Conservation of Featherwork

Q&A with Ellen Pearlstein, Professor of Information Studies and researcher in the UCLA/Getty Program in the Conservation of Ethnographic and Archaeological Materials


Drawing and terminology for pennaceous feather structure (courtesy Renee Riedler).

Drawing and terminology for pennaceous feather structure (courtesy Renee Riedler).

In her work as a researcher and scholar of the conservation of cultural artifacts, Ellen Pearlstein has studied the use and pres­ervation of natural materials, the role of indigenous communities in decision-making for exhibits and institutions that present cultur­al objects, and the education of conservators. A professor in the UCLA Department of Information Studies, Pearlstein focuses her research broadly on preservation principles, and her research in­cludes studies of Native American featherwork. She has done ex­tensive studies on the featherwork of the Maidu, Pomo, and Miwok tribes of California, as well as the featherwork of the Tulalip, a Coastal Salish tribe near Seattle.

“The Conservation of Featherwork from Central and South America” was inspired by a course on Amazonian featherwork that Pearlstein taught at UCLA and a major collection of these artifacts at the Fowler Museum. While the book focuses on ways of preserving these artifacts and the highly vulnerable materials from which they are made, Pearlstein has written numerous articles on the cultural and ethnographic significance of featherwork and its embodiment of tribal pride and power.

Professor Pearlstein teaches in the UCLA/Getty Interdepartmen­tal Program in the Conservation of Ethnographic and Archaeolog­ical Materials and Conservation of Material Culture Ph.D. program. Her research interests include American Indian tribal museums; the effects of environmental agents on ethnographic and natural history materials; how display and storage standards are devised; introducing context into cultural materi­als’ conservation education; and the de­velopment of conservation curriculum. She has worked as a conservator at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York and studied art history and archaeolo­gy at Columbia University and conserva­tion methods and practices at the Con­servation Center, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. In 2009, she was honored with the Sheldon and Caroline Keck Award for distinguished teaching and mentoring from the American Insti­tute for Conservation. She is a fellow of both the American Institute for Con­servation and the International Institute for Conservation.

UCLA Ed&IS magazine had a con­versation with Professor Pearlstein on the ethereal beauty and resonating symbolism of Native featherwork, the very real environmental impact on what could become a dying cultural practice, and the humanistic value of Indigenous works and regalia in museums.

What got you interested in working in the preservation of featherwork?

ELLEN PEARLSTEIN: Before I joined the faculty at UCLA, I was a conservator at the Brooklyn Museum, which has a par­ticularly impressive Native American col­lection. The museum did a kind of break­through exhibition in the late 1980s or early ’90s in that it engaged members of Indigenous communities before other museums were doing that when [dis­playing] Native American materials.

I really fell in love with this collection of Native featherwork from California and so enjoyed learning more about it from the cultural descendants who came to meet with us at the museum. And I have to say, one of the first things I thought about when I moved to California was that collection of featherwork. It devel­oped into a strong interest in research­ing exactly those materials … when I was introduced to this beautiful regalia and the people who cared so much about it. When I was able to pick up on this as a research area, when I came to UCLA, my knowledge expanded geometrically.

What were some of the things you learned from the tribal representatives about Native American featherwork and its associations with their tribe’s power and myth?

PEARLSTEIN: Some of the things that I’ve learned from regalia makers about featherwork came from those initial consultations at the Brooklyn Museum in the 1980s. This was before the 1990 passing of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act that prompted a lot of consultation between museums and tribes. When I started a serious study around 2008 on California featherwork, I also met with regalia mak­ers and a lot of what stays in my mind now are things I learned in meetings with [them].

I learned the value of color. The in­tensity of color of the natural plumage is really highly valued by regalia makers. I learned that there were particular vari­ants of certain birds, where you could find them with a very bright orange col­oration or find them with a very bright yellow coloration. Regalia makers are very aware of where to find feathers of these different colors.

After feathers spend a year on a bird, they’re very worn. They’ve un­dergone a lot of potential fading from sun. The regalia makers know exactly when new plumage forms on a bird and when it’s time to get prime plumage that has the most beautiful color. Also, they collect feathers without killing the bird. Feathers are plucked and the birds are allowed to live.

Making regalia is actually highly competitive. When you’re performing [native dances], you want to have the most outstanding regalia. And when you are coming up later in a performance and you have already observed very brilliant regalia, you might try to augment your own regalia to make sure you’re re­ally “winning” when you [perform].

The way regalia makers conserve and preserve their work is very partic­ular. [Regalia are] typically stored in the dark, away from light. They are often used in ceremonies that include a lot of smoke from fire, and that, we’ve re­alized, actually serves as an insecticide that keeps insects away from the feath­ers. Smoky, wood-burning fires include compounds known as aldehydes, a byproduct of the non-woody materials found in wood. Wood includes not just cellulose and hemicellulose, but it also includes resins, extracts, and all kinds of other materials [that] become volatilized when you heat wood to make a fire. So, there you are, sort of bathing this regalia in a preservative. We found that feath­ered regalia made for non-performance [purposes]—for example, things that were made to be sold directly to tour­ists or given to museums—don’t have the same protection as things that were worn in performances.

