Collections in Context

Feather and fur materials can be found in a wide variety of collections and objects. Different approaches to their preservation are guided by their history and use. 

Natural History Collections  

Feathers and furs are an integral part of natural history collections used in exhibition, research, and education. Taxidermy mounts in dioramas and vitrines are used to tell key stories about topics ranging from local biodiversity to international climate change. Because they must accurately represent their species, a natural science conservator might include more restoration in their treatment, such as recoloring faded feathers or fur. Bird and mammal study skins and wet-preserved specimens held in research collections are used by curators, collection managers, graduate students in the AMNH Gilder School, and visiting researchers to collect physical data and investigate the mysteries of the natural world.

Approaches to the conservation of research specimens generally limit treatment interventions, prioritizing physical and chemical stability and avoiding cosmetic restoration. Feathers, fur pelts, taxidermy and study skins used during educational programming for school children, families, and adults enriches science instruction through direct experience. Conservation efforts may focus on treatments and guidelines that reduce the risks of frequent handling. As there are millions of specimens in a natural history museum, a great focus throughout is preventive conservation, such as a robust pest management program, and maintenance of environments appropriate for organic objects.

Indigenous Cultural Material  

Indigenous communities throughout the world have utilized animal materials, including fur and feathers, to produce an astonishing array of functional and ceremonial objects, employing technological knowledge and skills developed over millennia. Fur and feathers were used and continue to be used to create beautiful and powerful objects of personal adornment, high-status regalia, ceremonial, and spiritual items by numerous cultures. In caring for these collections, conservators must consider their intangible as well as tangible aspects. They should acknowledge the culture bearers as the experts, relying on outreach and partnership with originating communities to better understand the raw materials, technologies, and nonmaterial aspects of objects, ensuring respectful and appropriate storage, handling, treatment, and display.

Some examples of these efforts undertaken by conservators in the Anthropology Division at the museum include extensive work carried out during the renovation of the museum’s historic Northwest Coast Hall in partnership with representatives from indigenous nations whose treasures are exhibited in the hall, and the conservators' outreach to community members during their two-year project to treat and rehouse portions of its Siberian collections.

Modern & Contemporary Art 

Since the end of the 20th century, modern and contemporary art has increasingly incorporated taxidermy and preserved animal components in addressing topics from human consumption to our place within the biodiversity of the planet. “Rogue taxidermy”, “bio art”, and “ethical taxidermy” genres all exemplify this approach to artistic production. Feather and fur on display in museums, public spaces, and homes can evoke powerful meaning and associations. Modern art conservators may unexpectedly find themselves working on these materials and rely on guidance from artists and natural science conservators to develop an understanding of the appropriate extent of treatment.

Couture Fashion & Costume

Fur and feathers have a long history of use in costume and fashion, creating luxurious textures and dramatic silhouettes in runway shows, and exaggerating movement during stage performances. Feathers were used so extensively in high-end women’s hats during the late 19th century that renowned AMNH ornithologist Frank Chapman noted 40 different species of birds while surveying hats in Central Park!

Wildlife conservation legislation was enacted in the early 20th century to protect dwindling bird populations, and today the fashion and costume industries must source from vendors that abide by these regulations. Conservators treating these collections must also be aware of relevant statues, and avoid the use of restricted feathers when filling losses.

Social History/Utilitarian Objects

Collections that present social history and utilitarian objects reveal a diversity of uses for feathers and fur, from horsehair violin bows, animal hair brushes, hair fishing line and feather fishing flies, to hair wigs, fur coats and rugs. Given the versatility and beauty of feathers and furs, they often appear in historic collections. Original use is often reflected in the condition issues that these objects present, such as missing or broken feathers and hairs from handling.

Object conservators determine how to treat damage that derives from original use, which might be stabilized as-is, versus damage caused by other agents, such as pest infestation, and might be restored.  

Furniture Collections

Prior to the invention of synthetic foam in the mid-20th century, upholstered furniture was padded with horsehair from the tail and mane. Down feathers were also used in pillows and couch cushions. Though commercial furniture made today is padded with polyurethane, some contemporary traditional furniture-makers still incorporate horsehair or down feathers. When replacing horsehair, upholstery conservators generally use inert materials such as polyester batting or ethafoam blocks to preserve the original appearance while avoiding materials that attract pests or react strongly to environmental changes.


Interior walls of historic colonial buildings in the United States were finished with multiple layers of lime- or gypsum-based plasters containing aggregate (sand), water, and hair from horses, cows, or pigs. The addition of hairs provided structural stability, and is understood not to contribute to the plaster’s deterioration. Architecture conservators may recreate interiors using the same materials to preserve not only the original appearance, but also the traditional craft techniques.