Behind Closed Cases: Exploring the Untold Stories and Hazards of Museum Artifacts

By: Cayla Lindley

Most of us don’t think too much about the objects that we see behind the glass cases in a museum. Sure, those objects must get in somehow, someone must put them there, someone must take them out, but given that most of us are told never to touch something at a museum, we don’t often think about it. But sometimes it can be a benefit to keeping our most precious objects out of reach or behind glass, not just for the object’s safety but for ours. Who would think a sighting device could be dangerous? Or the inside of one of our planes? But the truth is, they have some very hidden challenges. 


Take, for example, our beautiful “Yukon Queen”, a Barkley-Grow plane that displays some of the first moments of commercial air travel. It sits across from a fan favourite for visitors to the museum, our Beechcraft Expeditor, which happens to be the one plane that any visitor to the museum can enter on any given day. The difference between these planes is not just their paint or their engines but simply because the Beechcraft invites visitors while the Barkley-Grow repels them. Aside from the Barkley-Grow being sealed up tight, even if a visitor entered, the smell would repel even the most die-hard onlooker.  

This is due to a little phenomenon called off-gassing. Even our most modern materials, like house paint and new furniture, off gas chemicals into the air. Unfortunately, unlike our modern counterparts, things that were made in the recent past contain some relatively harmful gases that slowly leak into our air. When our Barkley-Grow was restored to its pristine condition in the late 1990’s, the materials they used to make the interior as accurate as possible, now seem to be off-putting gases and odors that make this plane one we staff frequent as little as possible. 



Other things at the museum have the possibility of some interesting materials. In our World War II planes and tucked away in our boxes we have gages, gunsights, and compasses galore. These objects hold stories and have come to us in all matter of ways, but we must make sure that they too aren’t releasing some harmful chemicals. Objects like gunsights and compasses were commonly painted with radioactive paint to make them glow in planes at night. Now these might sound scary or perhaps a reason why we shouldn’t keep these objects, but the truth of the matter is, they are quite safe to have. 



These objects are safe in their boxes and cases. They are safe to touch and hold with some gloves and even our Barkley-Grow is safe as long as exposure is limited, and a mask is worn. We would not have these spectacular objects if they were not safe for our public to see but some of these objects require more care than others. They are able to sit behind glass and tell their stores and are witnesses to a world gone by that we can learn from… regardless of whether they have bad gas or not.