Ruffling a few feathers to make a new nest
Caring for a varied collection brings up many challenges. How do we re-house objects that bear no weight but need a storage upgrade?
Keeping the collection in order
Part of the job as Collection Manager, Human History is to oversee the day-to-day running of the collection behind the scenes. This includes accessioning new acquisitions that have been brought into the Museum, arranging onsite viewings for public and professional enquiries, and the preventative conservation of objects already held in the Ethnology/Pacific Collection.
Through a running audit, any maintenance the collection may need can be seen. Working with Pacific Curator, Fuli Pereira, we carry out surveys of collections from individual island groups, starting with Vanuatu. This process includes taking high resolution photographs of each object, updating their descriptions in our database, and re-housing at-risk objects.
Re-housing Vanuatu feather head ornaments
One example of the need to re-house a group of objects came when we were cataloguing feather head ornaments from Vanuatu. When we decide to re-house an object, it is not to say that the way they were stored was causing problems. The idea is to create a new way of storing objects that will prevent any future damage. Luckily for us the feathers had not lost condition in their previous storage, but they could bow or moult if neglected.
When re-housing any object, common risks are presented that must be mitigated which prevent damage and minimise access for dust, pests, or light. It is important to ensure that the new home you are creating is suitable for long-term storage and is increasing how accessible the object is. Usually nesting an object becomes an art of either making moulds for objects to rest in, wrapping it in soft packing with archival tissue, or finding the best place for the object in open storage.
When we decided to re-house these Vanuatu feather ornaments, we soon realised that we had a very small space to support the top of the feathers to prevent bowing, and that they could no longer be stored flat on their sides as it encouraged the feathers to lose shape. The final issue we had was that it was almost impossible to have the objects sit securely in storage. Weight and gravity were not on our side!
How did we do it?
We individually secured the bases of the feathers in foam nests and had the tops loose, resting on a thin hammock suspended between sides of foam support. Lastly, in order to ensure that the feathers could not move in transit or storage, we reinforced the box lid by securing Tyvek pads to it (Tyvek is a highly breathable, sterile and inert fabric). This meant when the box was closed the pads aligned with the bases of the feathers and everything was held in place. The pads add a passive weight to the objects, which in turn reduces the depth of the box by discouraging any unwanted movement by the feathers.
This cataloguing and rehousing project is part of a larger Pacific Collection audit and will continue indefinitely as we focus on the different islands. Our aim with this project is to increase the accessibility and accuracy of information we have surrounding our objects, and then to make this knowledge readily available for public use on the Museum's Collections Online.
Post by: Megan Denz
Megan is a Collection Manager, Human History and works as part of the Gallery Rotation Project team.
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