Hazardous heritage! Towards an asbestos-safe cultural heritage sector in Flanders and Brussels

Asbestos was once commonly used in buildings, but did you know it can also be found in cultural heritage collections? Together with ETWIE (expertise centre for technical, scientific and industrial heritage) and the other project partners, we want to make organisations in the sector aware of the hazards of asbestos in their collections, and advise them how to handle it safely. We’re doing this by creating a picture of the historical use of asbestos in Belgium and developing an asbestos knowledge database.

Challenge

We all know that asbestos is a hazardous, carcinogenic substance nowadays, but this wasn’t always the case. The mineral was used for various applications in Belgium from the 19th century onwards, mainly in industry and the construction sector. But we also find asbestos in cultural heritage collections, for instance in textiles, asbestos paper and irons. So how can we handle these collections responsibly?

Workers cutting asbestos roof slabs, September 1918.

A cross-sector project team – including representatives from ETWIE, OVAM (Public Waste Agency of Flanders), FARO (Flemish Institution for Cultural Heritage), meemoo, various museums, consultancy firms and the University of Antwerp – will attempt to find an answer to this question over the next two years. We’re doing this in the framework of OVAM’s Asbestos Abatement Action Plan, which aims to make Flanders asbestos-safe by 2040. Our goal is not just to make the cultural heritage sector aware of the problem, but also to offer tools to deal with the issue.

Our role

We’ll be sharing our expertise in the development of an asbestos image database during the project. We’ll also be providing insights into the functional and technical requirements included in the specifications, and are actively involved in the proof of concept and image database testing. We will publish the results on our CEST knowledge platform at the end of the project.

Approach

The project is running in two phases:

Phase 1 investigated the presence of asbestos applications in cultural heritage collections, and this research soon made it apparent that an inventory tool was needed. It was therefore decided to develop an asbestos image database with data descriptions for the various applications.

We defined the concept of this image database in this phase, and drew up a proof of concept and carried out a technical functional analysis. This analysis was then used as the basis to develop version 1.0 of the asbestos image database, which has been available at ziterasbestin.be since the start of April 2021.

The proof of concept will now be tested in phase 2, alongside the development of additional features for version 2.0 of the asbestos image database. This phase will also focus on communications about the image database.

The project aims to inform the cultural heritage sector about the presence and hazards of asbestos in cultural heritage collections. We are therefore developing clear guidelines on how to handle hazardous heritage safely specifically for heritage workers.

Partners

The project is being run by ETWIE in collaboration with a cross-sector project team.

Do you have a question?
Contact Astrid Vergauwe
Expertise Officer