ICOM Ethnographic Conservation Newsletter
Edited by Anthropology Conservation Laboratory, Smithsonian Institution 

Newsletter Index 

Number 16 ISSN 1036-6210 October 1997

Table of Contents

Note from Your Editors
Letters to the Editors

Technical Exchange
Tips on Making Soft Supports for Textile and Costume Objects
Tips on Sources for Three Kinds of Weights
Cellulose Powder
Emergency Response and Salvage Wheel
Peristaltic Pumps - A New Tool

Material Culture (Publications of Interest)
Amber: Window to the Past
Handling Guide for Anthropology Collections
The Living Tradition of Yup’ik Masks

Museums and Native People Issues
An Ethical and Theoretical Background for the Care of Native North American Cultural Materials
Policy for Indigenous Collections in Australian Museums

Laboratory Highlights
News from the Conservation and Restoration Department of the Rijksmuseum Voor Volkenkunde (RMV), Leiden, Netherlands

Conservators: Welcome to the Pacific Islands Museums Association
Trial Materials for Creating Textured Leather Fills
Leather, Skin, and Fur Fills
Conservation of a Chainmail Helmet

Newsletter inquiries and contacts


The mailing list for the newsletter now has over 800 subscribers. In an effort to cut costs and workload, this issue is the first to be sent to one person per institution, instead of multiple copies addressed to each individual within the institution. We’re asking the individual receiving the institutional copy to either make copies or pass it along to individuals on the routing slip we have included. If this presents a problem to anyone, please let us know immediately. In addition, anyone should feel free to make copies of the newsletter for individuals who are not currently on the mailing list.

We are pleased to announce that the newsletter has a new e-mail address. The new e-mail system at the Smithsonian is more flexible and allows us to send and receive attachments. This will significantly improve our communication, particularly with authors who also have access to e-mail, simplifying the editorial process. The old address will become inactive with the mailing of this newsletter but as usual, our new e-mail address will be printed at the end of each newsletter. Please make a note of the new address: ECN@NMNH.SI.EDU

We are pleased to announce that a new adjunct editor has joined in the effort to produce the newsletter. Lisa Goldberg has assisted us in the past, before the birth of her second child, and now again volunteers her time. For that we are very grateful. Welcome back, Lisa!

Some weeks after the mailing of the previous newsletter, we received some letters concerning some of the contributions. We are pleased to have received these letters because we had hoped that the newsletter would serve as a forum for dialogue among international conservators. We are very happy to publish them here and encourage others to send in their opinions and comments.


July 24, 1997

Dear Editors,

I am writing primarily in response to the editor's note which prefaced Leslie Williamson's piece. I think it is important when describing practices that have been developed to deal with American Indian sacred art to see the specific issues in a broader context, partly because ethnographic conservators' experiences provide a model for conservators in other specialties and will undoubtedly continue to do so. It is therefore vital to be ruthlessly accurate. For example, describing culturally sensitive objects as "those that may be considered to be of special significance in a particular culture" limits this category to everything in museums, libraries, and archives and many things in private collections as well. (Some things which individuals collect or simply own are of "significance" only to them, not to their whole culture.) Further parts of the given description appear to limit the category to sacred objects. If the issue of culturally sensitive artifacts is to be used to illuminate the reverence, for example, that some people feel for the original "Star-Spangled Banner" and that is reflected by the elaborate means the Smithsonian uses for its exhibition and preservation, then the phrase might be useful. However, I do not believe that is the intent of the conservators involved here.

My original take on the editor's note was that the actual meaning of the phrase in this context is to refer to artifacts whose originating culture holds beliefs which may contravene some of the measures that conservators consider routine. In a broader context, this is true to some degree in many fields of conservation. Custodial groups, whether art historians or antique car collectors, hold beliefs about objects which influence conservators' choices in one way or another. The difference in this particular situation may be that groups of people who do not presently own the objects in question are being given veto power over any other group of stakeholders, but even this is not a clear-cut difference between this situation and others. Another possible difference is that American Anglo society's feelings of guilt over past treatment, coupled with the groups' physical proximity, gives American Indian groups a moral right that other groups do not have, or that the importance of these objects in ongoing campaigns to resurrect cultures which have been all but destroyed provides a justification for doing something unique. Whatever the case, conservators must work harder at stating exactly what we are doing and why.

"In some cultures, the caretaker has the responsibility for keeping the artifacts safe on behalf of a larger group until they are passed on to subsequent generations, i.e., another caretaker." If this sentence was intended as a description of beliefs peculiar to a subset of native American cultures, then conservators have forgotten what we do for a living.

Barbara Appelbaum
444 Central Park West
New York, NY 10025

(We asked Chuck Smythe, Smithsonian Staff Anthropologist, Repatriation Office, who provided the information in the Editors’ Note in question, to reply. --Eds.)

For the non-US readers, in particular, I would like to point out that the term ‘culturally-sensitive objects’ has emerged recently partly in response to repatriation legislation passed in this country in 1989 and 1990; such laws mandate the return of certain categories of objects to Native American tribes from museum collections. The term has been adopted sometimes as a general term referring to sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony (which have specific definitions in the legislation). Speaking as a cultural anthropologist, I find the term "culturally-sensitive object" to be devoid of meaning in a practical sense, because the meaning of any object depends upon the reference group and the cultural context in which the object is used or perceived. In the museum world, there are often several such layers of meaning. To be "ruthlessly accurate," I would advocate a perspective that acknowledges the multiple contexts and meanings of objects, and somehow also communicates the particularities of any one object or use. Questions of priority among competing meanings and uses is a matter of philosophical approach or policy that each institution must address for itself.

August 25, 1997

Dear Editors,

I have received your newsletter devoted to the issue of pest management. It is full of very important and useful information and I would like to congratulate you on the wonderful job you are doing in disseminating it.

I look forward to the next issue.

Yours sincerely,

Gaël de Guichen
Assistant to the Director-General
Via Di San Michele, 13
I-00153 Rome



Textiles and costume objects can often benefit from the use of supports in storage to minimize creases and folds. These steps for making soft supports are adapted from a method developed by Polly Willman, costume conservator at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. The steps were modified in order to meet the needs of a time-critical schedule, a massive collection, and the large technician team of the Department of Anthropology's (National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution) Move project.

The supports, made from lengths of surgical tube stockinette, are stuffed with loose polyester fiberfill. Supports made from cotton or polyester surgical stockinette endure longer than paper supports because paper supports tend to tear and/or collapse over time. Both the surgical stockinette and the polyester fiberfill are considered to be appropriate materials for use in long-term contact with textile objects because they have minimal or no deleterious additives.

A 9 inch (23 cm) long section of 3/4 inch (2 cm) PVC pipe is needed to give the tube stockinette support and to hold it open while filling it with the fiberfill. Experience has shown that the 9 inch length of pipe is an optimal length. If necessary, the edges of the pipe can be sanded to remove rough cut edges to prevent snagging of the stockinette when it is pulled through the pipe.

We found that it was most efficient to make continuous lengths of the stuffed support for later use rather than fabricating lengths for specific purposes, but the same technique can be used to make individual lengths of the stuffed stockinette.


Materials and Suppliers

PVC pipe:
any hardware store that sells plumbing supplies
Polyester fiberfill (loose):
Fairfield Processing
88 Rose Hill Avenue
P.O. Box 1157
Danbury, CT 06810
Tele: 800-243-0989
Surgical stockinette:
Sterling Surgical
8455 P Tyco Road
Vienna, VA 22182
Tele: 703-821-6760

Sunae Park Evans
Department of Anthropology Move Conservator
National Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Institution
Washington, DC 20560


The three kinds of weights listed below have been used for a multitude of purposes in a book and paper conservation laboratory and may be useful in an ethnographic laboratory.

Sewing Weights
Source: Clotilde Inc.
Louisiana, MO 63353- 3000
Tele: 800-772-2891
Description: "Wonder Weights" (Item #113131) are small round lead weights covered with a white plastic coating; bottoms are covered with green felt
Cost: 6 per package @ $8.24 each
Description: "Shape Weights" (Item # 116788) are plastic-covered weights with a lead (?) interior that come in 3 shapes: straight, angled and curved
Cost: 4 per package (2 straight, 1 angled, 1 curved) @ $11.20 each
Diver's "Pillow" Weights
Source: Any scuba diving store Description: "Pillow weights" are soft rectangular weights, approximately 2" x 4", made from lead shot and covered with Cordura nylon. Weight: 2 lbs.
Cost: $5.00/each (depending on supplier)
Curtain Weights
Source: Any store that carries a wide variety of sewing notions. Please note that the American version of these weights is not as heavy as the English variety supplied by the John Lewis department store.
John Lewis
Oxford Street
London W1A 1EX
United Kingdom

(or any fine English department store that carries sewing notions)

Description: Continuous length of 150 gram lead "tape", made up of small pellets of lead enclosed in a tube of heavy white nylon or polyester fabric.
Cost: £1.65 per meter

Abigail Quandt
Senior Conservator of Manuscripts & Rare Books
Walters Art Gallery
600 North Charles St.
Baltimore, MD 21201

Ingrid Neuman, Private Conservator

I have recently been let in on a paper conservation "secret" (well-kept apparently!) which is that cellulose powder can be tinted using a microwave oven. For the objects conservator this means that the tinted cellulose powder can then be used to produce a wide range of subtle tonalities for basketry repairs. With this technique the cellulose powder can be tinted from off-white to dark brown with a conventional microwave oven by simply setting the dial of the microwave oven for a few seconds. Once the desired tonality is achieved, the powder can be mixed with an adhesive (such as methyl cellulose or wheat starch paste) which can be used to produce well integrated basketry repairs. Keeping a variety of tonalities on hand within the lab will prove very useful when making such repairs. I have had occasion to try out this technique and the results are quite satisfying.


