Two weeks ago I attended a 2 day workshop on the “Conservation of Feathers” at Norwich Castle Study Centre. I was joined by fellow Natural History Conservation intern Natalie Jones. The course drew a lot of interest so we were assured it will be running again in the New Year. I think the course would be relevant to those in object and textile conservation who may come across feathers in their work.
It is in no doubt that that interest was drawn by course tutor, Allyson Rae – a much admired and renowned name in conservation. As the Head of Organic Artefacts Conservation at the British Museum she became a specialist with feathers. Allyson now works freelance, concentrating on her passion for feathers.
There was two main groups of interest on the course; those of us interested in natural history, and those interested in textiles and objects (mainly ethnographic). A few people had specific projects in mind including stage costume and Hawaiian feather cloaks.
On the first day we were introduced to feather basics – anatomy, physiology, development and identification. The feather identification sheet including real feather examples was my favourite thing from this course – and we got to take them home too! Allyson had lots of feather examples to pass around and annotate the lectures.
We had a look around the natural history bird galleries in the Norwich Castle Museum – definitely worth a look. We also visited the conservation facilities which we would work in the following day.
Over that day we summarised all the relevant topics – types of artefacts, types of damage, agents of deterioration etc. We started to cover the basics of conservation before our practical sessions the next day.
On day 2 we were split into 2 groups for our practical sessions. My group started with solvent cleaning of feathers. For the solvents we tried 90% IMS, although the results were ok I know I would not be allowed to use 90% IMS in any of the institutions’ I have worked under – and I don’t think I would be confident to. We also tried a number of cleaning material cloths including Webril and “Dust Bunny” used dry. I think a number of the natural history people were very impressed with “Dust Bunny” as it had very adequate and non-invasive effect that could easily be applied to taxidermy birds.
Our groups then swapped to the wet cleaning method – immersion in water. I found this to be much more satisfactory (particularly on semi-plumes) than the IMS – but this couldn’t be applied to any natural history object conservation. Although I am aware that water immersion is used in textile conservation – it would also be frowned upon in the institutions I have worked under.
The afternoon was spent in our groups again looking at repair techniques. I have to say that Allyson was so skilled in this area. The work she did was near invisible and she showed us various techniques in a matter of minutes!
We mended broken shafts by whittling down splints from an undamaged feather and attaching it across the break with Mowilith 50 adhesive. It is very hard work but with her experience and practiced fingers, Allyson showed us she had been able to mend large artefacts with substantial storage damage using this method repeatedly!
Earlier that day we had learnt a very nifty technique for repairing bent feathers (where the quill was not broken) by just making a local application of moisture at the bend. We dampened absorbent tissue – folded into a compress and strapped around the bend, fastening with a clip or peg. It was amazing to see the results after 30 minutes – the bend was gone and the area of damage couldn’t be identified without a magnifying glass. This was definitely a top tip that I will be using!
So overall I learnt a number of new skills. The only disappointment for me was that Allyson was unable to relate her techniques to taxidermy and bird study skins because it was not her field of experience. I thought the course advertisement had been geared towards natural history specialists but I don’t think that they would earn as much from the course as an objects/textile conservator. None the less, as someone entering conservation it is very useful to me to learn a variety of skills and I am sure I will be able to apply much of what I have learnt to projects in the future.
It has to be said that the surrounding were beautiful and Norwich is a lovely city. Our hosts at Norfolk Museum and Archaeology Service were lovely and it was one of the more laid back and enjoyable courses I have been on.