Continuing Conservation Research Challenges: Impacts of Cleaning, Pesticides, and Restoration of Color in Feathers

In September of 2018, The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), in partnership with the Yale Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH) and UCLA/Getty Master’s Program in the Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials (UCLA/Getty), received a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to fund conservation research over a period of three years. This new project aims not only to inform the conservation of the bird taxidermy but also to provide recommendations for the larger community of preservation professionals caring for bird feathers in natural history and ethnographic contexts, as well as fashion and fine art collections.

The program of research will address three major research questions:  

What are the impacts of different cleaning methods on feather preservation?

Conservation research on feather cleaning has been conducted since the 1970s, primarily in the context of ethnographic collections. Various dry and solvent-based approaches are described in the conservation literature, as well as explorations of more technical approaches using lasers, ultrasound, and supercritical liquid carbon dioxide. 

The research that we will undertake as part of this project will contribute a comparative, systematic investigation of the impacts of cleaning agents on the physical structure and appearance of feathers. Our goal is to provide an overview of materials and techniques which can be safely and effectively applied to remove dirt.

Do pesticides currently in use in collections impact feather preservation?

The complex issue of pesticide and pesticide removal from artifacts gained importance with the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in the 1990s. Research has considered not only the health risks associated with the return of contaminated objects to native communities, methods to detect pesticides and methods to remove them, but also the adverse effects of pesticide residues on these materials. Although it has been suggested by some that pesticides have an impact on color change in feathers (and possibly other modes of deterioration), a systematic study on the long-term effects is still outstanding. 

As part of the present IMLS-funded study, we intend to conduct real time aging of feathers treated with a variety of pesticides in current use, and will observe changes over time.

What materials and methods may be used to recolor faded bird feathers without causing damage or interfering with future maintenance and retreatment?

The last research question builds on our previous project, which developed best practices for recoloring faded mammal taxidermy mounts, especially those in habitat dioramas. Funded through a National Leadership Grant from the IMLS, this work is extensively discussed in previous posts on this blog. 

Our upcoming efforts will aim to provide a palette of colorants which are suitable for recoloring bird feathers. To compliment this approach, we may also explore non-invasive techniques to recolor feather objects. 

Efforts along each line of inquiry will be informed by specialists caring for bird feathers, who will be asked to participate in a community survey. Keep an eye out on this blog for a link to participate! We hope to receive many responses, as they will be crucial for guiding our research. 

Project Partners

Renee Riedler joins the AMNH team (Lisa Elkin, Julia Sybalsky, and Judith Levinson) as Project Conservator. We are also grateful to be working with several key partners in this research, including Kate Schilling at the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage at Yale University, Ellen Pearlstein at the UCLA/Getty conservation program in Archeological and Ethnographic Conservation, and Vincent Beltran at the Getty Conservation Institute.

Renee Riedler, AMNH Project Conservator. ©AMNH / R. Riedler 

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