Conservation of the Coe Collection

by | May 24, 2023 | Articles

Artist Unknown (Huron), Moccasins, c. 1845. Velvet, beads, ribbon, European leather sole,
2.5 x 3 x 9.25 in. (6.35 x 7.62 x 23.495 cm). Gift of Ralph T. Coe, 2011. NA0313.

These beaded moccasins are composed of velvet, beads, ribbon, and a leather sole which are materials sensitive to various environmental factors, often called agents of deterioration. Maintaining the care of any object requires understanding its construction and how the materials used are affected by its environment. Knowing this information and making appropriate decisions to protect the objects from damage is part of preventative conservation.

Incorrect handling or physical damage can cause various problems, including scratches, tears, and harm to the integrity of the beading. There are simple steps that significantly reduce the risk of damage to objects similar to these moccasins. These include reducing the overall stress on beaded works by using firm supports underneath them when handling and making sure an object is securely stored and away from being bumped or knocked over. These moccasins are particularly vulnerable because they have loose beads, and the beading thread can easily snag, causing further damage. 

Temperature and humidity are two major environmental factors that must be monitored and controlled. Changes in temperature or humidity can stress materials because each type of material will expand or contract differently, which can eventually cause warping, cracking, or other issues. Maintaining a stable environment for objects made out of materials like leather or wood is particularly important because these materials are hygroscopic, meaning they absorb and release moisture to match the humidity of their environment. The overall humidity level should also be controlled because high humidity can cause mold or encourage insect activity. Storing beaded objects in an environment with a stable humidity level and temperature is particularly important because the thread will expand and contract with any changes in the humidity and temperature, which can lead to the loosening of the beads or them becoming overly tight on the piece.

Dust and insects are always a threat, especially to organic materials like leather or plant-based fibers. Dust can contain pollutants that harm the art by causing discoloration or damage to the surface and providing food for insects and mold. Insects and mold both cause damage by eating parts of an object or leaving behind residue that can stain. The Coe collection is regularly monitored for signs of insect activity, and air filters are used to minimize the amount of dust. 

An additional consideration is light. All light has the energy to cause damage to an object, but Ultra-Violet (UV) light has a much higher amount of energy and causes the most damage to objects. Faded colors, more brittle materials, and even objects falling apart are damage that can be caused by light. If exposed to too much UV light, the ribbon and velvet would be particularly vulnerable to fading on these moccasins. To protect them from this, the Coe Center’s windows have a film to filter out UV light, and the lights are turned off in the collection areas when not being viewed.

Many agents of deterioration, including temperature and humidity changes, exposure to light, and the possibility of damage from handling, significantly impact a single object. To preserve the collection, items are stored in areas that are not damp, have a stable temperature and humidity, and are not exposed to direct sunlight or harmful forms of light. The Coe also ensures that the objects are handled carefully and with clean hands or gloves. These steps reduce the possibilities of deterioration and preserve the object for the future.


References:  (accessed 5/18/2023) Canadian Conservation Institute (2004) CCI Notes (Minister of Public Works and Government Services, Canada) (accessed 5/12/2023)

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