Conservation of Featherwork
BY JOANIE HARMON
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.
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.”
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.