Whatman Labsales
P.O. Box 1359
Hillsboro, OR 97123-9981
Tele: 800-821-1358 (US and Canada)


The first 48 hours after a hurricane or flood can be critical in saving collections. Now staff at museums, libraries and archives can have authoritative, hands-on-advice at their fingertips: the Emergency Response and Salvage Wheel.

The wheel, a user friendly slide chart, provides quick access to essential information on protecting and salvaging collections. It was developed by conservation professionals and endorsed by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency and seven other federal agencies and national organizations.

With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, complimentary wheels were distributed in June to nearly 43,000 American nonprofit cultural institutions. Wheels are now available for purchase at $9.95 each, or at a nonprofit/government rate of $5.95 each, including postage and handling. Reduced rates for orders of 10 or more wheels are $8.45 or $4.95 for nonprofits. There is an additional charge of $1.75/wheel for international air shipments.

To place an order or to request an order form, call toll-free 1-888-979-2233, or write the National Task Force on Emergency Response, 3299 K Street NW, Suite 602, Washington, DC 20007. Inquiries can also be sent to: info@nic.org

Large Swabs

A colleague has found that eight inch long rayon tipped swabs are a useful addition to conservation laboratories for certain applications. The larger than standard tipped swabs hold a substantial amount of solvent allowing prolonged surface contact with an object when needed.

The swabs, Puritan product #808, are made by Hardwood Products Company. The rayon tip is attached to the paper shaft with a water soluble white glue described by the company as "Elmers like" with "less than 0.5% vinyl acetate monomer". The rayon tip is sprayed with methyl cellulose to hold its shape. A note of warning, abrasion tests in the conservation lab have indicated that the rayon is more abrasive than cotton.

Hardwood Products Company makes a wide variety of swabs of various lengths with a choice of tips including cotton, lint free cotton, polyester, rayon, and foam. The tips also come in a variety of shapes including pointed, rounded, standard, and double tipped. The shafts are available in wood, metal and various plastics.

While Hardwood Products will send catalogs and answer product questions, purchases must be made through a distributor such as Fisher Scientific. The Hardwood Products Puritan swab #808 is available through Fisher Scientific as a special order. Ask for special order

# NC9349010. The swab #808 comes in a case with 10 packs. Each pack contains 50 swabs. A case is $39.00.

Supplier For more information

Fisher Scientific
711 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15219-4785
Tele: 800-766-7000

Hardwood Products Company LP
Guilford, ME 04443-0149
Tele: 800-321-2313
Fax: 800-323-4153


The paper conservation laboratory for the National Park Service, at Harpers Ferry West Virginia, had a large 5 by 15 foot map which required consolidation. Because of the condition of the map, consolidant needed to be locally applied in small quantities in a controlled way over large areas of the specimen. The ideal tool that we wanted was an instrument capable of dispensing small quantities of consolidant, preferably controlled by a foot pedal, leaving one hand free to apply the consolidant and the other to gently burnish the map. After searching in science catalogs, we discovered that the peristaltic pump satisfied our requirements. The pump in combination with the foot pedal works wonderfully and this note is offered in the hope that it can be helpful to others.

The peristaltic pump allows controlled delivery of liquids and gases assuring even distribution of mixtures because the parts of the mixture can be added in controlled, easily incorporated amounts. In the paper lab, we use the pump to distribute small, very easily controlled amounts of consolidant. The consolidant is passed through Tygon® tubing (I am using .02 in and .0559 in inner diameter tubing) from the bottle of consolidant to the object. The liquid never passes through the pump proper, it only flows through the tubing. The Tygon® tubing, several feet in length, is wrapped around a wheel on the pump. The wheel has smaller rotating wheels, which when moved together (contracting the tubing), force the liquid consolidant through the tubing. The faster the wheels rotate, the more quickly the liquid is moved through the tubing. If run continuously, the pump can control the dispensing of the liquid in amounts as small as one drop every 5 to 10 seconds. Because I control the pump with a foot pedal (that was purchased separately and attached), I can easily dispense one drop of consolidant at a time.

Peristaltic pumps are available from laboratory suppliers listed below. Prices vary from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. What varies from one model to another (other than price) is rate of flow, the number of tubes that can be simultaneously attached to the pump, the tube diameter that the pump can accommodate, and programmable dispensing. We purchased the simplest one we could find and it has solved our problem. One pump, advertised in the Labsource catalog, is designed for field use and can be operated by hand or by attaching to a portable electric drill.

Before selecting a pump to purchase, be sure to consider the amount of liquid (or gas) you want the pump to deliver and the tube diameter required to accomplish that. Different pumps can move a wide variety of viscosities, so you need to consider the kinds of liquids and/or consolidants you expect to use and the required tubing diameter. Also, "virtually any chemical" (according to the literature) can be used with the pumps. This means that organic solvent systems can be used providing the tubing is safe for the solvents.

The peristaltic pump has been a useful addition to our laboratory because it allows two people (each with their separate supply tube attached to the pump) to work on a large and delicate project. But there is one word of caution. You must remember that the tubing is under constant friction in the pump and that the tubing will wear over time and eventually rupture. Regularly changing the tubing and keeping the pump in a tray during use avoids any spillage.


The peristaltic pumps, foot pedal and tubing are available through scientific supply companies such as:

Cole-Parmer Instrument Company
625 East Bunker Court
Vernon Hills, IL 60714
Tele: 800-323-4340
Fisher Scientific
711 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15219-4785
Tele: 800-766-7000

319 West Ontario
Chicago, IL 60610
Tele: 800-545-8823
Fax: 312 944-7932

Nancy Purinton
Paper Conservator
National Park Service
Division of Conservation
Harpers Ferry Center
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia 25425


Editors’ Note: We received no contributions for this column but the following are publications with information that may be useful to ethnographic conservators.

Amber: Window to the Past
by David A. Grimaldi, 1996

Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers
100 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10011
Tele: 800-362-6702
Fax: 212-645- 8437
ISBN: 0-8109-2652-0
$39.95 US, 216 pages

This catalog was published in association with an exhibit on the natural history and artistry of amber produced by the American Museum of Natural History. The author states, "The inspiration for this book came from the desire to produce a lavishly illustrated volume on the entire spectrum of amber." The publication covers the origins and properties of amber, and its decorative uses throughout history. Many photographs illustrate in detail the unique colors and inclusions found in amber. This is a comprehensive and beautiful book.

Handling Guide for Anthropology Collections
by Nancy Odegaard, 1992

The Western Association For Art Conservation
826 Centinela Ave.
Santa Monica, CA 90403
41 pages, $8.95 US ($6.60 per copy for orders of more than 10 copies). Make check payable to WAAC.

Straightforward text is paired with humorous illustrations of "do’s and don’ts" of collection handling. A Guide to Handling Anthropological Museum Collections was written by Arizona State Museum conservator, Nancy Odegaard, and illustrated by conservation technician, Grace Katterman. This manual was designed to be used by researchers, docents, volunteers, visitors, students, staff or others who have not received formal training in the handling of museum artifacts. Paper bound and printed on acid-free stock. Available in English or Spanish.

Send orders to:

Nancy Odegaard
Conservation Section
Arizona State Museum
University of Arizona
Tucson, Arizona 85721

The Living Tradition of Yup’ik Masks
by Ann Fienup-Riordan, 1996

University of Washington Press
P.O. Box 50096
Seattle, WA 98145
Tele: 800-441-4115
ISBN: 0-295-97523-7, $40.00 US,
320 pages (softcover)
ISBN: 0-295-975-01-6, $70.00 US,
320 pages (hardcover)

The following summary has been excerpted from the preface of the catalog, The Living Tradition of Yup’ik Masks. The catalog brings together masks from museum and private collections all over the world and presents them in their native context. Ann Fienup-Riordan describes the natural world of southwestern Alaska and the rich ceremonial life that evolved there to acknowledge and honor the many beings that made possible the sustenance of human life in a precariously balanced environment. The catalog also contains a chapter on both the history of mask making and the contemporary methods of mask making.



Editors’ Note: This is a revised and edited version of a paper presented at the joint Fashion Institute of Technology/ National Museum of the American Indian Symposium, "Caring for American Indian Cultural Materials: Policies and Practices", Held in New York City, October 19-20, 1996; and published in the Symposium Preprints.

