Last month, The Mariners’ Museum and Park welcomed me “aboard” for an 8-week Graduate Fellow Internship in Conservation. During this summer, I am working with the Conservation Department under Object Conservator Paige Schmidt. I’m coming to The Mariners’ Museum from Buffalo, New York, where I’m studying Art Conservation at SUNY Buffalo State College, majoring in Objects Conservation. During my time at the Museum, my primary project will be the treatment and analysis of a Ship’s Medical Chest from c.1860 (image 1). The results of analysis will be used to inform safe handling and storage of the chest. The Museum has almost a dozen medical chests, which were once used by ship physicians to hold their medical tools, books, and “medicines.” This chest houses 9 glass vials, 6 of which contain substances that may have been used as medicines in the 19th century (image 2).
Our suspected substances
Finding unknown medical substances in a museum collection can be concerning, as many early medicines are now known to be hazardous. Some of the vials were labeled, “Camphor,” “Bryonia,” “Nux Vomica,” and “Tartar emet,” (although the Nux Vomica vial was empty). Camphor is a common ingredient in topically-applied medicines like anti-irritants and vapor rubs, but high dermal exposures and ingestion can be toxic.