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A Conservation Intern’s Journal: Treatment of a Cantonese Opera Headdress

Conservation Intern, Sally Kim—during treatment

As a part of my Master’s programme in Art Conservation at Queen’s University, I completed a 12-week internship at Museum of Anthropology. I had the wonderful opportunity to treat five pieces form MOA’s collection. Of those five, I enjoyed treating the Cantonese opera headdress the most.

The headdress was donated to the museum by the Jin Wah Sing Musical Association from Vancouver’s Chinatown. It is a lovely headdress decorated with peacock feathers, pom-poms, sequins and tassels. Yet, the beauty of the headdress could not be fully appreciated because of its poor condition. For example, the quills of the seven peacock feathers were all broken, and the eye patterns were lost due to heavy grazing by insects. Also, all the pom-poms and tassels were heavily soiled, dulling their original bright colours.

For the treatment, the feathers, pom-poms and tassels were cleaned and stabilized. All frass, casings and webbings were carefully removed with tweezers. Each feather’s quill was repaired with a splint made from Paraloid B-72 acrylic resin (thermoplastic resin that looks a bit like clear plastic). It was formed by stretching the solid acrylic resin into a thread with a heater. B-72 was used because it is durable, non-yellowing and reversible. What’s more, it is semi-transparent, meaning that it would not effect the look of the peacock feathers’ quills. It took several tries, but the result was satisfying.

The pom-poms were cleaned with make-up sponges and fluffed up with a round-headed bristle brush. Make-up applicators are often used in conservation labs to clean materials when solvents such as distilled water or ethanol cannot be used—for example, in cases where dyes are susceptible to colour bleeding. The tassels were also cleaned in a similar manner.

Cantonese Opera Headdress—before treatment
Cantonese Opera Headdress—after treatment

The result was a more visually appealing headdress. To minimize the risk of mishandling and to better protect the feathers, a storage box was made. Even though the feathers are stabilized, they remain fragile.

The headdress was showcased in the conservation lab as part of MOA’s 70th Anniversary Open House on September 14, 2019.