Testimonial: Margaret Burnham, Art Conservator, Birmingham Museum of Art

Many people would be surprised to know that the people who protect art need protection, too.

Health hazards for conservators

The products conservators use do a good job of mending and preserving art objects, but they may emit fumes or particles that shouldn’t be inhaled.

Margaret Burnham,
Birmingham Museum of Art
Photo: Frank Couch/al.com

At the Birmingham Museum of Art, Margaret Burnham focuses on the preservation of three-dimensional objects, including the work in the outdoor sculpture garden.

[The museum’s website includes a section that explains how they are caring for their entire collection.]

Her work may require her to choose from an array of epoxies, coatings and solvents to solve a particular problem.

For example, coatings are sprayed onto outdoor art to protect it from particulates produced by nearby truck traffic. Outdoors, venting the fumes away from the conservator is typically accomplished by the prevailing breeze.

Indoors, it’s a different matter.

Ductless hood removes fumes

Recently, Ms. Burnham sprayed a coating onto an art object placed inside our 40-inch wide Model SS-340-DCH Ductless Fume Hood in the Conservation Lab at the museum.

Contents of the coating included toluene, a toxic ingredient in solvents, paints, and other household and industrial products.

When the spraying was complete, she smelled nothing, no fumes at all.

She invited a co-worker into the workshop to verify the lack of fumes — and the co-worker did so.

This experience may have played a role in Ms. Burnham’s affection for the hood. She wrote, “Love the unit!!”

In the museum’s Conservation Lab, a Wedgwood platter inside the hood awaits repair of a repair.

Filtration collects fumes, protects workers

The museum’s hood is equipped with three types of filters: HEPA, activated carbon and a spray paint pre-filter.

Together they create a powerful tool for keeping hazardous and unpleasant fumes out of the workspace.

In the photo, the air brush on the right is used to apply coatings.

The red canister on the left is for disposal of used swabs wet with solvent.


Protecting the Wedgwood collection

Vase, c.1935, designed by Erling B. “Eric” Olsen, for Wedgwood, Birmingham Museum of Art

The museum’s comprehensive Wedgwood collection of more than 1,400 pieces receives regular attention from the conservation staffers.

Older preservation efforts sometimes fail and must be re-done with newer materials.

Burnham says, “We often use a methylene chloride paint stripper to remove old restoration media. The SAS unit works very well for this, keeping the fumes in check. I also use it for painting and filling as well.”

OSHA considers methylene chloride to be a potential occupational carcinogen.

Tests of our activated charcoal filters to contain methylene chloride fumes indicate they more than meet OSHA time-weighted average exposure standards when used as recommended.

Protecting the silver collection

From the silver collection
Photo: Birmingham Museum of Art

The Birmingham Museum of Art has an extensive collection of silver objects.

Included in the collection of more than 300 pieces are works by Hester Bateman, one of a few female silversmiths of the 18th century.

Soon, museum conservators will embark on a program to apply protective lacquer to pieces in the silver collection.

They apply a lacquer rather than polish silver objects because fine details such as engraving can be abraded away through polishing.

Coating the silver with cellulose nitrate lacquer will keep the surface pristine and shield it from airborne pollutants for many years.

Once again, without effective ventilation, the conservators could be exposed to a range of hazardous chemicals as they carry out this important task.

OSHA cites these chemicals as possible ingredients in cellulose nitrate lacquer: toluene, xylenes, methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), methyl isobutyl ketone (MIBK), methanol and formaldehyde.

These chemicals can have both short-term and long-term negative side effects on the human body.

So we are happy to know that the museum’s silver preservation activities will be carried out within the confines of our Ductless Fume Hood.

Respiratory protection, expensive ductwork not required

The museum’s Conservation Lab is located far from an exterior wall.

Remodeling an interior space to provide dedicated ductwork for venting fumes to the outdoors can be an expensive proposition, one that many organizations are reluctant to undergo.

Because the conservators’ unit is a ductless fume hood, it does not require dedicated ducting.

The hood can be located exactly where it’s needed in the workshop; in the lab photo, notice the hood is on a workbench with wheels.

A second ductless fume hood

On behalf of a conservator friend, Ms. Burnham requested information on a smaller hood for similar preservation activities.

Our 30-inch wide Model # SS-330-DCH Ductless Fume Hood offers the same respiratory protection via a pre-filter with HEPA and charcoal filters.

Like the 40-inch model, it functions well without dedicated ductwork.


We love art – and the professionals who preserve it for future generations

Sentry Air is happy to play a role in conserving art of all genres and especially pleased to help protect the professional conservators who do this fine work, which will promote conversation about and appreciation of art long into the future.

Give us a call

For information on chemical fume extraction options for your processes, give us a call at 1.800.799.4609, email us at sales@sentryair.com, or fill out this online form to have a Sentry Air Systems Applications Specialist contact you.



Meet Margaret Burnham, the Birmingham Museum of Art’s new conservator

Birmingham Museum of Art

Industrial Hygiene Report, Control of Toluene Vapors in a Lab Setting


OSHA re methylene chloride

Industrial Hygiene Report, Control of Organic Solvent Vapors: Methyl Ethyl Ketone (MEK)

Industrial Hygiene Report, Control of Formaldehyde In the Workplace

Industrial Hygiene Report, Control of Methylene Chloride In the Workplace

OSHA re cellulose nitrate