At the start of the 20th century, the use of the miraculous mineral asbestos rose quickly, peaking in the 1970's. Asbestos was used in insulation, roofing, pipeworks, floor coverings and a plethora of consumer products. Finally, in 2001, the Belgian legislator put a definitive end to the marketing and (re-)use of these fibers, as it turned out asbestos is a silent killer. Since then, items containing asbestos may no longer be sold or exchanged. By 2040 the Flemish Government aims to make Flanders ‘asbestos-safe’. Whenever found, the fiber is currently being removed from buildings with the greatest care.
But, what seems to be overlooked is that asbestos was not only used in buildings, but also in a lot of moveable heritage; often in applications which fall under the technical, scientific and industrial heritage, but also in design or art pieces. So what about asbestos in and as a heritage? How to ensure the safety of employees and the public while showing or handling the asbestos-laden object? Do we also, along with the asbestos, delete the past, the knowledge and memory of this industry? Few or no museums currently have a procedure that draws attention to the presence of asbestos when acquiring new collection items. Also, when prospecting the fibers may also be present at the place or within the context where the piece is acquired (buildings, installations) or may be inherently part of the collection piece itself.
Under the impetus of the ETWIE expertise cell, the Museum of Industry is now taking steps, together with the Flemish support center for cultural heritage (FARO) and the public waste company (OVAM), to work towards an asbestos-safe heritage sector, so that heritage workers can work in an informed manner from now on. Where can you find asbestos? How can we recognize it? Can a collection item containing asbestos be safely stored? Can it be safely displayed to the public? A very valuable project for the future!