Have materials become scarcer since you began this research?

PEARLSTEIN: I would say that the an­swer to that is yes. Part of that has to do with the fact that the habitats for these particular birds have gotten urbanized as have the tribes themselves. California is home to a lot of urban Indians. So, the bird habitats have become harder to come by, the feathers have become harder to come by.

Some of these birds are protected through migratory bird acts and federal legislation that protects bird species. A lot of feathers used for regalia are from birds that are protected and it’s some­times hard to get feathers [that] are sub­ject to U.S. Fish and Wildlife laws that restrict access. People are substituting other feathers even though the birds themselves have certain mythological associations.

Along with the many precautions and special handling techniques, what is unique about the preservation of feathers?

PEARLSTEIN: Feathers are a materi­al that can be very readily distorted through pressure and mishandling. They are structurally fragile. Moths love feath­ers. They’re made out of keratin, a pro­tein. There are particular insect preda­tors that prefer protein and amongst them are moths. Webbing clothes moths (Tineola bisselliella) and casemaking moths (Tinea pellionella) are two dif­ferent categories that are very preva­lent throughout the world. With global warming, many places are seeing an increase in infestations because what these moths need are elevated tem­peratures and elevated humidity.

Often feathers are used in multiples and attached to a support and they over­lap each other, so there are areas that are protected from light that are dark and enclosed. Moths love that. I’ve ex­amined countless featherwork items where there has been moth activity on those concealed places.

Karajá feathered skirt/belt, Fowler Museum at University of California, Los Angeles, X70.1838, detail of feather securing methods.

Karajá feathered skirt/belt, Fowler Museum at University of California, Los Angeles, X70.1838, detail of feather securing methods. Photo courtesy of Heather White.

How does the digital environment enhance the preservation of featherwork apart from the ability to share exhibits online?

PEARLSTEIN: Increasingly, there are digital tools that help us in identifying the birds from which the feathers are derived. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a website called The Feather Atlas [which helps their] agents identify birds when they capture mate­rials that they think are being tracked.

The Feather Atlas also helps con­servators and preservation specialists [to] identify species. There is also a very robust European website called Feath­erbase that includes parrot feathers that are not found in the U.S. Fish and Wild­life site because those [feathers] are not indigenous to the United States. The in­creasing availability of high-resolution images on these websites is a digital tool that is making our work substantial­ly enriched.

There have been efforts to compen­sate for lost areas on feathers by making a digital copy of the pattern and shape of an intact feather and to transfer it onto a support that can be attached to the ac­tual feather. Three-dimensional printing, which has been used in conservation to recreate missing parts of sculpture and ceramics, doesn’t lend itself to some­thing that requires flexibility. It makes a rigid component and feathers have to be light and have the capacity to move. When you’re reproducing a section of a feather, you’ve got to be thinking about gloss, about shape, movement, weight. It has to be “light as a feather.”

After conservation treatment image of Fowler Museum at University of California, Los Angeles, Karajá headdress, X70.1830, prepared on storage support.

After conservation treatment image of Fowler Museum at University of California, Los Angeles, Karajá headdress, X70.1830, prepared on storage support. Photo courtesy Elizabeth Burr.

In today’s knowledge environment that seems to exist largely online, what is important to scholars, researchers, and society in general about the physical preservation of natural materials that have been made into artifacts?

PEARLSTEIN: Digital representations of items don’t give you any sense of the way that an object like featherwork moves when it’s [worn in performance], the weight or lightness of that item. It doesn’t allow you to look at the tech­nological choices that were made by the person who attached thousands of feathers to a support that might be made out of some sort of netting or a woven textile. There are so many attachment techniques that are specific to featherwork that you cannot typically see in dig­ital representations unless they were de­signed to give you that insight. Digital access means that you are accessing things in a way that has been decided for you instead of one-to-one direct ac­cess to an item, which allows you to ac­cess it in a way that you might want to access it.

We talked about whether or not these traditions are at risk of loss. With the kinds of things that people need to know to continue to make things that were made by generations past and have gone into museums … they can’t just look at a digital image and under­stand how to produce that item.

What were some of your earliest experiences in museums and how did they propel you to seek an education and career that was oriented toward art and its cultural aspects?

PEARLSTEIN: I was a big museum-goer as a child. I remember going to a King Tut exhibition as a child in Brooklyn. [I remember] its spectacular beauty and craftsmanship, just spectacular. Subse­quent to that, I ended up working on vari­ous stone conservation projects in Luxor, Egypt for ten years. I also remember going to see a Van Gogh exhibit when I was a kid. The color, the brilliance, the rich use of brushwork was dazzling.

The materials that I work with are either animal-sourced or plant-sourced. Paper and basketry are totally derived from plants. I have an art background before I went onto graduate study and the art that I love is based on the abil­ity of the person to manipulate these natural materials into things of meaning and beauty.