The primary purpose of this paper is to provide a brief introduction into the varied nature of traditional Native American belief and spiritual systems, and an appreciation of the ethical issues surrounding stewardship of sacred or religious objects of Native material culture. It is directed to those who are concerned with the care and handling of cultural materials, but who have limited prior knowledge or experience with Native North American cultures.

The care and treatment of Native art and artifacts, particularly those possessing strong religious or ritual associations, such as medicine bundles, may call into question many of one's previously held culturally-based assumptions regarding the role or nature of sacred art, and the morality of any given museum's or gallery's (or private collector's) rights of stewardship, or possession of such materials. All individuals charged with stewardship of such materials should possess some awareness of the less tangible aspects surrounding sacred objects in addition to a thorough knowledge of appropriate care and handling procedures. This awareness will help museum and gallery staff as well as private collectors develop a more informed approach to the care of those objects of Native material culture in their care.

For the purposes of this paper, sacred or religious art and artifacts may be defined as found or manufactured objects which have been made holy or sacrosanct by virtue of their religious or ceremonial associations, and which continue to fulfill roles of spiritual focus or empowerment within their originating indigenous cultures or descendant populations.

For Native North Americans practicing traditional forms of spirituality, there is no separation between their spiritual being and their ethnic or cultural identity as indigenous persons; the practice of their spirituality is a primary means by which they assert their identity as Native peoples. Within this context, all living entities whether plant, animal or human, are considered to be conscious, sentient beings, as are many features of topography, such as lakes, rivers and mountain ranges. Human made objects, particularly those intended for ritual or ceremonial use, can also be considered to possess their own separate consciousness. These objects are believed to retain the spirits of the animal or plant sources from which they are made, those of the individuals who make them, those of the individuals who use or wear them, and those of the rituals or ceremonies in the performances of which they are utilized.

Such philosophies and systems of spirituality remain directly counter to systems of spirituality encountered within the Judeo-Christian tradition, wherein a fundamental value is that only human beings possess souls, and that humanity is considered to hold dominion over all things on earth. Unlike codified belief systems within the Judeo-Christian tradition, Native North American systems of spirituality remained without such rigid tangible doctrine, and have survived to the present era through their transmission from generation to generation largely as oral or performed tradition in the form of ritual, song, ceremony, myth, storytelling, dance, and legend.

The gradual development of rationalism and scientific tradition within Western culture has served to widen the gulf between indigenous North American and Euro-North American world views. In addition, certain intellectual traditions arising roughly at the time of the European Renaissance, and associated with the study of relics from ancient Egypt, classical Greece and Rome, gave rise to an aesthetic wherein the collecting and display of the fragmentary remains of these extinct cultures became ends in themselves. With the advent of worldwide discovery and exploration throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and the Old World penchant for the collecting of ethnographica from newly encountered peoples, the material cultures of living indigenous groups from the New World soon came to be regarded in the same light as archaeological remains from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Implicitly, these New World cultures, if not actually extinct, were certainly doomed to extinction in the face of European conquest, and the inexorable spread of Western civilization.

The development of Western scientific culture over the centuries and its relationship to popular culture is mirrored in the development of museums and art galleries, from their earliest incarnations as the curiosity cabinets owned by kings, princes, and pontiffs, to the centrally administered and publicly funded cultural institutions. Whether Renaissance-era curiosity cabinet, or contemporary museum of anthropology or gallery of tribal art, the focus within the Western institutional setting has largely remained on the artifact, or the physical object while neglecting to consider the object's intellectual content or cultural significance.

A dichotomy exists in certain instances between Native world views and the aims of artifact conservation. While conservators are only concerned with preserving objects, Native culture is often more concerned with the preservation of the intellectual and spiritual traditions which caused the objects to be made. Thus, Native viewpoints sometimes question why certain objects are held within museums or galleries in the first place. In some cases the physical preservation of the object is not required or desired in the Native world view. This is especially true of objects created for a single ritual use or intended to enjoy a finite life span, with the implicit realization that the object would deteriorate in use and through time. Acquisition by a museum or gallery, and subsequent efforts to preserve such an object indefinitely are, in some instances, viewed by members of its originating culture as a perversion of the natural order of things; the whole cycle of conception or inspiration, creation or manufacture, intended use, and ultimately of disuse and decay. This would include the ritual abandonment or destruction of ceremonial paraphernalia at the conclusion of certain rites, as practiced, for example, in some contexts in areas of the Northwest coast.

This is not to say, however, that indigenous American cultures are uninterested in preserving anything at all. Cultures worldwide have an interest in preserving certain significant items as objects of heritage and cultural patrimony. Many Native North American societies have complex systems of care-giving that are analogous to contemporary museum and gallery methods of pest control and preventive conservation, and which predate them by many centuries, if not millennia. The use of selected burning plant materials (typically sweet grass, tobacco, or sage) during the ritual smudging of certain objects can be appreciated for its fumigant effect; while the ritual inspection of the contents of some sacred bundles at prescribed intervals throughout the year can be recognized for its utility in monitoring for the presence of biological pests.

While there is a growing awareness among mainstream conservators of the ethical issues surrounding the presence of sacred Native materials in museums, it should be borne in mind that traditionalists within the Native community would argue that neither the museum nor the gallery constitute an appropriate setting in which one can hope to achieve a full comprehension of, or experience the true significance of sacred objects, either from the viewpoint of those who created them, or from the viewpoint of those Native North Americans for whose benefit they were originally created and maintained. For those living within a conservative Native North American spiritual framework, knowledge is a privilege, not an absolute right, and within many cultures, access to certain kinds of information and knowledge is granted only after a prolonged period of apprenticeship or indoctrination, and involves several successive degrees or levels of initiation. Uncontrolled access either to restricted sacred objects, or sacred/secret intellectual property in the form of songs, dances, or chants, could produce catastrophic results for the transgressing individual, in the form of physical or mental illness, or even sudden death.

An example that illustrates some of these complex issues are medicine objects, specifically medicine bundles, which are considered to have a strong aspect of prohibition or restriction associated with them, depending upon the customs and traditions of the specific tribe or band. Limits and restrictions are placed upon the circumstances or contexts in which these objects may be seen, handled, stored, used, or inspected. For example, among some groups certain ritual objects should never be allowed to touch the ground, should never be approached by certain animals, or should never be handled or perhaps be seen by menstruating women. Such prohibitions against menstruating women generally stem from a belief that women in such a state are in a condition of heightened spiritual or mystical influence which might negate or nullify the power of the medicine object in question, and not from any attitude that their condition would somehow profane the object. In addition, prohibitions concerning restricted access are observed in conjunction with other restraints pertaining to the physical placement of medicine objects and bundles. Within the dwelling, specially delineated areas were traditionally set aside solely for the storage and safekeeping of medicine bundles and other ritual objects or ceremonial paraphernalia, with strict protocols governing who might access them, and when.

Museums and galleries, as well as private collections, may be seen as repositories of ill-gotten information and objects by many Native communities across North America. They also are perceived as painful symbols and reminders of cultural loss and deprivation. Thus, although the situation has slowly been changing over the past few years, many public displays, or collections of certain objects represent a historic act of desecration, which becomes a continuing act of sacrilege in our own time. Professional museum and gallery workers, as well as private collectors, should welcome the input and participation of Native traditionalists in attempting to achieve a more complete understanding of the significance of the objects comprising their collections.


Government of Canada/Correctional Service of Canada. Native Spirituality Information Kit. contributors Art Soloman & John Stonechild (Ottawa: Government of Canada, 1990).

Honigmnn, John J., " Expressive Aspects of Subarctic Indian Culture," in Vol. 6 Subarctic, Handbook of North American Indians, volume ed. June Helm (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1981).

Moses, John C., "The Conservator's Approach to Sacred Art," in WAAC Newsletter, Vol. 17, No. 3, Sept. 1995.

Speck, Frank G. with Jesse Moses, The Celestial Bear Comes Down to Earth. (Reading: Reading Museum and Art Gallery, 1945).

Tantaquidgeon, Gladys, " Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians," in Anthropological Series No. 3 (Harrisburg Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1972).

Vecsey, Christopher, ed., Handbook of American Indian Religious Freedom. (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1991).

John Moses
Native History Researcher
Canadian Museum of Civilization
100 Laurier Street
PO Box 3100
Station B
Hull, Quebec
Canada J8X 4H2


One particular issue facing many museums is the development of appro- priate policies regarding the move-able cultural heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. It is recognised as critically important that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples be involved in the development of policy and strategies for the conservation and preservation of movable cultural heritage. (Heritage Collections Committee 1995: 4 - 5)

There have been major steps by indigenous Australians in determining how their cultural material will be preserved and accessed within the museum community. In December 1993, Museums Australia Inc. (the Australian museums association) launched Previous Possessions, New Obligations, Policies for Museums in Australia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. In November 1996, a Plain English version was published. In this version museum jargon was removed, making it more accessible/widely readable. This document, developed by indigenous and non indigenous museum staff, in close collaboration with indigenous Australians, covers the principles of self-determination, management and collections, access to collections and information, assistance to communities, employment and training, and policy formulation. The policies themselves cover issues of human remains, secret or sacred material, collections in general, public and other programs, staffing, training and financial support, direction and management, and cooperation.

