American Indian Headdress from Founding Collection is Preserved

By Lauren Ciriac Wenger

The Hershey Story began as the Hershey Indian Museum, established in 1933 by Milton S. Hershey from the collections of Col. John Worth. These artifacts are still an important part of The Hershey Story’s collection, and include cultural objects from Northwest, Arctic, Eastern Woodlands, California, and Plains American Indian groups.

Headdress, 1880-1920, Sioux. Adorned with feathers, glass beads, hair, and metal.

A significant aspect of The Hershey Story’s responsibility in caring for its historic artifact collection is preservation through conservation. There are two types of conservation: preventive and interventive.

Preventive conservation relates to the proper care of objects in terms of temperature, relative humidity, light levels, use of archival safe materials, simple cleaning, and proper handling methods. The Hershey Story’s curatorial staff manages preventive conservation efforts. We are lucky to have a state-of-the-art collections storage room that facilitates these efforts. Sometimes, though, an object’s composition or the way it was stored or exhibited many years ago can affect its current state. Interventive conservation is required when an object needs to be stabilized, thoroughly cleaned, or repaired. This treatment requires an expert—a conservator.

Prior to the museum’s move to its current home on Chocolate Avenue, many artifacts had been exhibited for decades, including this Sioux headdress. It is striking, and features a double trail of eagle feathers that hung down the wearer’s back, attached to a red wool cap with a colorful beaded brow band. Silk ribbons and copper bells adorn the headdress. Traditionally, a headdress of this style—also known as a war bonnet— was only worn by men who had earned the privilege through their bravery in battle. Today, members of Plains tribes still consider the headdress sacred, and wearing one is reserved for those that have earned it through being leaders of their communities.


Before conservation treatment
Before conservation treatment

Disassembling the exhibits for the museum’s relocation gave us the opportunity to evaluate object conditions, and we found that this headdress was in a fragile state. It was dusty, the feathers were discolored, the silk ribbons were faded and damaged, and the bells were corroded. (Image at left: before conservation treatment).

After conservation treatment
After conservation treatment

After evaluating the headdress, our conservator began treatment. The entire headdress was carefully cleaned with a vacuum designed for conservation work. The feathers were cleaned with isopropyl alcohol and blotted with cotton pads. The ribbons were stabilized by enclosing them in a polyester material sealed with an acrylic mixture. The bells were polished using a mixture of mineral spirits and other ingredients to reduce corrosion, and then coated with lacquer  for further protection. (Image at right: after conservation treatment).  Although the headdress is now stabilized, it is still very delicate, especially the feathers and ribbons. We take care to handle it only when necessary. As part of the conservation process, a custom storage box was made to ensure its long-term safety.

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