Preservation through Conservation: Both are applicable for War Bonnets and Bird Displays

Sioux War Bonnet, USA Circa 1940s, Retrieved March 15, 2021 from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/433471532854363120/
Plains War Bonnets, Retrieved March 15, 2021 from https://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/08/07/would-love-to-see-these-surviving-examples-of-warbonnets-worn-by-american-plains-indians-2/

“One of the most Influential warriors of Cheyenne who fought gallantly in the Indian wars of the 1860s was Roman Nose, who was famous for wearing an elaborately decorated and illustrious war bonnet that supposedly protected him during battles. The legends said that on several occasions Roman Nose wore his bonnet to battle and rode back and forth in front of the United States Army soldiers, escaping unscathed despite being fired upon by several men” (History Daily, 2017).

There are numerous types of headdresses. I’m focusing on the war bonnet headdresses, which are intricate and skillfully created utilizing eagle feathers, as well as other materials. Native American war bonnets were worn by respected individuals of a tribe (Sioux, Crow, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, and the Plains Cree) representing their culture and traditional ways. These war bonnets contained rows of feathers from bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), a bird of prey found in North America, which has become a spiritual symbol to Tribal entities, as well as their geographic location. They are not bought or gathered. “Eagle feathers represent the highest honor and respect for the Plains Indians” (History Daily, 2017). In fact, the feathers are earned by selfless acts of communal service/s or by exhibiting courage in the face of tremendous battle/s. In addition, no long war bonnets were worn into battles. A Tribal chieftain, spiritual or political leaders would award an individual/s the most colorful and elaborate headdress with community consensus.

So, I wanted to know the techniques that museums used to preserve these elaborate headdresses. I do know that feathers can be easily broken, places along the quill shaft can be separated or have feather loss as well. In addition, feathers expose to extreme sunlight and temperatures can fade overtime. The shaft can then split, crumble or become brittle from excessive dryness as a result. Parasites can also find their way into these beautiful pieces of artwork. Moreover, you cannot just lay a headdress down or on top of one another without incurring damages to the feathers, beadwork, silk, and bells etc. Threads, hides or sinew used could be at risk from drying out, resulting in loss of elasticity, feather colors or dyes, and/or breakage. There are different styles such as the horned bonnet, flaring eagle bonnet and the fluttering feather bonnet. “They can consist of buckskin skull cap, shaved bison or cow horns, dye horsehair with owl feathers beneath the skull cap” (Howard, 1954).

“I found an example of preservation through the Hershey Indian Museum, which was established in 1933 by Milton S. Hershey from the collections of Col. John Worth. “These artifacts are still an important part of The Hershey Story’s collection, and include cultural objects from Northwest, Arctic, Eastern Woodlands, California, and Plains American Indian group” (Wenger, 2021).

There are two types of conservation: preventive and interventive. The first describes the proper care of the artifacts/objects in terms of temperature, intensity of light and its duration, humidity, the use of proper archival materials, as well as the methods of cleaning and handling. The article states that how an item is stored and/or exhibited years ago may affect its current state. A conservator is needed when an object needs cleaning, repair or stabilization. The following is an account of what the museum found with their collections upon moving to a new location.

“Prior to the museum’s move to its current home on Chocolate Avenue, many artifacts had been exhibited for decades, including this Sioux headdress. It is striking, and features a double trail of eagle feathers that hung down the wearer’s back, attached to a red wool cap with a colorful beaded brow band. Silk ribbons and copper bells adorn the headdress”(Wenger, 2021).

Disassembling the exhibits for the museum’s relocation gave us the opportunity to evaluate object conditions, and we found that this headdress was in a fragile state. It was dusty, the feathers were discolored, the silk ribbons were faded and damaged, and the bells were corroded. (Wenger, 2021).

“After evaluating the headdress, our conservator began treatment. The entire headdress was carefully cleaned with a vacuum designed for conservation work. The feathers were cleaned with isopropyl alcohol and blotted with cotton pads. The ribbons were stabilized by enclosing them in a polyester material sealed with an acrylic mixture. The bells were polished using a mixture of mineral spirits and other ingredients to reduce corrosion, and then coated with lacquer for further protection. Although the headdress is now stabilized, it is still very delicate, especially the feathers and ribbons. We take care to handle it only when necessary. As part of the conservation process, a custom storage box was made to ensure its long-term safety” (Wenger, 2021).