As part of their membership to Museums Australia Inc., all museums in Australia adhere to Previous Possessions, New Obligations. The larger the staff in museums, the easier it is to actively apply some of the policies. Through networking however smaller museums can gain the assistance of appropriate staff of the larger institutions to help with issues such as the return of human remains and secret/sacred items to communities. Most state institutions employ at least one Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Heritage Officer. The officers are invaluable when considering the practicalities of the policy. They have networks, for example, that are unavailable to non indigenous peoples, saving time and ensuring that appropriate protocols are used to achieve significant outcomes.

The Materials Conservation Division of the Australian Museum in Sydney has incorporated the recently developed principles and policies of Previous Possessions, New Obligations. It is by far the most practical and important publication from a museum’s point of view in Australia. Although the whole document is important, the following excerpted sections contain the most relevant principles and policies to the Australian conservation community. Those principles and policies that are self-explanatory will be noted but not annotated. I have tried to give examples of how the Australian Museum is implementing the policies. Interpretation of the policy by each museum within Australia has been understandably different and this article only reflects the views of the author as a person who was actively involved in its creation and as a senior conservator working at the Australian Museum in Sydney.



  1. Museums support the right of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to self-determination in respect to cultural heritage matters.
    Although the Australian Museum, for example, legally owns its collections, this principle acknowledges the cultural ‘ownership’.

Management and Collections

  1. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people must be involved in decisions affecting how museums store, research, use or display Australia’s indigenous collections and information and how such collections and information are presented, whether for exhibition, publication or educational purposes. 

Access to Collections and Information

  1. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditions will determine who has access to indigenous items and information. Access to some items must be restricted in accordance with cultural practices. For example, men will not be given access to sacred women’s objects and women will not be allowed to view or handle objects that are strictly men’s business.

Here we rely on the museums’ Heritage Officers. Good working relations are essential for all concerned. If there is a storage problem, for example, in the secret or human remains storerooms, then we will work according to the particular requests of the community including gender issues.

  1. Museums have a responsibility to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in the storage, handling, recording and display of cultural items. They should also provide strategic planning skills and training to community members in all areas of museum activity, such as research and recording techniques and exhibition planning.

  2. Museums have a responsibility to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in the care and preservation of objects. Conservation practices must adapt to cultural requirements, particularly when an item is secret or sacred.

Policy Formulation

  1. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be involved in policy decisions affecting their cultural heritage at all levels.


1. Human Remains

Museums should not hold any items which are not of scientific or cultural importance. This most especially applies to human remains, regardless of race. The utmost sensitivity must be observed in dealing with human remains.

This policy applies to all human remains of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples regardless of their age.

It is the clear intention of this policy that museums must enter into meaningful consultation with indigenous communities regarding human remains. Any decision over the return of human remains (even when museums are holding them on behalf of communities) must be made after conducting culturally sensitive consul-tation.


1.6 A museum can keep or hold on to human remains if the relevant community gives its permission. In such cases a museum must abide by any reasonable conditions sought by the community.

Storage, Access and Display

1.7 If it is agreed that a museum may retain human remains then they must be properly stored in an area separate from other parts of the collection and treated with respect at all times.

1.8 Access to human remains held by museums must be carefully controlled according to the wishes of the relevant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

It is the clear intention of the Australian Museum to return all human remains to indigenous people. This is not an easy process as rightful custodianship is not always easy to determine. In the meantime all human remains are stored separately from the rest of the collections with access only available to the Aboriginal Heritage Officers. The remains are individually boxed and preserved in a stable environment of about 20ºC at 55%RH. The integrated pest management program includes monthly replacement and inspection of blunder traps and a pyrethrin spray of the surrounding area every three months. The only area for possible concern for conservators is disaster planning which is under review for this specific area. The obvious issue is access, handling and alternative storage in the event of a disaster. At the moment the Aboriginal Heritage Officer would be informed and a decision taken to cope with the circumstances.

Secret or Sacred Material

Many museums have substantial collections of items which are both secret and sacred. There is a clear recognition now that special measures must be taken by these museums because of the considerable religious and ceremonial significance of the items to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Custodianship and Access

2.1 Responsibility for the protection of secret and sacred items belongs to the traditional custodians or their descen-dants, according to traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander law.

2.5 Museums shall store secret/sacred items in ways that respect their significant nature. They shall be stored separately from other collections.

2.6 Traditional custodians will be consulted on the best ways to store and preserve secret or sacred items.

2.7 Only people given permission by traditional custodians or the descendants, and by the museum’s management, shall have access to secret/sacred items.

As with the issue of human remains, responsibility for access, storage and preservation of this collection lies with the Aboriginal Heritage Officers. It is the clear intention of the Australian Museum to return all such material to its rightful owners. In the meantime, individualized storage has been provided for each item. There is no consideration at this stage to treat any of the items. With reference to 2.6, if an item were actively deteriorating, action to treat would only be taken if it was the express wish of the traditional custodians. This is significant and may challenge the principles of conservation, as there may well be situations where items will deteriorate and will not be preserved. But the role of the conservator in such a case would not be passive. Every effort would be made to ensure that the traditional custodians understood the consequences of non-treatment.

The secret/sacred items are stored under lock and key separated from the rest of the collection under standard 20°C at 55% RH. Lighting is limited to those times the storage space is used by custodians. The integrated pest management program includes inspection and replacement of blunder traps every three months. The area is considered pest safe by the collection managers, because all items have been previously fumigated.

Collections in General

Acquisition, Ownership, Access and Return

3.1 Museums will recognise that collections of items form part of the cultural traditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Therefore museums will take into account the views of those communities in matters relating to the collection, care, return or removal of the items and who may see them.

3.3 Museums will loan cultural items from their collections to museums and other venues, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Keeping Places, who must take responsibility for caring and properly securing the items they have borrowed.

Community Museums

4.5 Museums should actively support (both setting up and on-going) funding to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island community museums, cultural centres and Keeping Places.

Previous Possessions, New Obligations advocates a shared responsibility for the collections no matter where they are housed. The Australian Museum has had an active and ongoing Outreach Program throughout Australia and particularly in the state of New South Wales since the 1980’s. It has developed strong relationships with indigenous communities assisting in the development of community cultural centres (sometimes called Keeping Places). The conservation part of that program includes visits and practical, inexpensive preservation advice to community people. Community members visit the Australian Museum free of charge to gain training in the care of collections. Because loan items belong to the museum, it has the legal responsibility to care for the collections. This means that the communities can access the cultural items knowing that they have the backup of the museum to assist in their care.

Staff Training and Financial Support


5.1 Museums will actively promote the employment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in all activities involving their cultures and heritage. These include the care of collections, research, conservation of items, public programs and administration.

The Australian Museum has had an indigenous designated conservation staff position since 1993. It is expected that training will continue until that person will fully qualify as a conservator. It is expected that this conservator will, in time, take over the running of the conservation aspect of the indigenous outreach program. Already the loans section of the program and some of the outreach teaching is maintained by that staff member. Within Australia there are very few indigenous conservators. There is a priority to correct this situation. Perhaps this may be accomplished through the university system or through in house training combined with external education processes.


My main concern for the future is not with this policy and how we as museum workers in Australia relate to Australian indigenous cultural material. Here, museum collection management principles are tempered with cultural sensitivity of the collections of indigenous peoples, and these issues need not be in conflict. I am confident that in time and with growing awareness of Australian indigenous cultural issues, other conservators will incorporate and enact the policies described above.

The real challenge will come when similar policies are created throughout the world. It is at that stage that we will be morally compelled to collaborate more with our indigenous neighbours. The Australian Museum is already repatriating cultural items to south Pacific and Asian regions where there are few existing repatriation policies. In general this is achieved when there is confidence that the returned items will survive the rigours of island environments including pest and climatic control.

The "out-of-sight-out-of-mind" nature of some of the work we do will have to be reconsidered. For example, we may currently display or conserve an item from the Pacific region without the necessary permission that would automatically be sought from Australian indigenous people for the display or conservation of like material. In the future, we will have to consider in greater depth the taboos and cultural issues that may determine how items are can be displayed that may compete with standard design and exhibition procedures. It will inevitably take longer to complete work as preferences from indigenous peoples are taken into account. The Western stress on loans, exhibitions and other deadlines may well have to be rethought.

Karen Coote
Senior Conservator
Australian Museum
Sydney, NSW 2001



Many conservators will now be aware of the Dutch government’s Delta Plan, which provides funding to improve the general condition and knowledge of what may be regarded as their ‘national heritage’. Because of this many museums in the Netherlands have had to reevaluate their collections and perhaps for the first time propose plans for their conservation and future care.

Over the past five years or so, the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde (RMV) has made a huge effort to register, stabilise and re-house its collections. They number about 180,000 objects from all over the world, ranging from Japanese netsuke to complete boats from Indonesia and the Pacific Islands. By the end of 1996 most of these objects had been cleaned, supported, registered, labeled with barcodes, photographed and transported to a new storage facility. This was accomplished by a large team of people, which included conservators but primarily consisted of people trained ‘in-house’ only in basic conservation techniques.

