Wolverine Fur

December 28, 2008


Wolverine angry about being in storage at the Alaska State Museum

Wolverine angry about being in storage at the Alaska State Museum

I have heard many times that wolverine (and wolf) are desirable furs for parka ruffs because they easily shed frost that forms from breathing.   You’ve seen (and maybe experienced) frost buildup on beards that is difficult and sometimes painful to break off.  But by all accounts, frost will fall right off wolverine fur.  


My questions is, WHY?

Here are some possible clues.

1) Under the microscope, I don’t readily notice anything special about the scale pattern, medulla, or structure that raises an eyebrow.

2) Some references (non-scientific) mention that the individual hairs have low water content, and this is supposed to be a contributing factor in not forming ice.  I am not quite sure how the physics (or the biology) work in that scenario.  Is there less free water in the hair and therefore less to bond with the ice on the outside of the hair shaft?

3)  Other references mention that the hair has an oil in it that helps. I get it, oil and water don’t mix.  But then there is the anecdotal evidence of my dog.  He’s a mutt, and in the snow he’s the teflon dog…never gets snowballs matted in his fur, never gets snow stuck in his paw pads.  We know plenty of other dogs here who have trouble with snow.  And yet, my dog isn’t the kind of dog who has the oily water-dog skin and he doesn’t smell “doggy,” a smell I attribute to those greasier breeds.  In fact, he’s asleep next to me as I write this, and smells very nice.

4) The exhibit designer I work with, Paul Gardinier, suggests the effect might be related instead to the geometry of the hair…the fact that it is very long and flexible and there is a whiplash or waving action that causes the hair to flex and the brittle ice to break off before it gets well-established as a thick crust.

5) Finally, I can’t help but wonder, shouldn’t the fur of all the mammals in Alaska resist getting frosted up?  Granted, people aren’t breathing on most of those critters, but buildup of frost under high humidity conditions sounds like a biological disadvantage, doesn’t it? 

I am pondering this…any ideas?  If I get something that rings true, I will post it in the comments…



Opinion on Certification

December 22, 2008

stormy seas  

I admit to being a bit of a good girl/ rule-follower type, so the truth is, if certification becomes a reality for the conservation profession here in the U.S., I would do it.  I would also pay out the nose from my own pocket to fly where I had to (from Alaska mind you) and cough up fees to do it.  But I’m not looking forward to the prospect.  I’ve tried to keep up with what is developing in committee, mainly through postings to the listserves, but I can’t bring myself to become a student of the vast verbage being generated almost daily.  I have had the same general feelings about it since it came up years ago, but I’m still willing to be swayed…

In essence, I believe in the formal graduate training programs.  NYU, Buffalo, Delaware, Queens, London, and now UCLA, basically.  I believe one’s diploma from one of those places constitutes your walking papers.  I feel like I paid my dues, jumped through a lot of hoops, learned a ton, and that ought to be the equivalent of a certification.  (In the near future I’ll be posting an exhaustive CV which will detail said hoops.) Furthermore, I have been involved in AIC and jumped through those hoops to become a Professional Associate.   I’ll jump through the Fellowship ones when the time comes, too.  And if the certification hoop shows up, I’ll do it.  

I have a nagging suspicion that there will be folks out there who didn’t want to pursue a formal degree, have put in some time as a conservation technician, and who will be clever enough to study up and pass a certification test.  I imagine myself in that position years ago and think I probably could have passed.   There are some talented folks out there who didn’t go through a formal program.  The brilliant and insanely skilled Tony Sigel for one.  And then there is Dave Harvey, whose posts I have been reading and agreeing with on discussion lists for years.  But that cream seems to have risen on its own, hasn’t it?  At this point in history, I am not in favor of  an apprenticeship-style path into the conservation profession.  Professions like medicine, law, and engineering include the expectation of formal academic training and I would like to see conservation grouped in with those kinds of professions.

