Ask the Art Nurse: Stinky Feathers.

DEAR ART NURSE:

I have a random conservation question for you: A friend of mine just returned from an African safari and brought back some fresh guinea fowl feathers from a bird that she shot. She said that the feathers really stink and she’s trying to get the smell to go away. (Ick. Don’t get me started.) She said she’s tried dish soap, laundry soap, Woolite (which seemed to work the best), but they’re still pretty stanky.

Do you have ideas on what would work best without damaging the integrity of the feathers?

Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

Sincerely,
Stinky Feathers

DEAR STINKY:

Back when I was starting out as a conservator I worked in an ethnographic museum where I recall treating feathers — the most delicate of materials — with the most delicate of techniques. The reason is that any aggressive cleaning strips the feathers of their oils and they are then exposed to damage, drying, and all manner of deterioration. I’ve since gone on to work primarily on detritus and organic matter used in the service of contemporary art, so I thought it best if I posed this question to my pal Dana Moffett, formerly of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. She is now a private conservator working in Washington, D.C., on the artifacts of cultures that have better things to do with skulls than encrust them in diamonds.

After expressing horror at the use of dish soap, laundry soap, and Woolite — which probably completely stripped the feathers of their oils — Dana suggested placing the feathers (properly wrapped, of course, in a few sheets of Japanese paper or acid free tissue) into a sealed container (Ziploc bag, Tupperware) that contains an odor scavenger that will absorb the foul odor, like zeolites, activated charcoal (not the kind with lighter fluid), or even kitty litter (seriously). She also warned that she was not sure how long it would take to work. It all depends on the source of the stench.

If it doesn’t go away, there’s always the possibility of recycling the feathers — perhaps as a fragrant work of contemporary art. The next Whitney Biennial isn’t until 2012. There’s time…

Rx,
San Suzie

Have a question for the Art Nurse? E-mail her at suzie [at] c-monster [dot] net.

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