While this was happening we started thinking, "what next??" It was all very well to have the collection in shiny new storage racks, with smart little labels and digital images making the database look colourful, but increased knowledge of and access to the collection means a greater demand for objects in good, stable condition. Deterioration may have been slowed down in the new storage facility but improving the overall condition of the entire collection is another, and potentially enormous, job. In addition, a vital part of the RMV’s plans is the complete renovation of the main building in Leiden. The first phase of new galleries and exhibits should be completed in early 1999, with the rest in 2000. This means that as well as any remedial conservation work we would like to do on the reserve collection, around 4000 objects will have to be prepared for exhibition during the next two or three years. A fairly extensive loans and temporary exhibitions programme is also ongoing to fill the gaps when the permanent galleries are being renovated. Altogether, this is a huge job for any organisation, but not helped by the fact that this museum has had only one full-time and two part-time conservators on its permanent staff!

To tackle this almost overwhelming task, the first thing we tried to do was to break the problem down into reasonable parts so that we could plan for the future. Initially, we increased the hours of the permanent staff, clarified their roles within the organisation, and asked them to concentrate on the ‘normal’ business of the museum - the ongoing, routine work of loans, exhibitions, pest control, advising, planning, and so on. The additional work of bringing the collection into stable condition was seen as a long-term but finite project that could be achieved using several more conservators working on temporary contracts. However, there are few conservators in the Netherlands with specific training and experience in ethnographic conservation, so there was a major problem in finding suitable staff to carry out the work. We therefore decided to bring in senior ethnographic conservators from overseas to supervise and train a team of local people who already had skills in other fields of conservation. It is hoped that in a couple of years time someone from this group will take over the running of these special treatment projects.

Loans, temporary exhibitions, and the routine needs of the collections have determined the workload for the permanent staff, but for the Delta Plan treatment projects there were no clear priorities, or rather, too many. The next step was therefore to determine which groups of objects out of the entire collection required treatment before any others and to quantify the amount of work involved. Physical deterioration is one obvious criterion in selecting objects for treatment, but unstable objects are scattered fairly randomly throughout the collection. It simply was not possible to survey all 180,000 objects before the projects started, and in any case, physical condition cannot be the only reason for selecting objects for treatment. Despite all the upheavals and renovations, the museum wants to continue to provide a service to the community and treatment priorities must reflect this. The list of criteria we came up with to select objects or groups of objects for treatment included:

We plan to balance the various projects over the next few years. Though it may seem contrary to the standards of many conservators, the Delta Plan treatment projects have to be assessed in terms of number of objects treated, and sizeable numbers at that. Treating large numbers of objects will maintain the momentum of the work and ensures that a reasonable proportion of the collections will have been dealt with by the time the money runs out. From previous surveys and ‘rules of thumb’ we estimate that about one third of the objects in so-called ‘priority’ collections will require remedial treatment. This amounts to around 23,000 objects. In order to get this backlog ‘under control’ we project that we will have to deal with the majority of ‘priority’ objects - approximately 60% or around 14,000 objects. We reckon this will take 12-15 years with six or seven conservators – the maximum we think is prudent and sustainable - though funding is not guaranteed after the year 2000. The remaining 9000 ‘priority’ objects will then become the ‘normal’ workload of the museum’s permanent staff.

We have put together a list of projects created from previous conservation reports, plans for the re-installation programme, and from discussions with curators. Using the selection criteria set out above we picked a number of object groups as the first targets for treatment. Using hand-held bar coding equipment to enter and download data, we have begun carrying out quick condition surveys on a statistical sample of the objects. A single conservator can survey around 150 objects per day with this equipment, so a week’s work can give an estimate of the condition of around 7500 objects. These surveys are based on six possible categories of condition:

The last two categories are divided into further subsets to describe the type of deterioration taking place:

With this survey data we can estimate the amount of work required and make decisions about which projects can be done, and when. Conservation teams can then be contracted to carry out more detailed condition surveys of selected object groups, to identify the actual objects to be treated, and to carry out the treatment proposed. Using the barcode equipment to record data allows us to relate the information to other computer records, making it useful for purposes such as assisting in object selection for loans and exhibitions, and long-term condition monitoring.

The RMV has, in effect, gone through a revolution in the way it is organised and the way it cares for its collections - and like most revolutions there has been much blood and pain. We are not in a stable situation yet and it will be some time before we can feel ‘comfortable’ with the way we are doing things. However, the state of the collections has improved significantly and conservation has become firmly established as part of the museum’s organisation. Though we have an enormous workload we have an almost unique opportunity to work through one of the oldest and most important ethnographic collections in the world - the prospect is daunting but exciting!

Graeme Scott
Head of Conservation and Restoration
Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde
Leiden, Netherlands



PREMO 1994-1998 (which stands for Preservation by the Museums of the Pacific Island States) is a conservation program guided by museum directors from the 22 Pacific islands states, and by conservators from ICCROM and the University of Canberra. PREMO is now coming to an end but as a result of the program, the Pacific Islands Museums Association (PIMA) is under way and will soon be ready to welcome conservators among its members.

Museums and historic sites in the island states face severe conditions of humidity, high temperature, and abundant insects. As if that weren't enough, each island nation experiences heavy damage from a cyclone every 10 years, on average! In addition, island nations are undergoing almost chaotic economic and cultural change. With many other national priorities, museums suffer from insufficient government support. There are shortages of skilled staff for all museum professions, including conservation (the only 2 conservation positions in the region are in the museums of Fiji and Papua New Guinea - the other approximately 30 museums of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia depend on museum professionals who "wear many hats").

Exorbitant air fares, fax and telephone costs make collaboration between museums in the region extremely expensive. Air fare between one museum and another can be as much as $5000 US, and transit can take up to 1 week.

PREMO 1994-1998

The PREMO objectives were to immediately improve the care of collections and sites in the region, and to build a lasting network of international cooperation. To accomplish this, PREMO had 3 areas of activity: short, specialized conservation training courses, network building, and public/government aware-ness.

PREMO has completed 3 short courses:

  1. 1994 - Preserving the Memory of the Pacific (a one week course held in New Caledonia on oral history recording, preservation of audio-visual materials, and disaster preparedness),
  2. 1996 - Conserving Pacific Heritage Sites (two weeks, held in the Federated States of Micronesia), and
  3. 1997 - Integrated Pest Management (one week, held in Fiji).

The courses helped most participants make immediate conservation improvements, but were also the basis of the "public and government awareness" aspects of the PREMO program. The courses garnered approximately 30 press stories, and 8 television stories. Local coordinators secured government funding and participation for each event. The largest public event, a celebration of the chiefly lineage in New Caledonia, attracted over 100 participants.

The courses also gave participants the opportunity to develop the network of museum professionals, which is now becoming the Pacific Islands Museums Association. To organize the courses, the museums ran a system of fax "news postings". As a follow-up to each course, the museums and ICCROM produced the first issues of a newsletter and developed a Directory of Pacific Heritage Professionals, which grew from 45 to 250 listings over the course of the PREMO project.


At PREMO Course 3, in Fiji, participating museum directors took decisive steps to organize the Pacific Islands Museums Association. The directors selected a board, with representatives from Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, and Vanuatu. They also developed an agreement with the South Pacific Commission, based in New Caledonia, to act as the Secretariat for the association. The board approved a Vision, Mission, and Aims and a five year strategic plan including five major areas: professional development and training, promotion of community access to museums, development of global museum partnerships with Pacific museums, incorporation of PIMA and establishment of a strong membership base, and professional exchanges and skills between island museums.

ICCROM will be an advisor to PIMA at least until the year 2000. PIMA will gradually add a much wider range of training and professional development to the earlier PREMO emphasis on conservation.

The first courses in the PIMA series are planned as follows: Course 4 - Techniques of Preventive Conservation for Pacific Museums - August 1998 (2 weeks in French Polynesia), Course 5 - Integrating Museums in the School Curriculum - August 1998 (in Solomon Islands), and Course 6 - Managing Pacific Museums - early 1999 (in Vanuatu).

The PIMA aim for Global Museum Partnerships proposes a world-wide membership campaign, but also proposes activities to increase knowledge of Pacific collections held outside the island nations. Several catalogues of collections in various nations have already been compiled, and PIMA plans to up-date, copy, and increase access to the catalogues. The PIMA board pointed out at its last meeting that Pacific collections held overseas are some of the best "ambassadors" for Pacific culture, and some of the best sources of contacts for Pacific museums with other museums in the world. PIMA would like to promote more sharing of exhibits between Pacific museums and museums in other parts of the world, including exhibits from overseas nations coming to the island states. The board also proposed an international meeting of heads of government to focus on issues of repatriation, but also proposed using the meeting to improve government support for museums in general.