A certification program is not likely to impact my work much.  I feel concerned that there are people who I admire and respect who are in favor of certification and worry that I am missing something in the dialogue.   And it is upsetting to think of dozens of people working hard, volunteering their efforts to design a certification model with nothing but the best of intentions for our profession…and then have it voted down.  But at this point, I am likely to vote “no” or not vote at all.

ID of Alaskan furs intro

December 21, 2008




Working on a project right now to come up with a reference key for Alaskan furs.  Got the idea when I began working on a child’s parka made of a baby caribou, with some trim that seems like mink and a sunburst ruff that appears to be wolf and wolverine.  Also tried to pin down whether some fur tufts on a gut hat were wool or baby seal and it turns out they are probably cotton!  Certain things about the pelt, such as length and density of guard hairs, plushness of the underfur, markings,  etc are visible to the naked eye.  But another realm of information is available by examining the hairs under the polarized light microscope.  The appearance (or absence) of the medulla, the medullary index, the cuticular scale pattern and changes in these things along the length of the hair are quite interesting.  I am not yet sure if I will be able to pinpoint certain similar animals, like caribou from moose or mink from marten, but it might be possible.  And there is considerable information about what range each animal has and which cultures tend to utilize them.  The beauty of this project is that the animals used are finite.  I’m making a list of them, and have samples of about half so far.  I’m not sure the right way to disseminate this information once it is gathered.  I like the peer review process offered by publications like JAIC, but a website would really allow the most extensive use of images, which are really helpful.  I have a wonderful Olympus BX51 PLM, but need to get a camera for it to start building up a library of images.  I’ve mentioned the project to the 4 major US grad programs and might take on an intern this summer to push the project to the next level.

Ellen’s Path Into Conservation

December 14, 2008


Pig on the path (Guilin, China 2006)

Pig on the path (Guilin, China 2006)

