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Building a Bird(man) House

This post was written by Jessica Barner, one of the IMA’s Conservation Technicians, who works with the Textiles and Objects Conservators. As the textile department prepares for the upcoming exhibition, Material World, stay tuned for more posts on the collection and exhibition organization. Enjoy!

After reading a previous blog about museum storage, we thought it would be fun to share the fine work of our Packing & Storage Department. John Ross, one of our Storage & Packing Technicians, created a beautifully-crafted housing to store the headdress of an African dancer’s costume. This costume is of the Poro Society – a society mainly found on the Western coast of Africa. The term Wenilegei means “bird man,” so I guess one could say that John contained the “bird man!”

If we had thought of this earlier, we would have taken images of John hard at work in the beginning stages developing the housing. What we do have are great images showing the final outcome! Like much of our collection resting in permanent storage, developing its housing required a number of considerations:

  • What is needed to protect it from dust?
  • How can we minimize light exposure?
  • What type of housing will minimize unnecessary handling?
  • Will this housing be understood by the next art handler?
  • Overall: What do we need to best protect it?

In addition to those thoughts, our Storage and Packing Technicians also need to accommodate existing storage space, which is rather limited. Some considerations that affect the type of housing are:

  • Where are similar objects housed and is there room for this to join them?
  • When will it be accessed in the future?

For permanent storage, this headdress and cloak will be stored separately due to limited space in storage and having different storage requirements.

This headdress requires a customized base to accommodate the chin strap, so it is not forced to bend sharply – potentially causing it to break off over time. To do this, a raised circular shape was built for the headdress to “lock onto” while grooves were cut to create a smooth slope for the chin strap. After John took detailed dimension after dimension, he created the below archival base (nice, huh?).



John regularly uses Ethafoam and Volara, archival quality materials, to create tailored storage housings. The open cell Ethafoam functions as a stable base while the smooth, closed cell Volara is added to provide a smooth surface for the headdress to come into contact. The Ethafoam and Volara are somewhat pliable, which allowed him to create a snug fit without unintentionally abrading the surface of the headdress. This type of customized housing also prevents the headdress from shifting or moving while being handled.




Once the base was taken care of, we needed to address the dust and light exposure issue. John created a Foam core box for the Ethafoam base to slide in to. This will prevent dust from gathering on the feathers over time. The easily-opened front flap allows us to see the headdress without unnecessary handling or movement. The label also aids us by providing information without having to open the box at all.



Like many other pieces in storage, the mount for this headdress required a good deal of planning, designing and attention to detail – something our Storage & Packing staff are no strangers to. With the help of Jesse, Rob, and John, we are able to create unique housings for our wide range of collections. Thank you, John, for your hard work! We (and the “bird man”) appreciate it! To see this headdress with its cloak in person, be sure to visit the next Textile Arts exhibition, Material World in the Spring of 2011.

Filed under: Art, Conservation

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