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Conservation of a trailing feather war bonnet

Hello! My name is Sarah, and I am the new student placement in Conservation. I have recently been spending a lot of my time treating a trailing war bonnet used in a Wild West show. You might be wondering what a trailing war bonnet is, well…

A Kiowa tribe war bonnet at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (2/8375).  Photo by NMAI Photo Services.

A war bonnet is a form of ceremonial headdress worn by men of various Native American and First Nations tribes in the Plains area of the United States and Canada.

Traditionally, each feather was taken from the tail of a golden eagle, and was intended to commemorate an act of bravery performed in the wearer’s life. Sometimes the tips were dyed red to indicate a particularly significant act.

The war bonnet before treatment.  It will be displayed in the redeveloped anthropology gallery.

The war bonnet that I am working on is a replica created as a prop. It was made of white goose feathers that were painted, with red feathers attached to the tips. Despite its beauty from far away, it is quite dirty and requires a lot of work before it can be put on display in the newly redeveloped anthropology galleries.

My current work with the headdress is focused on the condition of the feathers. Some time ago someone tried to make the feathers more stable by putting adhesive on them to keep them from moving. Unfortunately, after all of that time, the adhesive has started to peel off and become dirty.



Before the adhesive was removed from the feather (above) and after (below).


Sometimes this happens in conservation. Conservators can’t see into the future, and sometimes unexpected things happen to objects that we were unable to foresee. It can be a challenge, but we try to keep a close eye on our objects to minimize that risk.

Removing adhesive off of the inside of a feather using a homemade cotton swab.

My job now is to remove all of the dirty, peeling adhesive so that the feathers are in a more stable state. This involves me using a cotton swab (I make my own!) dipped in solvent, and gently rolling it over the surface of the adhesive until it lifts away.
It takes a long time! So far, I’ve spent 14 hours delicately taking off the adhesive, and I’m not done yet! But the end result looks much better than before treatment, and the feathers are in much better shape.

After I have finished removing the adhesive, I will be repairing some of the feathers that have been bent or broken, and cleaning the dirt that has collected on the feathers over time.