06 May 2010

Article: Conservation of Feathers (2005)

Title: Considerations in the Conservation of Feathers and Hair, Particularly their Pigments
: Jocelyn Hudon

: Fur Trade Legacy. The Preservation of Organic Materials, M. Brunn and J. A. Burns (ed.), Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property, Ottawa, Ontario, 2005, pp. 127-147.

: http://www.royalalbertamuseum.ca/... (PDF file, 4 Mb)

Feathers are amongst the most complex epidermal derivatives found in vertebrates. They have complex branched structures, grow from their bases by a unique mechanism, and come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, structures, and colours. Not only do feathers impart cover, insulation, waterproofing of the body, contribute to flight, tactile sensations or protection of sensory organs, even storing water, they are also involved in myriad aspects of communication and display in birds, and characteristically rather ornately. Underlying this diversity of colours and patterns found in birds is a variety of pigments (melanins, carotenoids, psittacofulvins, porphyrins, etc.), pigment-bearing structures and molecules, and complex micro- and macrostructures.
Given the great structural and functional diversity of feathers it should come as no surprise that their conservation should require a multifaceted approach. Accordingly, a brief review of feather anatomy, including the arrangement of feathers on the skin (pterylosis), chemical composition, even the native fauna of feathers (e.g., lice, mites, bacteria) will be provided, emphasizing aspects of feathers that may be of relevance to conservators. Since cleaning methods are well covered by other speakers, my focus will be on the preventive conservation of feather and fur colour from light. I will show how even pigment systems that seem biochemically homogenous—like the melanins of mammals—show surprisingly complex and species-specific responses to light. For example, in pilot fading experiments, mink, but not marten, fur darkened initially upon exposure to light. Attempts to quench free radicals likely generated by light irradiation did not appear to slow fading down.

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