Headdress Before Conservation, Retrieved Match 15 2021 from https://hersheystory.org/american-indian-headdress-from-founding-collection-is-preserved/
After Conservation Treatment, Retrieved March 15, 2021 from https://hersheystory.org/american-indian-headdress-from-founding-collection-is-preserved/

 

My other comparable items for preservation are the taxidermy of birds displays. I could go on forever with this topic. I’ve worked with my ex-husband and friends on taxidermy of displays and items. These displays are affected by the same conditions as the war bonnets. Both have feathers. Obviously, these bird displays that depict nature scenes out in the wild are huge areas.The feathers on these taxidermy skins are affected by the same deterioration, misuse, poor handling and lack of care over-time as the war bonnets. However, these skins can shrink overtime, the eye sockets, mouth parts and feet can recede as well.

Birds of the Vermont Museum, Retrieved March 15, 2021 from https://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/60271
Britains Got Talons. Museum of Zoology open its doors on 11 Feb, 2020. The Galley has over 200 birds and highlights the conservation work involved with the collections. British Bird Gallery, Retrieved March 15, 2021 from https://www.museum.zoo.cam.ac.uk/news/britains-got-talons-new-british-bird-gallery-now-open

I know this all too well. I was the one that had to buy replacement parts for repairing taxidermy displays. They are not glued together but sewn on the underside. In addition, the cavity of a bird body contains a wood shavings body or fiberglass, which the skin is stretched over the piece of filler. Birds are fragile and can break easily. It takes just one wrong bump or extreme dryness to crack a piece off. Your display will then need a conservator who specializes in taxidermy. A great taxidermist can make an animal look lifelike, and then there are those who need to keep trying. With these nature scenes, there is a lot of work involved with the flora background as well. Preservation of plants is just as important. I believe, they are more fragile than all the rest. They are prone to the above mentioned affects overtime as well. As time goes by, new technologies and methods just keep improving on the preservation of displays and artifacts. It’s the people behind the scenes that are instrumental in this process. An awesome team can preserve and conserve their collections as well as passing on their knowledge to others. In the end, this insures the viability of their collections and for future collections. My question: What methods of preservation interests you the most?

References

History Daily, (2017, June 20). War Bonnets: A Symbol of Honour and Respect for the Native Americans. Retrieved March 16, 2021 from https://historydaily.org/native-americans-war-bonnets

Howard, J. H. (1954). “Plains Indian Feathered Bonnets”. Plains Anthropologist. Maney Publishing. 1 (2): 23–26. doi:10.1080/2052546.1954.11908159ISSN 0032-0447JSTOR 25666195

Wenger, L.C. (2021). American Indian Headdress from founding collection is preserved. Retrieved March 15, 2021 from https://hersheystory.org/american-indian-headdress-from-founding-collection-is-preserved/

 

 

 

 

 

3 Thoughts to “#8: Preventative Conservation Discussion”

  1. Angela Linn

    Nice job finding the description of the conservation treatment for the headdress. The preventive conservation approach of managing the care of that piece after the treatment would include things like having an appropriate storage mount to guard against physical forces, pets are certainly a big concern so yes, monitoring for insects is important. Feathers are really susceptible to fading, as are the textile elements (dyed textiles especially) so keeping low light levels on this item is very important. I’d guess they’d exhibit it in a space of around 5 footcandles, or 50 lux. The piece should be pretty forgiving to RH% changes, but catastrophic exposure to water could cause some big problems with the rawhide and red-dyed fabrics being impacted most dramatically. The bells or other metal items found on Indigenous artifacts offer another complicated situation – tanned skins and metal interact in negative ways – the fats and gasses that are released from skins can cause metals to corrode more quickly. Sometimes glass beads can get a white residue that will form on the surface when in contact with skins. Check out Ellen Carrlee’s blog post “What’s that White Stuff” to see some more examples! https://alaskawhitestuffid.wordpress.com/

    1. Barbara Long

      Good Evening,

      I did not think about the fats and gases from a hide. I would think that after a period of time that these would be minimal. Yes, corrosion during this time period would occur, makes sense. I don’t think they had stainless steel bells. I thought about how these headdresses were stored during particular time periods. Its amazing that some have survived. My anthropology Chair who specialized in African Beads stated a similar comment and so did the Professor who studied Aztecs as well. She was into beads. I wasn’t sure if this happens to all beads or if it depends on their composition. I know that a majority of Tribes valued beads highly and would be traded often.I will check the blog post out. Thank you for your feedback.
      Respectfully,
      Barbara

  2. Tony Thompson

    Great post! It was very interesting the comparison of headdresses that contain feathers and taxidermy bird specimen! When I took ornithology, I spent a great deal of time with bird skins trying to ID the specimen and you can definitely tell that time takes a toll on even the best preserved specimen. Some of them were near impossible to ID. I think the methods that interest me most would definitely be the preservation of biological specimen, especially aquatic. Thanks, Barbara!

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