There are many examples of feathers used in art and cultural heritage materials spanning centuries. Some of the oldest examples include featherwork from South America, the Pacific Islands, and China. These intricate and awe-inspiring objects—cut-feather mosaics, full feathers used in clothing and regalia, diancui jewelry, etc.—made use of the natural colors of the birds as well as the ingenuity of artists familiar with dyes and paints. Today, Indigenous artists and regalia makers, sculptors, and taxidermists all use feathers to create objects for use and display. We interviewed several individuals with experience working with feathers in various contexts to better understand both the traditions in which they work and the methods and materials that they most often utilize. We sought insights into their decision making about feather selection, cleaning and preparation, manipulation of structure and/or color, methods of storage, and pest prevention. 

Maria Olvido Moreno Guzman is a researcher and conservator at the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia and a professor of art history in the graduate program at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, both located in Mexico City. Trained as an amanteca, or featherworker, she learned feather mosaic techniques from artist Gabriel Olay Olay, a master descended from a family of amantecas. In this interview, she discusses the history and legacy of Mexican featherwork with Renée Riedler. Their conversation explores the multifaceted manner in which the tradition of featherworking influences and is influenced by contemporary Mexican culture. Maria explains nuances and challenges in the translation of featherwork from pre-Hispanic times into modern culture, and the uncertainty surrounding the deeper meanings behind historical examples. She also touches on wildlife conservation and the impact of dwindling bird populations on this ancient artistic tradition.

General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: The Florentine Codex. 1577, World Digital Library

Interviewer: Renée Riedler is an objects conservator in Vienna at the Weltmuseum Wien. Renée has extensive experience in the preservation of featherwork and is a project partner in research funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) at the American Museum of Natural History. 

Meyo Marrufo is an Eastern Pomo artist from the Clear Lake Basin. Her focus on cultural arts includes regalia, abalone jewelry, basket weaving, cooking, and digital art. In this interview, she considers the collection, preparation, and preservation of feathers used in regalia with Ellen Pearlstein. Meyo discusses the complex relationships between museums and native communities, repatriation, and the ramifications of historic pesticide use in collections. She reminds the audience that traditional arts like basket weaving and regalia-making not only existed in the past, but also thrive in the present. She also emphasizes the role that museums play in using their collections to educate future generations of Native artists that continue to teach and learn these skills. 

Interviewer: Ellen Pearlstein is a conservator and professor at the UCLA/Getty Interdepartmental Program in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage and is a project partner in IMLS-funded feather conservation research at the American Museum of Natural History.   

Petah Coyne is an award-winning contemporary sculptor and photographer. Her work can be found in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among many others. Her large-scale floor and hanging installations often incorporate a variety of unconventional media, including avian taxidermy, specially formulated wax, hair, mud, and velvet. In this interview, Petah and Museum conservator Judith Levinson cover topics ranging from specialized crating of artwork to the late writer Flannery O’Connor. They delve into Petah’s extensively researched and catalogued approach to making and preserving her sculptures, as well as her approach to sourcing her taxidermy. Petah describes the importance of her preparation techniques to her work’s long-term preservation, her methods of packing for transport and storage, and her detailed documentation of the creation and installation process of her sculptures from beginning to end. She also recalls a revelation that she had as a young artist that led her to create a repository and archive of her materials, unconventional and otherwise, to aid conservators in preserving her sculptures. 

Interviewer: Judith Levinson is a conservator of anthropological and ethnographic collections. She is currently Director of Conservation Emerita at the American Museum of Natural History and a project partner in IMLS-funded feather conservation research at the Museum.  

George Dante is a renowned taxidermist and wildlife artist based in New Jersey. Guided by the traditional techniques of 19th- and 20th-century master taxidermists, he and his staff at Wildlife Preservation Services create and restore taxidermy mounts, models, and simulated environments. They have worked closely with the Museum on many different projects.

In this interview conducted by Museum conservator Julia Sybalsky, George gives an overview of the laborious process of creating an avian taxidermy mount and how the methods and materials have changed over time. He emphasizes the highly individualized process of a taxidermist, how the exact materials and techniques used to create a mount are akin to a family recipe, and the way this could affect a conservator’s approach to a treatment. Having partnered with conservators from different institutions, George emphasizes the importance of a working relationship between conservators and taxidermists for successful outcomes in taxidermy restoration. 

Interviewer: Julia Sybalsky is a conservator of natural science collections at the American Museum of Natural History.  

Bradley Marshall is a Hupa regalia maker, artist, and cultural caretaker based in northern California. In this conversation with Ellen Pearlstein, he describes his approach to acquiring materials for his regalia, and his role as a caretaker of older pieces. Bradley shows some of his own regalia, and how he combines traditional and modern materials and methods. He emphasizes the importance of recognizing Native culture as a living culture, and acknowledgment of living artists by the museums and cultural institutions in which their work is held and exhibited.

Interviewer: Ellen Pearlstein is a conservator and professor at the UCLA/Getty Interdepartmental Program in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage and is a project partner in IMLS-funded feather conservation research at the American Museum of Natural History.   


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