The PIMA board is now deciding in which nation to incorporate, and expects to begin selling memberships in late 1998. Voting membership will be open to museums located in the nations and states participating in the South Pacific Arts Council. Non-voting membership will be open to all individuals and institutions in any nation which support the mission of PIMA. Until memberships are sold, the PIMA newsletter is available at no charge, four times annually. To receive the newsletter please contact:

Kate Vusoniwailala
PIMA Newsletter Editor
Fiji Museum
Thurston Park
Suva, Fiji

ICCROM and the museums of the Pacific thank their major funding partners:

Australia National Commission
Fiji National Commission
Physical Heritage Division
World Heritage Centre
Government of France
Ministère de culture
Ministère des affaires étrangers
The Getty Grant Program
The L.J. Skaggs and Mary C. Skaggs Foundation
Pacific Area Tourism Association Foundation
Air Pacific and Continental Micronesia Airlines

For further information on PIMA or PREMO, contact
Neal Putt
Coordinator for Preventive Conservation
(ICCROM Advisor to PIMA)
13 Via di San Michele
00153 Rome


Leather's physical and mechanical properties make it a versatile material in an extremely wide variety of objects for most cultures around the world. It can be found in the composition of fine art objects, historic objects, and ethnographic objects. It is used decoratively, structurally, and functionally and in multiple sizes and shapes. Its versatility and breadth of use commonly present interesting challenges for the conservator.

Treatment concerns are often complicated by the wide variety of preparation methods, the many different kinds and qualities of hides, the degree and forms of deterioration, and the actual function of the leather on the object itself. These challenges have encouraged the sharing of analytical methods, treatment approaches, and materials by numerous professionals in articles and meetings.

One aspect of leather treatment that remains difficult to resolve is filling losses in a leather object. Satisfactory results are often achieved using leather patches in conjunction with mixes of colored rosins, waxes, and synthetic resins. Paper patches and photographic imagery have also been creatively applied. However, on leather that has a distinct texture, the noted techniques may result in a fill more visible and distracting than desired. This is an increased concern for objects that will be exhibited in the round and viewed from all angles.

The following two objects provided the focus to experiment with methods and materials to create fills of an appropriate surface texture and flexibility to simulate the original leather. An historic saddle bag shredded by a nesting raccoon and a gilded and painted embossed leather wall hanging, both presented areas of loss up to ten inches square that needed textured fills. After experimentation, cast fills with raised textures matching the surrounding leather produced aesthetically pleasing fills which were not readily discernable from any angle. The technique we developed for cast fills using a vinyl poly siloxane impression putty and BEVATM Gel paste is outlined below.

Trials with RTVTM silicone rubber mold making materials were initiated. After seeking numerous manufacturers for a silicone rubber molding material with a stiff putty consistency, the silicone rubber brand we preferred was Poly-Sil PuttyTM, produced by Polytek in Lebanon, NJ. This product created a thick, viscous but pliable mixture that had no discernable "creep" and set within ninety minutes. As we began to be comfortable with this product, the company announced they would no longer be producing this particular viscosity due to lack of demand. This manufacturing change motivated us to examine impression products used in the dental field. A review of vinyl siloxane impression putties demonstrated that these products were even better suited to our needs than the silicone rubber. There are a number of viscosities - very high (putty), high (heavy body), medium (monophase), and low (light body). We prefer the "very high viscosity" because it will not creep or sag. This product is simple to mix, creates little preparation mess, and requires no weighing. The two-part putty (base and catalyst) comes in two plastic jars with screw on lids and a pre-measured scoop for each container. A level scoop of blue putty (base) and white putty (catalyst) readily kneads together in your hands until the color becomes even. The suggested minimum work time is 1 1/2 minutes. There is little stickiness and once kneaded by hand, a mass about 2" in diameter can easily be rolled ¼" thick between sheets of release paper to approximate the shape of the ten square inch area to be cast. The flattened putty is then placed on the surface to be cast and pressed in place by hand or lightly with a roller to ensure surface contact. It may be necessary to provide an underlying support to the leather by placing the leather against a flat surface or by supporting curved areas from the underside. The putty is allowed to hardened for a minimum of five minutes. The shelf life of the product is several years, and we have not noted any difference in performance in open, partially used containers. The shrinkage rate of the mold is 6% over the first two months. This has not presented a problem for us.

Release agents were necessary for the more tacky silicone rubber, on leather that was worn, powdering or had weakened paint on the surface. However, the poly siloxane impression molds tested on similarly weakened leather surfaces, both dressed (neatsfoot oil and lanolin solution) and undressed, released well even before they had completely set.

A cast fill is prepared by spreading a paste of BEVATM Gel and fumed silica into the vinyl poly siloxane impression mold. As the fumed silica is mixed, the paste can be tinted with a few drops of the concentrated commercial tinting agent, "TINTS-ALL"TM, found in hardware stores to approximate the leather color of choice. One or two thin layers of the paste are evenly spread and allowed to air dry over several days. Excessive additive or paste will cause shrinkage cracks in the fill. To approximate the flexibility and thickness of the leather surrounding the fill, the thin BEVATM Gel cast can be attached to various substrates such as skived leather, paper, or fabric. This can be done either before the paste has dried, or after the cast has set. A thin layer of the BEVATM Gel will suffice to adhere the two layers together.

To create the shape of the fill, a paper tracing of the void is taken. A light box works well for this purpose. The paper tracing is then tacked to the surface of the casting and the fill cut to shape. The shaped fill is then set into the void using BEVATM Gel or an adhesive of choice. For additional support, a crepeline, paper, fabric or leather backing, cut slightly larger than the void, can be adhered to the underside of the fill. For the large leather panels, the areas of loss were first fabric lined and the cast fills then set into the areas of loss and adhered to the exposed lining fabric. The fine small gaps between the fill and the surrounding leather are filled with a material of choice. We use BEVATM Gel, made into a thick paste by bulking it with fumed silica to reduce shrinkage.

We use Golden Artist's Colors acrylic paints for final surface toning of the fill. Acrylic paints can also be used for coloration. In the case of the gilded and painted embossed leather fill, a white metal oil gilding was applied to the surface and then toned with Orasol dyes and acrylic paints. Satisfactory results were also obtained using the Golden Iridescent/Interference acrylics.

Materials and Suppliers
Sheffield Bronze Paint Corp.
Cleveland, OH 44119
Conservation Materials Ltd.
P.O. Box 2884
Sparks, NV 89432
Tele: 800-733-5283

Vinyl Poly Siloxane Impression Putty, High Viscosity or Putty grade:

E&D Dental Products
71 Veronica Ave., Suite #3
Somerset, NJ 08873
Tele: 800-526-4911

This product is also available through many dental suppliers/manufacturers. One must normally be a registered dentist to purchase it. In presenting your purchase request, speak with the head of the sales department or contact your local dentist for assistance.

Poly-Sil PuttyTM (no longer available): Orasol dyes: Golden Artist's colors:
Lebanon, New Jersey 08833
Tele: 908-534-5990
Conservation Materials Ltd.
P.O. Box 2884
Sparks, NV 89432
Tele: 800-733-5283
Golden Artist’s Colors, Inc.
Bell Road
New Berlin, NY 13422
Tele: 607-847-6154; Fax: 607-847-6767

Alexandra O'Donnell
ArtNet Resources
200 Briarwood Lane
Portsmouth, RI 02871


This article describes several repair applications to produce versatile and flexible fills on skin and leather artifacts. These easily manipulated fills provide some structural support as well as aesthetic continuity and are easily made and applied using standard conservation materials and techniques. The first two applications described are based on the search for a flexible resin or resin mixture that could be bulked and easily manipulated to form a cohesive fill. The third example illustrates the use of a synthetic fabric fill for a natural history specimen with hair. All repairs were made on skin, leather, and fur objects in relatively good structural condition but which were visually disrupted by losses in the skin, leather, or fur. Before treating leather objects, the hydrothermal stability (shrinkage temperature) should always be assessed before performing any conservation treatment to assure proper treatment parameters.

Bulked BEVATM 371 Film Application

The supplies necessary for this repair are: polyester spun bonded fabric (i.e., RemayTM or HollytexTM), BEVATM 371 film, glass microspheres, and dry pigments. The other items needed to make the fills are a heat spatula, texturing implements, and inpainting materials. BEVATM gel and BEVATM 371 have also been used to produce flexible fills. Because of the solvent content in these BEVA formulations, however, and the shrinkage due to the evaporation of solvent, BEVATM 371 film is suggested for use.


15.0 cm x 15.0 cm piece of BEVATM 37.1 film (3.5 mil thickness)
15 cc 3M K-15 glass microspheres
dry pigments
For mixing: a glass/metal container and a heat spatula with a small tip

While wearing a particle mask to avoid inhalation of the microspheres, mix the BEVATM 371 film and glass microspheres together with the heat spatula (the melting point of BEVATM 371 film is 65º C). Mixing can be somewhat difficult because the BEVATM 371 film must first melt in order to incorporate the microspheres. Mixing in only 5 cc of microspheres at a time is suggested. After the microspheres are incorporated, add dry pigments to tone the fill material to the appropriate color. Mix the pigments into the BEVATM 371 film and microsphere mixture with the heat spatula. When ready to use, simply scoop up the fill material with the heat spatula and apply it to the area of loss. Texture the fill while warm.

The fill material cools very quickly and will need to be warmed in the area to be textured in order to properly imprint. Rough sandpaper and stencil brushes may be rubbed onto the surface to mimic suede. A finer sandpaper may be used to achieve a nubuck appearance. Silicone coated polyester film may be used to smoothen a surface. Molds can be taken of adjacent areas and the mold may then be pressed onto the fill surface to achieve the desired texture/pattern.

