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I recently had the opportunity to attend a two day course, an Introduction to Feather Conservation by Allyson Rae, hosted by the University of Cambridge Museums. As the participants were from a range of backgrounds, the first thing we established was what each participant wanted to achieve from the course. Some were looking for a general knowledge on the conservation of feathers, whereas others had more specific goals, for example the repair of vanes.
In the morning on the first day, we began by looking at how feathers were constructed, the different types of feathers, their structure, chemical composition and how some feathers are coloured. This led on to how different feathers deteriorated and the different ways they were incorporated into artefacts. For example some feathers are prepared by cutting or splitting the quill, shaft or vane for decorative effect which can weaken the feathers. We also looked at what can happen to feathers while in collections, for example insect pests, dust, light. temp/RH etc.
After lunch we moved to the Sedgwick Museum‘s conservation unit at the Brighton Building and started the practical side of things. Ally showed us various ways of cleaning feathers including dry methods (cosmetic sponge, smoke sponge, groomstick, webril), wet and solvent cleaning.
Feather before and after reshaping using moisture
The second day began with a tour by Sarah Finney of the Sedgwick Museum Stores at the Brighton Building. We had the chance to see some wonderful things including a piece of Mars and specimens collected by Darwin. After this we had the opportunity to look at some objects provided by the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, putting our theory gained from the previous day into practice. We identified hunger marks on feathers, identified damage and discussed how we would potentially treat these objects. We also had the opportunity to look at sample feathers under the microscope in more detail.
The practical for the second day concentrated on the different ways of repairing broken or bent feathers. Firstly a repair using a replacement section of shaft as a splint from another feather of similar shape and type. This was thinned down using a scalpel then adhered across the broken shaft using a 50% Mowilith 50 in 50:50 acetone: industrial denatured alcohol. We also tried using different grades of Japanese tissue as a splint. Some participants had the opportunity to try and reattach/repair broken vanes, as this was something they had encountered in their work.
This workshop was incredibly useful for a range of disciplines, but in particular natural history and ethnographic conservation.
Rachel Howie, Conservator, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology