Mounting ethnographic featherwork on mannequins: An exotic exercise in cooperation

Virginia Greene


In November 1991, the University of Pennsylvania Museum opened a major exhibit titled “The Gift of Birds: Featherwork of Native South American Peoples”. The 56 exhibit included twenty full-size realistic human figures, seventeen arranged in three dioramas representing ceremonies in which feathered objects play an important role; the remaining three in individual cases.

Although previous exhibits at the Museum included torso mounts for clothing and an occasional full-size mannequin, in every case the clothing (e.g. Eskimo parkas) concealed all of most of the mannequin or mount, including the padding and supports needed to safely display the objects. Twenty realistic figures dressed primarily in a few delicate feathered and beaded items – which allowed little or no room for concealing the mounting technique – was a new experience.

Curators, Conservators and Exhibits staff at the Museum normally work together in reasonable harmony. The introduction of a sculptor and live models into the process created an adventure in exhibit production. Owing to time constraints, the mannequins could not be modeled, but had to be made from body casts taken off living people. In order to establish exactly where the figures had to be jointed (to allow mounting of objects such as armbands and belts that were closed circles), and to ensure that the poses were correct and the objects would have the proper appearance on the finished figures, everything to be mounted on the figures had to be test-fitted on living models before the casts were made. Needless to say, this produced great anxiety in the conservator. In the end the trial fittings were accomplished without damage to a single object, and the experience revealed, at an early stage in the preparation of the exhibit, both curatorial and conservation problems that might not have been fully appreciated for months.

It immediately became clear, for example, that some items, such as loincloths, would require reproductions. The early identification of objects which could not be used, either because they were not available or could not be safely exhibited on the mannequins, was a valuable benefit of this difficult process. Arguments on the subject were invariably won by the conservator, but not without a struggle in some cases.

The presentation will cover – with lots of slides – the trial fitting of the objects on the models (nerve-wracking), the construction of the mannequins (often hilarious), decisions about the use of reproductions (“over my dead body will you use that…”), conservation treatments (“less is more”), and the methods used to mount the objects on the mannequins (“let me just glue that Velcro into your stomach, my dear”).

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1996 | Norfolk | Volume 4