To avoid the problem of dust adhering onto the BEVATM fill, it is recommended to use a paint that has a medium with a high glass transition temperature. The BEVATM 371film/microsphere/pigment fill material can be adhered in place or heated into place. It is easily reversed mechanically, or with heat or petroleum benzine applied sparingly.

An application of this fill material was used to conserve a damaged skin drum from an American Indian group from the North West Coast. This drum was manufactured from a deer skin which upon examination appeared to be minimally prepared by soaking, scraping, and then stretching the skin. In this instance, there were several tears and losses to the skin of the drum which required stabilization and restoration. In order to reinforce the tears, pieces of a feathered-edged, spun bonded polyester fabric were applied to the reverse of the drum with BEVATM 371 film and a heat spatula. The heat spatula was set on approximately 65º C. The fabric acts as a backing to hold the tear in place and make a platform for the fill. The BEVATM 371 film/glass microsphere/pigment mixture was then applied to the area of loss by scooping up the fill material with an infilling spatula tip. The fill was flattened using the heat spatula and silicone coated polyester film. Light sanding followed to decrease the amount of gloss created by the polyester film. The prominent design element on the drum was extended onto the fill by painting with Rowney acrylic emulsion paints.

In a similar treatment, this fill mixture was used in the restoration of a monitor lizard. The lizard had been dried and mounted by inserting a metal armature and stuffed with saw dust. A tear at the abdomen tail junction had been created as a result of the strain placed in this area by the weight of the tail while it was on exhibition in a vertical position. The repair required a slightly different application of this technique. A backing of spun bound polyester was adhered to the underside of the tear with BEVATM 371 film and the aid of a tacking iron. The BEVATM 371 film/ microsphere/pigment mixture was then applied in the area of loss on top of the spun bound polyester platform. A mold was taken of the surrounding skin pattern and used to impart texture to the fill. The fill was made warm with the tacking iron and the mold was pressed with gentle pressure onto the fill material in order to texture the fill. The fill was painted with Winsor and Newton gouache colors and glazed with Acryloid B-72 and dry pigments. In addition, to prevent future damage to the lizard it was necessary to have a mount created to reduce the strain on the lizard tail/abdomen junction. The mount braced the tail and was affixed to the wall for exhibition.

Bulked Acryloid F-10 application

This treatment is a variation on the use of a bulked resin to form a flexible fill. In this example, Acryloid F-10 is mixed with glass microspheres to form a paste which can be applied to a loss directly or used as a formed film made by applying the paste to a mold. Acryloid F-10 is a homopolymer of butyl methacrylate with a low glass transition temperature of 20º C. When the glass microspheres are added to the solvated resin and the solvent is allowed to evaporate, the rheological properties of the resin change. The resin becomes a rather static yet flexible material. To the author's knowledge, the fill material does not exhibit cold flow under regulated museum climate parameters.


25 ml Acryloid F-10 (butyl methacrylate supplied in 40% solids in petroleum benzine: Amsco F 9: 1
50 cc 3M K-15 glass microspheres
For mixing: a glass/metal container and a spatula

While wearing a particle mask to avoid inhalation of the microspheres, mix the Acryloid F-10 and glass microspheres together. The recipe will make a material the consistency of marshmallow creme. This recipe produces a fill of approximately 10.0 cm x 10.0 cm and 0.2-0.3 cm in depth. When ready to use, simply scoop up the fill material with a spatula and apply it to the area of loss. Though it will still be sticky, the fill can be textured while solvated. Texturing can also be accomplished with the addition of solvents or with a hot spatula after solvent evaporation utilizing the thermoplastic qualities of the resin. Molds can be taken of similarly textured areas; the fill material can be applied to the mold and the solvents allowed to evaporate. At least forty-eight hours are needed for the solvents to evaporate enough that the film remains cohesive. The solvents will continue to evaporate after that time, leading to some shrinkage; however, the shrinkage will be minimal. The fill remains slightly flexible due to the glass transition temperature of the butyl methacrylate resin. Cut the fill material to the desired shape. Adhere the fill in place with additional resin or heat the edges of the fill slightly with a heat spatula to adhere. Solvent reforming on the edges also will adhere the fill. Color compensation should be carried out with a medium having a higher glass transition temperature to decrease the chance of dust adhering to the fill material. Acrylic emulsion paints work well. The fill can be removed mechanically or by using either solvents or heat.

This adhesive and microsphere paste mixture was used to replicate a taxidermy mount of black rhinoceros skin. The black rhinoceros mount was an alum tanned skin and was mounted to a pre-fabricated polyurethane form. A mold was taken of rhinoceros skin and the fill material was applied to the mold. Forty-eight hours were allowed to lapse before removing the fill material from the mold. The fill was then cut to the desired shape, adhered into place and then painted with Rowney acrylic emulsion paints.

Synthetic Fur application

For fur or hair inserts, National Fiber Technologies, Ltd. supplies a broad assortment of synthetic fur fabrics. The most versatile synthetic fur is an in-stock white fur made from 18 denier nylon with a 4-way spandex stretch backing. There are three standard fur lengths: short (2.5 cm - 5.0 cm); medium (8.0 cm - 10.0 cm); and long (10.0 cm - 15.0 cm). According to the mill where the fabric is woven, the fur can be easily colored with markers, pens, paints or dyes before utilizing it as a fill.

An alum tanned Western Kob (Kobus Kob) from Central Africa mounted on a polyurethane support was fire and soot damaged; the fire and subsequent water damage resulted in the gelatinization and shrinkage of the skin creating a loss on the proper right shoulder. A National Fiber Technologies, Ltd. synthetic fur was utilized to fill and integrate the loss.

First, a template was made of the area of loss. This template was transferred to the synthetic fur and a fill section was cut. A sharp scalpel was used to cut the nylon fur from the reverse side and care was taken to cut only the stretch backing and not the synthetic hair. The synthetic fur was trimmed and layered to match the hairs of the original fur. The synthetic fur fill was adhered into place using Acryloid F-10 in acetone; the adhesive was applied directly to the substrate (the polyurethane support) by placing the edges of the fur fill directly to the adjacent sides of the extant fur and skin. The synthetic fur fill was toned and colored with Magna colors by brush application.

Materials and Suppliers

Unless otherwise stated, all materials were supplied by:

Conservation Materials Ltd.
P.O. Box 2884
Sparks, Nevada 89432
Tele: 800-733-5283

BEVATM 371 film: A mixture of DuPont Elvax 150 (ethylene vinyl acetate copolymer), Allied A-C 400 (ethylene vinyl acetate copolymer), BASF Laropol K80 (cyclohexanone resin), Hercules Cellolyn 21 (phthalate ester of hydrobietyl alcohol), and paraffin (petrolatum) manufactured by Conservator's Products Company. According to George R. Chludzinski, Chemical Engineer and proprietor of Conservator's Products Company, BEVATM 371 film has a melting point of 65º C and a glass transition temperature of BEVATM 371 film cannot be given.

BEVATM gel: A proprietary blend of ethylene vinyl acetate latex and vegetable based product manufactured by Conservator's Products Company.

BEVATM 371 Solution: A mixture of DuPont Elvax 150 (ethylene vinyl acetate copolymer), Allied A-C 400 (ethylene vinyl acetate copolymer), BASF Laropol K80 (cyclohexanone resin), Hercules Cellolyn 21 (phthalate ester of hydrobietyl alcohol), and paraffin (petrolatum) in toluene and naphtha manufactured by Conservator's Products Company.

Acryloid B-72: Acryloid B-72 is an ethyl methacrylate copolymer manufactured by Rohm and Haas.

Acryloid F-10: Acryloid F-10 is a butyl methacrylate homopolymer supplied in 40% solids in mineral thinner: Amsco F at 9:1 manufactured by Rohm and Haas. According to K. Wolthman, Synthesis Chemist at Rohm and Haas, Amsco F is characterized as a C-8 aromatic with a flash point of 150º F. Acryloid F-10 glass transition temperature 20C.

3M glass microspheres K-15: Unicellular soda lime borosilicate glass microspheres manufactured by 3M St. Paul, Minnesota.

ReemayTM: Spun bonded polyester fabric made by DuPont.

HollytexTM #3529: Non-woven polyester fabric manufactured by Ahlstrom Filtration Inc., Mount Holly Springs, PA and distributed by:

568 Broadway
New York, NY 10012-9989
Tele: 212-219-0770

Synthetic nylon fur with 4-way stretch spandex backing: 18 denier nylon hair with woven nylon wrapped LycraTM backing. According to Christine Guintini, Associate Conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, nylon fun furs can be dyed with acid or pre-metalized dyes according to the manufacturer's directions at pH 5.5 and pH 7 or slightly above, respectively. The dyed fabric must be subjected to an after scour at 140º F. Available from:

National Fiber Technologies, Ltd.
300 Canal Street
Lawrence, MA 01840
Tele: 978-686-2964

Bocour Magna Colors: Pigments in Acryloid F-10. Manufactured by Bocour Artist Color, Inc. Available from art supply stores.

