New investigations into the Tahitian Mourner’s Costume

published on July 3, 2020

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

Related Videos

Be the first to comment “New investigations into the Tahitian Mourner’s Costume”

There are no comments yet.