23 January 2018

Book Review: The Conservation of featherwork by Ellen Pearlstein

Figure:  Huichol hat, Fowler Museum at UCLA, X66.2858, 34 cm x 18 cm
Featherwork from Central and South America rank among the most beautiful objects with meaning and symbolic value, used and worn as signs of rank and respect. Collection history, consultations and anthropological studies contribute greatly to our understanding of such featherwork collections in museums. However, museum or online databases often provide insufficient information for researchers e.g. on feather identification, feather type, attachment and modification methods and whether those objects show traces of use or change in cultural practice. Recording featherwork in a concise manner will not only provide information for interpretation but also for representation of the object on display. It will advise on conservation treatment and will assist on collection decisions designed to further preventive care.

'The Conservation of Featherwork' is designed to guide museum specialists like conservators, curators and researchers through implementation of such recordings. It is a valuable resource for teaching conservation students and those interested in material culture. The content of the book reflects on the interdisciplinary research approach by the author, bringing together knowledge of ornithologists, tribal featherworkers, curators, conservators and conservation scientists.

The introduction of the book by Judith Levinson (Director of Conservation, Division of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History) highlights the advantages of documenting featherwork as proposed in this publication and in particular its potential to link technical, material based and intangible qualities.

Ellen Pearlstein (Professor for Information Studies and in the Conservation of Ethnographic and Archaeological Materials atUCLA) offers concise and condensed information on feather recordings, preventive care, conservation treatment methods and legal aspects related to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). For further studies, the main literature on the subject is listed for the interested reader. The author developed a protocol for examining featherwork, a feather identification and condition template, which can be copied from the book and utilized as part of a survey.
Six case studies that follow the template, provide a comprehensive technical study, feather analysis, and examples of a conservation treatment and housing. The case studies carried out by conservation students, focus on headdresses, which entered the collection of the Fowler museum (Los Angeles) as gifts from private collectors:A lori-lori headdress made by the Karajá people from Brazil (Betsy Burr) and a Karajá skirt worn during initiation ceremonies (Heather White), a Huichol basketry hat from Mexico (Tom McClintock), a Shapra headdress attributed to the Shuar people of Peru (Lesley Day), an archeological feather plume (William Shelley) and a headdress made by the Asháninka (Colette Badmagharian), both from Peru.

Each case study, well structured and lavishly illustrated, demonstrates instantaniously the benefit of such recordings. The book can be highly recommended for museum specialists but also for those passionate about featherwork.

Renée Riedler
Mag. phil. Mag. art
Objects Conservator, Preventive Conservation Specialist
Lecturer in Conservation at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna


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