Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Tahitian Mourner's Costume Mounting

We recently installed the Tahitian Mourner's costume into the new Cook-voyage case.  To make the complex mount on which the costume is displayed, we worked with Rachael Lee, Textile Conservation Display Specialist at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  Rachael writes:

'In the summer of 2014, I spent time in the conservation lab with Jeremy and the team to start work on a new display mount for the Tahitian Mourner’s costume, as part of the Cook voyage redisplay. The brand-new display case posed an exciting opportunity to re-interpret the Mourner’s costume as a full three-dimensional ensemble that would illustrate the decorative scale and social status of the Chief Mourner during the elaborate mourning ceremony.

Pearshell mask and wooden breastplate

At the Victoria and Albert Museum, I’m more used to working with 18th century bodices and breeches rather than 18th century barkcloth. A large part of my job is to mount historic dress and contemporary fashion for safe museum display. This involves adapting a wide range of mannequins and making bespoke underpinnings, to replicate an accurate silhouette and realistic body shape, close to that of the original wearer. In doing so, items of clothing can be well understood in terms of the cultural context in which they were designed and made, and subsequently worn or used.

Before and after mounting: Dress (robe a l'anglaise), about 1785, Museum no.IM.39-1934. Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Mounting is an important final stage in the conservation process. Without it this robe à l’anglaise is at risk of strain and potential damage. After careful mounting and full support the robe is safe for display and the true shape of this late 18th century fashion revealed.

Initial assessment: neither Jeremy nor I were quite tall enough to measure the top of the tropicbird feathers!

Despite the obvious differences between Western fashionable attire and Polynesian ceremonial dress, the same method was applied in order to create a new mount that would maintain the safety of all nine elements of the Mourner’s costume. Below I outline some of the key stages involved in creating the new mount.

Adapted buckram torso with aluminium wire arms

We selected a buckram male torso that was slightly smaller than needed to allow for several layers of polyester wadding to be applied, creating a soft foundation for the initial barkcloth tiputa to rest against. We then added a pair of adjustable arms to the torso that can be raised and widened, creating a human T-shape. The arms further support the barkcloth and hold the sleeves of the feather cloak.

Three of the underpinnings made for the barkcloth tiputa and Pandanus matting apron

As the costume consists of many layers worn one on top of the other, it was necessary to make individual underpinnings that would help to control and define each part of the costume. The underpinnings also restrict contact between textured surfaces, minimizing friction and easing potential creasing.

To provide a firm yet soft support for the pandanus hat and barkcloth bindings, we also modified a buckram head with layers of plastazote® and polyester-wadding.
The head alone could not take further weight from the pearl-shell mask and wooden breastplate, so technicians Chris and Al custom-made a discreet steel bracket with security clips. This fixes at the neck of the torso and holds these heavy and fragile components securely.

Hands were cast from a fibreglass mould and finished with a stretch jersey cover

As intended, once all nine elements of the costume are dressed, no part of the mount is visible. However to help bring balance and symmetry to the large proportions of the costume, we somehow needed to add hands to the articulated arms. The solution? Fosshape! Fosshape is a non-woven, low-melt polyester fibre that can be easily moulded into different shapes with the application of heat. We found it to be a great alternative to standard mounting materials, as its lightweight properties didn’t add unnecessary bulk to the arms.

Installing the costume
The Mourner's costume in its full glory

The costume is now safely installed in the brand-new display case, which fittingly accommodates the imposing breadth and height of the chief Tahitian Mourner. We hope that this new interpretation, as a complete wearable ensemble, is easier to understand and highlights the unique decorative composition of this awe-inspiring costume.

Jeremy and I are really pleased with the outcome and hope that the conservation teams at the PRM and V&A will collaborate on future projects, to further develop costume mounting techniques for ethnographic dress.'

The stop-frame animation below shows us mounting the Mourner's costume for photography, and shows clearly the many complex layers of the costume and the mount created by Rachael.