Dry pigments: Available from art supply stores and Conservation Materials Ltd.

Winsor & Newton gouache: Paints manufactured by Winsor & Newton, London, England, available at art supply stores.

Rowney Cryla Artist Colors: Acrylic emulsion paints manufactured by Daler-Rowney, Bracknell, Berkshire, England, available at art supply stores.

Heat spatula: For the greatest degree of success, an ERSA heated spatula with a small infilling spatula is suggested. Manufactured by G. Engelbrecht Messgerate u. Apparatubau 8195 Thanning Germany. U.S. availability through:

Olaf Unsoeld, Kolner L.L.C.
23 Grant Avenue
New Providence, NJ 07974.
Tele: 718-802-1659

Linda Nieuwenhuizen, Conservator
Give Me A Break Conservation Services, Inc.
48-20 Vernon Blvd., Suite 2
Long Island City, NY 11101


Our museum has a collection of Northern Nigerian armor collected in the 1920s by Sir Charles Stuart Burnett after a battle in which the Emir of Hadeija was killed. The bulk of this collection is in good condition. In contrast, one chain mail helmet with signs of deterioration was brought into the laboratory for examination and treatment.

There are four elements in the construction of this chain mail helmet: an inner textile cap which supports the chain mail; chain mail which protected the head and shoulders; a framework of tooled leather pouches which quarter the skull and which rest on the outside of the chain mail; and leather amulet cases. The upper ends of the leather pouches are brought together at the crown while the lower parts are anchored by thonging to a band of leather which runs from the forehead around the skull. It is believed these pouches contain text from the Koran. The amulets consist of one hemispherical and eight rectangular leather cases (also containing parts of the Koran on paper) and a steel cylinder. The amulets are attached in a row by thonging to the leather pouch which runs down from the crown to the middle of the forehead and are secured at the top of the helmet. The textile cap has two extensions which would have covered the ears; attached to these are two leather straps which would have been tied under the chin to fasten the helmet in position.

The chain mail was slightly rusted. The textile cap was worn, soiled and degraded especially in the area of the ear flaps. It was also stained by rust from the chain mail. The leather chin straps were flexible, but dirty, desiccated, and worn in places, and several of the thin leather stitches were broken. Seven of the rectangular amulet cases on the crown of the helmet were very unstable, as the leather thonging that held them in position had broken, leaving only one section of very weakened binding intact. One of the leather amulet cases had become detached and its leather case was much decayed, revealing folded paper leaves bound with a fine string.

The wooden hat or wig stand that had been used to support the helmet during storage was found to be too short, causing the lower part of the chain mail to rub against any surface on which the stand sits. The padded part of the stand under the textile cap was not the correct shape to provide sufficient support, resulting in distortion of the textile and horizontal leather band.

Treatment concerns

The helmet presented treatment difficulties because of its composite nature. Separation of the elements comprising the helmet was viewed as undesirable and possibly unethical because of the potential loss of valuable evidence of construction and use. Also further damage to the helmet could result from an attempted separation. A course of treatment was developed that would first stabilize the leather thonging of the amulets and then inhibit further corrosion of the chain mail. The chain mail corrosion was interesting because no other chain mail in the collection with the same provenance was exhibiting problems. The corrosion could possibly be a result of a poorer quality of workmanship. As the helmet would have been kept in perfect condition during its use and as rust staining was being transferred to the textile, treatment was deemed necessary. As with the conservation of most composite objects consisting of elements which are composed of metal and others which are organic, the treatment must necessarily be a compromise.

amulet cases
The seven rectangular amulet cases on the crown of the helmet were first stabilized to prevent further damage to their bindings. Cotton cording dyed with Lanacron™ dyes was selected as the repair material. Using a blunt needle, the cord was passed through loops in the sound areas of the leather thronging through to the textile on the inside of the helmet where the cord was secured with a knot against the textile. The cord remains easily identifiable as repair material and can be easily removed if necessary.

The detached leather amulet case and its exposed paper leaves were covered with LanacronTM dyed silk crepeline and reattached to the other amulets at the crown of the helmet. The covered amulet was secured by attaching it to the neighbouring amulet with cotton thread.

chain mail
The corrosion products on the chain mail were removed by air abrasive using glass beads. This work was carried out under a binocular microscope. The next step was the application of Ken-ReactTM KR 38S (a titanate coupling agent) to the chain mail to prevent further corrosion. It was necessary to isolate and protect the leather and textile elements during this treatment. Strips of thin Tyvek (spun-bonded polyethylene) sheeting were wrapped around the leather bands. The Tyvek was secured with masking tape to itself. The protection of the textile cap from the mail was more difficult, as the stitches that held the bands in position prevented the strips of Tyvek from being passed easily between the two layers. However it was achieved by threading Tyvek strips through a large-eyed blunt needle, so that they passed between the mail and the textile more easily. Although this proved to be a time consuming procedure, it was very effective. The inner part of the helmet was padded with balls of acid-free tissue held in place with a sheet of Tyvek that was stitched onto the iron links below the horizontal leather band. With the Tyvek in place, and when the corrosion products had been removed, the chain mail was painted with a 5% mixture of Ken-ReactTM KR 38S in toluene. This preparation was brushed on to the chain mail in the fume cupboard. It did not alter the appearance of the chain mail. When the solvent had evaporated, the Tyvek was removed.

The leather was revived with a solution of InvasolTM SFN (based on chlorinated paraffin sulphonate), a leather humectant. A 5% solution in white spirit and deionized water was prepared and applied to the leather with cotton wool swabs. Excess was removed by wiping the surface of the leather with dry swabs. This restored some flexibility to the leather.

Storage support
A new stand has been constructed so that the chain mail hangs free and the helmet now rests on polyester wadding covered in scoured calico which has been designed accurately to support the textile cap and horizontal leather band.

Materials and Suppliers

Ken-React KR38S (Kenrich Petrochemicals, Inc.):
Hubron Sales Ltd.
Albion Street
Failsworth, Manchester M35 0FP
United Kingdom

Invasol SFN (Ciba-Geigy):
Town End Chemical Works Ltd.
Bramley, Leeds LS13 4ES
United Kingdom

Lanacron Dyes:
Ciba Dyes and Chemicals
Hulley Road
Macclesfield, Cheshire SK10 2NX
United Kingdom

Tyvek Sheeting:
Preservation Equipment Ltd.
Shelfanger, Diss., Norfolk IP22 2DG
United Kingdom

This work was undertaken by Victoria Hobbs at Marischal Museum, University of Aberdeen while she was an Historic Scotland, Scottish Conservation Bureau intern under the direction and supervision of Margot M. Wright. The work was completed in 240 hours.

Margot M. Wright
Marischal Museum, Marischal College
University of Aberdeen
Broad Street
Aberdeen AB10 1YS
United Kingdom

The Ethnographic Conservation Newsletter of the Working Group on Ethnographic Materials of the ICOM Committee for Conservation is available free of charge to those with a professional interest in the care and research of ethnological collections. It is published twice a year with a mailing in October and April.

Authors are asked to submit articles in English only. A Guidelines for Authors is available from the address below or from your regional coordinator. We request that contributions be provided in a typed format - typed in standard typeface, on 8 1/2 by 11 white paper, one side only, and double-spaced. Electronic contributions via Internet, ECN@nmnh.si.edu, will also be accepted, but submissions must be sent in an E-mail message in ASCII text format ONLY and not more than 80 characters wide.


The editors have produced an on-line version of the Ethnographic Conservation Newsletter, numbers 13 through 19. Because the nature of the Web audience is vastly different from the original audience of the ECN, the editors have taken the liberty to protect contributors from being potentially inundated with inquiries. Therefore, contributors who have private practices in their homes will have only their names published. Anyone interested in contacting these authors should direct their inquiries to the editors rather than the authors. Those contributors with practices within public institutions will have the names and street addresses of the institutions published. Should a contributor prefer not to have his or her article published on the Web, please contact the editors.

Anthropology Conservation Laboratory
National Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Institution
MRC 112 10th and Constitution
Washington, D.C. 20560
Fax : 301-238-3109

Please forward contributions to the newsletter through your regional coordinator. All submissions must be received two months before the mailing date for inclusion - by August 1 for the October mailing and by February 1 for the April mailing.

Permission to reprint ICOM Ethnographic Conservation Newsletter contributions may be obtained in writing from the Editors.

For information regarding the International Council of Museums (ICOM), and the ICOM Committee for Conservation, please contact:

Maison de l'UNESCO
1, rue Miollis
75732 Paris cedex 15
Fax: 33(1)43-06-78-62

The Ethnographic Conservation Newsletter provides a forum for ideas, but this does not imply an endorsement of any products or procedures; it cannot, therefore, be responsible for the recommendation or application of same. This same principle of neutrality applies to individuals and institutions; the Newsletter is not a judge in regard to either the aforementioned or of related articles published herein. This information presents brief views of issues related to ethnographic conservation, and is not intended to replace the advice of a conservator with respect to particular circumstances.

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This page created by D. Nguyen
Updated August 31, 1999