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The care of skin clothing in the British Museum

Skins are made into durable leather by the process of tanning. There are three main processes: vegetable tanning using the tannin that occurs naturally in certain plants, mineral tanning using metallic salts, and oil tanning with oils and other fatty materials.

Many of the skins that are acquired by the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas (formerly Department of Ethnography) are untanned or only partly tanned; they are less stable than fully tanned skins and more likely to decay.

Objects made from skins are easily affected by their surroundings. Humidity, temperature, light and insects can all cause damage. The relative humidity needs to be kept constant at a suitable level: a dry atmosphere can lead to splitting, too humid conditions can lead to the growth of mould.

Once in a museum such skins may loose much of their flexibility, as they are no longer being worn or kept pliable by Inuit methods such as chewing or scraping. In the past, collectors often treated skins with oily dressings to keep them flexible. However, conservators discovered that the dressings themselves could cause problems and, as flexibility is now no longer considered essential, they are usually avoided. In storage, items are gently padded with acid-free tissue paper to prevent the formation of creases. Good support on exhibition is also essential.

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