Fur and feathers in museum collections present a special set of circumstances. Besides the obvious taxidermy, natural history and ethnographic collections, many museums house fur and feathers in costume and textile collections.
One major issue is care. Fur and feathers are very fragile and require extra care and handling. Fur prefers colder storage conditions than most museum items (34 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit). Since most museums are not equipped with the necessary storage for fur, keep current fur collection items as cold as possible and monitor for deterioration.
Another issue is their attractiveness to pests. Not only are fur and feathers easy places to hide in the short term, but also warm, inviting spots to live long-term. Because pests are drawn to these items, house them together in order to monitor for and contain any infestation. Similarly, before bringing a fur or feather item into the museum’s permanent storage, isolate it first (even just in a clear tub if it fits safely) and carefully examine it for any evidence of pests hitching a ride.
Fur and feathers in collections also bring along legal issues.* A variety of laws protect and regulate the use of fur and feathers, with many also extending to flora, fauna, and fish. The most common laws with implications to museum collections are the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Each seeks to provide a legal framework in which items made from the fur or feathers of certain animals can be legally procured, sold, and bought. Often it is in the selling and purchasing of historic items that museums run into issues concerning these laws, especially when dealing across state lines or country borders. Some auction houses refuse to sell deaccessioned items containing certain fur or feathers because they cannot guarantee the items were created legally.
Many laws contain provisions for historic items (usually more than 100 years of age), but if further information is requested the burden of proof is on the owner to prove that the item was legally hunted and created – a difficult task for many. There are also exceptions for fur and feathers legally obtained prior to the laws’ creation even though they are now considered illegal.
Fur and feathers take special care and consideration in costume and textile collections. When choosing whether or not to accept an acquisition containing these items consider if what they add to the collection outweighs the special issues they may bring with them.
*Note: the contents of this article are not legal advice, they are simply meant to make the reader aware of some of the generalities about these laws. Ultimately any question concerning how a specific law affects a museum should be handled by a lawyer and the consultation of the law in its original, legal form as produced by the government.
What is the FSA?
The Field Services Alliance (FSA) is an organized group of individuals, offices, and agencies that provide training opportunities, guidance, technical services, and other forms of assistance to local historical societies, archives, libraries, and museums in their respective states or regions. Learn more and find an FSA member in your area here.
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