I’m always interested in hearing this story from other people: how did you end up in your profession?  I’ll write mine here, both for the curious but especially for anyone who is considering going into conservation.  As a kid, I did well in both art and science classes, and vaguely hoped for a path in college that would combine both.  My father and grandfather were both dentists (I began dental assisting at age 13) and for a while I thought I might want to become a surgeon.  My dad really enjoyed the science and math parts of the brain…I remember him taking a calculus class at the local community college and inviting the prof over for dinner.  My mom was much more into the humanities, a voracious reader, and a devotee of public television.   Most of my high school classmates thought I would become an artist.  All that black eyeliner and armloads of bangles probably had something to do with that impression.  I started out pre-med undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in fall 1991.  Sometime in my first year, I took an art history class as a breadth requirement, and it was so comfortable and effortless…not work at all, like the math and chemistry courses I was struggling through.  And I would see the other students come to the lectures with their art class sketchpads and feel a pang of jealousy.  I made a calculation…that I could struggle my way into a career as a surgeon, and generally enjoy only my time in the operating theater while dealing with hours of unpleasant issues every day, or I could follow some nebulous art path and have no idea what career I might end up in, but it would come as easily to me as breathing.  Or so I imagined.  For a while I thought medical illustration would be the perfect blending of my interests.  I have met three medical illustrators since…the guy who made a dollar an hour more than I did as head of a crew at “College Pro” housepainters one summer, a very bright woman who was for many years the registrar at the Alaska State Museum, and a woman who is currently in Illinois finishing her medical illustration degree (best of luck Julia, you are talented and brave.)   When I declared my major in art history, I was given a brochure by the department listing possible careers I might consider with the degree I was going to get.  One of them was “Art Conservation.”  I had to ask three professors (including my advisor) before I even found someone who could tell me what art conservation was.  Nick Cahill, professor of ancient art and Greek art in particular, was on staff at Sardis, and told me about the conservators on site there.  My uncle had a pal who knew Jay and Holly Krueger, and I cold called them one nervous evening from the phone in my parent’s basement.  They basically told me to get in touch with AIC.  So I did, and realized I had to get my butt in gear to deal with all the pre-requisites.  I started studying german and french, took organic chemistry (including one semester twice because I got a C the first time…) and hunted around for some pre-program experience.  I had met Tony Rajer, who was from my hometown.  He taught an introduction to conservation at the UW that I sat in on, and I would occasionally bump into him at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.  When I tried to contact him about pre-program experience, I never heard back from him.  None of the museums in Madison had a conservator on staff at that time.  I knew the university had a book conservation lab, and the State Historical Society had a paper conservation lab.  The man who ran the book lab, Jim Dast, was skeptical of my experience when I spoke to him on the phone, and his tone with me was very formal and a little discouraging, but I think underneath it he suspected I was willing to work hard.    Finally he told me if I took his 8-week bookbinding class at a local bookstore and showed promise, he might give me some part time work in his lab.  It panned out, and I spent many hours doing technician work re-casing and re-binding books, for a little more than a year.  That was a really wonderful job…complicated enough to be interesting, repetitive enough to be relaxing, an endless pile of work, and NPR through my headphones.  Jim was also the kind of person that I looked up to and wanted to impress, so the times he was pleased with me are little nuggets of joy that I still pull out of my memory and polish from time to time.   I also did some work at a paper conservation lab, but wasn’t as well received there.  Now I think I realize why.  Taking on a volunteer or an intern is a heck of a lot of work, and unless the lab has a certain kind of project going or a special kind of organization, it can be really hard to make supervising someone actually worth your time.  I was willing to do anything, and work really hard, but I didn’t have any concrete skills to offer and I think I was more a burden than a help to them.  One of my professors, Nick Cahill, suggested I apply for a grant to go to Turkey and take a course called “Archaeological Conservation in the Field.”  It was being taught for several days in late June 1995 by J. Claire Dean and Glenn Wharton at a site called Kaman Kalehoyuk and was aimed at archaeologists.  (Incidentally, I missed meeting my future husband, Scott Carroll, at that site by three days.  We didn’t meet till 1998.)  I applied to all three conservation programs in the United States at that time: NYU, Buffalo, and Delaware.  Nick Cahill, Jim Dast, and Fred Fenster were my references.  Fred was my metalsmithing professor, and if I had not gone into conservation, I think I would have gone on to graduate studies in silversmithing.  It continues to frustrate me that I have not made the time to set up a silversmithing studio since.  It has been on my personal to-do list for years.  When I applied to conservation schools, I also asked if Claire Dean and Glenn Wharton might put in a good word for me, even though they had not supervised me, because I hardly knew any conservators at that time.  I was quite worried about getting accepted to grad school.  I had heard it was very common not to get in on your first try, and that most conservators spent at least a year working somewhere after undergrad to get sufficient pre-program experience.  I was really worried about the prospect that I might have to move to a strange city in order to gain more experience.  In the spring of 1996, I interviewed at all three programs.  My trip to Turkey the year before had been my first big trip out of the midwest and the first time on an airplane since I was a small child.  I found traveling and interviewing to be quite intimidating, but exhilarating at the same time.  I knew during my interview at Buffalo that they were just getting a feel for me, and didn’t think I had enough pre-program experience.  Delaware went better, and they put me on a wait list.  NYU sent me an acceptance letter that summer.  Chatting with other students in my incoming class, enough students turned down Delaware that I would have been accepted there.  NYU was the right place for me, though, because I was serious about the art history degree and liked to write.  I thought I would go into metals conservation, but the things about metalworking that I so enjoyed had nothing to do with metals conservation treatments.  I found myself drawn to ethnographic and archaeological objects, largely because of the connections to the natural sciences, but also for the visceral appeal of the artifacts.  The smell and look and feel of them.  The so-called “intangible” qualities.  And the form-follows-function combination of beauty and utility of so many of those objects.  That was my path into conservation school.  My path post-graduate is a different posting….