Toxic Heritage

Coal Tar, Care and Chemical Intimacies in Museum Housekeeping


  • Torgeir Bangstad UiT The Arctic University of Norway



preservatives, coal tar, carbolineum, building preservation, pesticides, open-air museum


In the course of modern museum history, a variety of toxic chemicals have been used to prevent the deterioration of collected objects. The residues of pesticides and preservatives now persist together with the objects they were intended to protect. These chemical conservation technologies are intimately bound up with the unpredictable material agencies that are characteristic of the legacy of Anthropocene residues on a planetary scale. However, chemicals also form part of local, domestic, everyday worlds where they were used to maintain order, prevent loss and ensure material coherence. In this article I investigate Norwegian open-air museums as sites where new chemical products with pesticidal and protective properties were domesticated and placed on trial in the battle against “museum pests” and the decay of wooden buildings. By exploring carbon-based chemicals derived from the waste products of coke production, I reflect on the material convergence of waste and heritage in preserved buildings and how in the early and mid-twentieth century museum conservation came to rely on these unpredictable and highly persistent chemical agents.


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How to Cite

Bangstad, T. (2022). Toxic Heritage: Coal Tar, Care and Chemical Intimacies in Museum Housekeeping. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, 9(1), 121–138.



Research Article