An evaluation of quillwork and hair stabilization methods used at the National Museum of the American Indian

Elizabeth Brown


During the recent treatment of approximately 45 Plains Indian shirts in the conservation laboratory of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) we evaluated and developed several techniques for the stabilization of quillwork and hair locks. The treated shirts were selected for display in an exhibition Beauty, Honor and Tradition: The Legacy of Plains Indian Shirts. The exhibition, curated by NMAI’s George Horse Capture and his son Joe Horse Capture, a curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) opened in New York in December 2000 and is scheduled to travel to the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 2002. The intent of the exhibition was to illustrate the beauty of the shirts and to portray the history, cultural context and development of the shirts. Therefore in developing treatment methods we took into consideration the need to stabilize the shirts for travel and for exhibition on mannequins, to maintain the historical integrity of the shirts, and to improve the aesthetic of the pieces as requested by the curators.

The shirts incorporate a large variety of styles and materials, and many contain bands of woven quill work and quill-wrapped hair locks with varying degrees of damage and deterioration. Many quills are broken or lost due to mechanical and insect damage. Hair loss was caused both from brittle hair breaking and loose hairs slipping out of the wrappings. As a result of the differing demands of the shirts, a shortened exhibit timetable, mannequin requirements, and the diverse group of people working on the project, we investigated a variety of techniques for the stabilization of these damages. The following is a description and critique of the quillwork repair techniques used, some established and some new.

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