. The Haudenosaunee Standing Committee on Burial Rules and Regulations has also requested the decontamination of Haudenosaunee wooden medicine faces, resulting in the prioritization of this collection for testing and treatment.

    RMSC is committed to test and treat the medicine faces in a way that is both non-destructive to the objects and honors tribal custom, which dictates that medicine faces be treated in a special way.

  8. How did RMSC test and treat wooden medicine faces for contamination?

    A complete report on the procedures used to test and treat wooden medicine faces in the collections of the RMSC is available as a downloadable pdf document.

    In summary, a non-destructive sampling technique was developed and used to test the medicine faces. This technique involved wiping the surface of the medicine faces to create samples. The samples were then tested for the presence and amount of arsenic, mercury, and chlorinated pesticide residues. Surface wipe samples were also collected in the storage vault and a nearby hallway to compare background levels of contamination with those present on the medicine faces.

  9. What were the results of testing?

    A complete report of the testing results is available as a downloadable pdf document.

    In summary, 50 medicine faces were initially tested. The results of testing showed low levels of mercury present on all fifty medicine faces. A second batch of 47 medicine faces and 7 turtles rattles were tested with similar results for mercury. Of all the objects tested, only four samples showed levels of mercury that exceeded the acceptable range. These four medicine faces were re-sampled and showed a decrease in mercury levels that brought them into the acceptable range. Two samples from the second batch also showed the presence of low levels of arsenic. Re-sampling resulted in levels within the acceptable range. All mercury and arsenic detections were similar to background levels found in the storage vault or below the level that requires treatment. Of all 55 samples tested for pesticides, only one resulted in the presence of a pesticide, and this was at a very low level that is within the acceptable range.

  10. How did RMSC treat the medicine faces for contamination?

    Since testing resulted in the detection of contaminants that fell into a healthy range for human exposure, it was not necessary to treat any of the objects for contamination.

Project Staff


Research Consultant/Chemist: Peter Reuben

Peter Reuben is of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation, Snipe Clan. He graduated from Buffalo State College (SUNY) with a Master in Arts-Chemistry where he performed novel multi-step organic synthesis of environmental contaminants for fundamental cancer research at the Great Lakes Center for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. Since 2002, he has been a Research consultant focused on developing sampling and mitigation methods for contaminated repatriated sacred objects. He has worked with the Tribal Historic Preservation Offices of the Seneca Nation of Indians and Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, the Haudenosaunee Standing Committee on Burial Rules and Regulations, the Seneca-Iroquois Nation Museum, and the Rochester Museum and Science Center. He has also been an invited participant at workshops on pesticide contamination organized by the Smithsonian Institution Museum Conservation Institute, U.S. National Park Service and Canadian Conservation Institute.

Conservator: Cheryl Podsiki

Cheryl Podsiki currently works as an objects conservator in the Department of Anthropology and in the Repatriation program at The Field Museum, Chicago and as a private consultant in outreach services for collection preservation and determination of associated hazardous materials. Her experience includes working as a team conservator for museum exhibition development, including determination of environmental controls; the preservation of collections; treatment of ethnographic and archaeological objects; testing for the presence of heavy metals in collections; and providing education about hazardous materials, testing strategies and associated issues. Ms. Podsiki conducts collection surveys for small museums and tribal communities concerned with the presence of hazardous materials on their objects, working closely with the client to develop appropriate and acceptable testing methods and customized safe handling guidelines. She is proficient in the use of hand-held x-ray fluorescent (XRF) analyzers in conjunction with their application on natural history and anthropological materials. In addition to her published guideline on Heavy Metals and research on the migration of arsenic in wood, she has presented issues about hazardous materials at professional conferences in oral presentations and poster sessions. She is on the course listing to teach a class on the subject of hazardous materials in collections at the Campbell Center for Historic Preservation Studies in Mt. Carroll, IL in June 2009.

Ms. Podsiki received her graduate degree in Master of Art Conservation (MAC) in 2002 from Queen's University, Canada and her B.A. in Cultural Studies in 1999 from the State University of New York's (SUNY) Empire State College in Rochester, NY. She was a 2002-03 Samuel H. Kress post-graduate Fellow at the Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona in Tucson, AZ. Ms. Podsiki is a Professional Associate member of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) and an active member of AIC's Health & Safety Committee.

Cheryl Podsiki • 312-665-7883

Registrar Assistant - Contractual: Jamie Jacobs

Jamie Jacobs is a Tonawanda Seneca of the Turtle Clan. He has extensive knowledge of Haudenosaunee history and traditions, as well as Seneca language. Jacobs is a cultural spokesperson and active in Longhouse. He has worked from 2006 through 2008 at the Rochester Museum & Science Center as a collections assistant on various grant projects. Jacobs' work at RMSC has included sharing knowledge with both Native American Haudenosaunee and anthropological consultants in the process of documenting the Iroquois ethnological collections at the Museum. He has also inventoried collections and entered information into the MultiMIMSY collection management database. Jacobs plays an important role in sharing knowledge of the Haudenosaunee culture and sensitivity issues with staff and non-Native consultants.

RMSC Staff

Project Director: Adele DeRosa, Collections Manager/NAGPRA Coordinator

Project Advisor: George McIntosh, Director of Collections

Technical Advisor: Gian Carlo Cervone, Senior Registrar

Online Content Writer: Kathryn Murano, Collections Coordinator

For further information about this project, please contact:

Adele DeRosa, Collections Manager/NAGPRA Coordinator • 585-271-4552 x302


Funded in part by:

National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior