New investigations into the Tahitian Mourner’s Costume

New investigations into the Tahitian Mourner’s Costume

So one of the most culturally significant and visually impressive objects
collected on Cook’s voyages is what’s known as a mourner’s costume from
the islands of Tahiti. The mourner’s costume it’s something that’s very important in Tahiti because that’s a unique costume that is used
for the ceremonies when the Chiefs die and there are very few conserved in the world so this project is very very exciting and the way we are working all together on this project is very exciting too. The mourner’s costume was worn during the ceremonies for the death of a chief or for the very important people of the society so maybe it was a priest maybe it was someone from the family of the dead person that was wearing this costume and that performed a kind of ceremony with other young people that were accompanying him. So Joseph Banks, the botanist on Cook’s first voyage, wrote in his journal how he and several members of the crew witnessed this incredible ceremony that was taking place to mark the death of a Tahitian chief Banks writes in his journal this description,
this very vivid scene of how he witnessed the chief mourner emerging
from the shadows at dawn and dusk wearing this incredible costume. Banks witnesses this ceremony and Cook
and he are really keen to try and acquire one of these Tahitian mourner’s costumes but the Tahitians are not willing to part with it for them it’s made up of this kind of layers
and layers of valuable materials and it would have taken so much time and effort to create these fine layers of bark cloth, the feathered cloak, the feathered headdress, the pearl shell chest piece which is made of thousands of tiny pieces of cut pearl shell. The endeavor that has gone into making this costume there’s nothing that Cook’s crew have with them that is worth them trading this object for but when Cook returned on his second voyage he had realized that there was something that Tahitians were interested in trading and that was red feathers in Tahiti and across Polynesia the color red is very important. So Cook being a cunning an intelligent chap when he went back on the second voyage he had collected red feathers in another one of the Pacific Islands and he took them to Tahiti and one of the things he was
then able to do with was to trade those red feathers and Tahitians agreed at that point to part with a number of Tahitian mourner’s costumes and one of those costumes is the one that
subsequently came to the British Museum. We were lucky enough to be able to dedicate
about six months of time to the conservation work on the costume and what’s been exciting from my perspective, as a curator is that the opportunity that that six-month period has provided to bring a whole range of people into the museum basically to stand around and talk about this amazing artifact. So it’s the collaborative nature of the conservation work that for me has been the most exciting part. As you can see we have quite a lot of pieces that make up the costume and we’ve got them laid out now because what we’re doing is having a look at them and checking if they’re stable enough for display and thinking about what kind of conservation work and what kind of mounting they might need to enable us to have them on display. Conservation wise lots of different materials, lots of things to think about when we think about mounting all these things together make it quite a heavy object and we want that to hang and look really really special when it’s on display. Some of these smaller pearl shell elements are coming loose so we’re going to look at stabilizing them, we also have the feathers to think of as well so like with lots of other pieces of the costume some of the feathers have been damaged in the past by over-handling, by pests and we need to make sure that they’re stable so that we don’t lose any of these fantastic feathers as part of the display . Many of the costume elements of the Tahitian mourner’s costume are made out of material called bark cloth and bark cloth is made from the inner fiber of many different varieties of tree bark
and when it’s beaten together the fibers start to mesh into a fabric that can essentially be thought of as a non-woven textile. Here we have two bark cloth tiputas and what is absolutely fantastic is that when we started this project and we were looking at the mourners costume we only knew about one of the tiputas, as we were actually taking parts of the costume off of the easel we found a bundle that was attached to the easel, we got that bundle out and we unwrapped it and inside of it we found this second tiputa. So what we thought was originally really amazing and is absolutely fantastic is this large tiputa here you can see the faint stripes of colour that would have gone along the arms and down the front and this was all kind of put really in perspective when we opened up the bundle
and found this tiputa that hadn’t been seen for hundreds of years and had been protected against light so you can see really the vibrant red color there. So especially with the second tiputa because it has been folded up in this bundle you can see that there are a lot of creases there and from a conservation point of view creases are places where materials become weak so we want to try and remove those creases as much as possible. For us it’s very interesting to know about the exact materials, the dyes, the vegetal elements that were used, to make this costume. One of the most important materials that as part of the costume are birds’ feathers. We invited colleagues from the Natural History Museum to come and examine the feathers because we wanted to try and make sure that we knew exactly what species were being used. Today I’m here because the British Museum asked me to look at lots of feather material that is used in artifacts coming from Tahiti, the species we found in here, some are rather interesting, others are very, well, expected but overall when you look at the feathers, the feather cloaks and the headdresses many black feathers but from different species, like chickens are used, frigate birds but also lots of Imperial pigeon, one of the objects we found, a headdress, had clearly pigeon feathers in them but a few of those feathers catch my eye because I thought I recognized something special about him and by close observation I think I recognized that must be an extinct species species we never knew where it came from Tahiti was suggested as the place of origin but we do not know the species, the spotted green pigeon, and as the name already suggests it’s a greenish pigeon with spots and the spots are white, the species probably became extinct before 1800 so by finding those feathers and if you can confirm the feathers are indeed from the species then at least we know the origin and by knowing the origin we can learn more and more about the species who has already gone for over 200 years. For the DNA analyzing we will take a very small sample of one of the feathers which we think is from spotted green pigeon from this very tiny sample experts can extract DNA and from the DNA we can tell whether it is the species we think it is and the only reason we can t ell is because that is a specimen left
one specimen in Liverpool and DNA is already taken from that specimen so if we compare it and we find a match then we know for sure that the feathers found
here in this headdress belong indeed to spotted green pigeon. The most striking thing when you see these kind of costumes now is the gray white pearl shells and the black feathers of the cloak and so we think a lot of all these black and white things in the the mourner’s costume of the British Museum we can see all this colorful tapa and so we are really waiting to know what colors were the original ones,
what plants were used to make them just to be sure that what we know now in Tahiti the different colors we use, how we make the dyes today, is it similar to what was made at the end of the 18th century. In images of the costume from the time of collection a lot of it is really really colorful although this looks slightly brown and slightly faded.
You can actually see tantalizing hints of color here maybe some yellow, maybe some red here. So it’s great that we have the scientists at the Museum on board who are going to be analyzing some of the pigments and give us more information about what the true colors of the costume
are likely to have been. There were three main colors which were red, black and yellow. The red and the black were very easy to spot in many of the costume parts. The yellow was a little more tricky it underwent a lot of fading so actually we were able to clearly see the yellow on only when we unfolded some of the parts of the costume and so where it was protected from the light we saw this yellow appearance which was expected because there are drawings showing the costume being bright red and yellow decorated. There were areas again when it was clear that a yellow color was there areas that where it was less clear but kind of expected the first thing that we did, we used a UV light source so the UV light would have the possibility to excite the yellow dyes which would emit these possibly characteristic luminescence and this was the case as soon as we switched the UV light on a bright yellow green fluorescent appeared and so the fact that this yellow underwent a lot of fading and the fact that it showed this typical yellow-green luminescence pointed towards one candidate being highly likely and this is turmeric
another quite common source of yellow in this part of the world and we took a sample at the point and it is what the sample looked like under the microscope another indication of turmeric could be obtained because these yellow particles on the fibers are very consistent with what turmeric looks like under the microscope it’s a direct dye, which means that it sticks directly on the fibers without the need of a mordant
and this is what what it usually looks like but ultimately the presence of the turmeric was confirmed by liquid chromatography mass spectrometry. Today there are complete costumes in London, in Oxford and Goettingen in Germany, in Hawaii and in Exeter but there aren’t that many that are as complete as the amazing, dramatic costume that we have here at the British Museum and it’s got so many different elements to it that add to this bulk, this height, this splendour that the redisplay of it here in the exhibition I think will really be an impressive spectacle for visitors.

23 Replies to “New investigations into the Tahitian Mourner’s Costume”

  1. If only I can trade red feathers to buy something really valuable. You know, like a house or something.

  2. Loved hearing about the fibre content the people were able to obtain from the plants and animals around them. The tree bark was especially interesting; a non-woven cloth that was produced by beating innter bark together so that it holds in one piece!

  3. I wonder if it be possible to use a light projection on the display to be able to show it in it's original coloring without actually harming the costume.

  4. Was this donated by the people of Tahiti or was this stolen by the French then bought by a Brit and displayed it in the stolen goods depository.

  5. 'collaborative nature of the conservation work' red feathers for priceless artifacts is not a fair trade now if it ever was. what is the museum's right to possession of this costume made of? how many tahitians are fed and clothed by the value you extract from their cultural products?

  6. I remember stumbling onto the Bark-cloth exhibit at the British Museum a few years ago. Absolutely fascinating seeing the differences between the Pacific islands their use of the same material the dresses, and patterns. It really made me appreciate each Pacific island as a unique culture when I had lumped them together.

  7. Very interesting! I sometimes wish you would display a recent object next to it, so that one can also see how it (likely) looked back when it was in use, because I would never have spotted that yellow.

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