Treatment Case Study

Seven Conservators in the Anthropology Conservation Lab spent nearly one year preparing over 300 artifacts for the exhibition "Body Art: Marks of Identity". The archaeological and ethnographic objects included in the exhibit cover a wide range of materials. Conservation treatment involved cleaning, stabilization, and restoration, as well as identification of materials and technologies to supplement background information in exhibit labels. Upon completion of treatment, the conservation staff worked closely with exhibit designers and preparators to create safe and stable exhibit environments. This step involved setting environmental standards for light levels, relative humidity and temperature as well as collaboration with exhibit staff in designing cases and mounts.

Shield (Kayan and Kenyan, Borneo, Late 19th early 20th century)
Treatment Case Study

Shield [70.2/405]

The shield is carved from wood and decorated with paint and hair bundles. Using polarized light microscopy, the hair was identified as human by comparing its scale patterns and structure to known samples of human hair. The surface of the shield was covered with a layer of dirt. The conservation treatment began with an overall cleaning to reduce surface dust and dirt. Cleaning involved a light brush vacuum and was followed by removal of more firmly adhered dirt using a non-vulcanized rubber eraser. This step requires great care, especially when cleaning more fragile painted surfaces. Structural instabilities were limited to the hair bundles that were matted and brittle causing excessive hair breakage and loss. This condition was exacerbated by poor storage environments, i.e. high light levels and/or fluctuating temperature and relative humidity as well as insect activity which left the hair matted, tangled and fragmented. Storage beneath heavy plastic sheeting has flattened the originally curved bundles, detracting even more from their original appearance. Insect carcasses and frass were picked out of hair bundles with tweezers and the bundles were untangled with a bamboo pick. Then the bundles were reshaped. To accomplish the hair needed to be humidified using very controlled methods and dried slowly in the new, desired position.

Chokwe Costume (Early 20th century)
Treatment Case Study

Chokwe Costume [90.0/1143]

This costume is made from plant fiber string that is dyed different colors and looped (a type of knitting) into a fabric to form a shirt and leggings. The breasts are carved wood and the skirt is made from cane beads threaded onto plant fiber string. The shirt and leggings had many tears that probably occurred during use in ceremonial dancing. A particularly bad tear along the front neckline of the shirt had been repaired, possibly by the wearer. The repair involved rough, irregular stitching with cord that was pulling the surrounding fabric. The repair distorted the shape of the shirt. This damage area was humidified to make the shirt more flexible and the old repair carefully removed. Large areas of the neckline were reconstructed (re-looped) using the existing plant fiber string from the tear edges; the holes were reduced and the neckline reshaped to match the other undamaged area of neckline. A very fine gauze polyester lining was stitched to the ripped area to provide it with additional support. The black dye used on the plant material, possibly an iron based dye, is becoming acidic with age and is gradually attacking the plant material, making these portions of the fabric very fragile. All holes were stabilized mechanically by using colored cotton thread to secure the broken loop elements to nearby strong elements. To safely display the costume a multiple component mannequin was designed and constructed with the combined efforts of a sculptor, museum preparator and conservator. Due to the fragility and inflexibility of the fabric the costume could not be pulled over a form - like a mannequin. Instead an internal support made of five separate carved forms for the torso and four pieces for the legs was constructed. A brass armature consolidated the mannequin components. The skirt was mounted differently due to its weight and lack of form. The waistband was sewn to a padded brass hoop and the skirt body rested on a sloped Plexiglas board.

Shirt Restoration

Before treatment


Detail of repair


After treatment