Friday 20 May 2016

Cook-voyage Case Opening

Curator Jeremy Coote discussing the Cook-voyage case with Sir David Attenborough

A few weeks ago the Cook-voyage case was formally opened by Sir David Attenborough at a special event coordinated by the University Development Office.  Sir David is one of the patrons of the Friends of the Pitt Rivers, and has a longstanding interest and enthusiasm for the work of the museum.

Sir David during his speech

In his speech, he spoke with great humour and insight about Joseph Banks and the Forsters who brought the objects to Oxford, and praised the many years of research on the collections by Curator Jeremy Coote and others which have led to this redisplay of 196 objects from the first and second voyages.  Sir David remarked that Cook's voyages catalogued 'the whole of man's interest in the environment' and that the objects collected 'served as a benchmark of human activities in the Pacific in the 18th century.'

We were very pleased to welcome to the event His Excellency Mr Sione Sonata Tupou, Acting High Commissioner of Tonga, as well as guests from some of the organisations who funded the case, including The DCMS Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund, and the Friends of the Pitt Rivers.  The evening was also an opportunity to welcome our new Director, Dr Laura Van Broekhoven.

From left to right: Jeremy Coote (Curator),  Ms Lin Richardson, (DCMS Wolfson),  Dr Laura Van Broekhoven, Sir David Attenborough, Professor Louise Richardson (Vice Chancellor, Oxford University), His Excellency Mr Sione Sonata Tupou

The new case

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.

Friday 5 February 2016

Object Installation

Installation of objects into the new case is well underway.  Chris and Al, the technicians working on the case, have transferred all the mounts from the mock-up of the case to the real thing, and for the past two weeks we have been helping them with the display.

Chris installing a mount for a Maori cloak

Five Maori cloaks in position in the new case

Objects collected from the Marquesas and Easter Island

Tuesday 5 January 2016

Work Starts on Case Installation

There has been a delay of several months in installing the new Cook display because we have had to wait for the case components to off-gas. Materials such as paint and the lacquer used on the floor and back panels can give off volatile compounds as they dry, which can cause damage to museum objects in the sealed environment of the case.

Work has now begun on installing the framework of the display in the case. Technicians Chris and Al are building the structures on which the objects will be mounted, and once these are ready installation will start. Because the entire display has already been mocked up, it should be relatively easy to transfer the positions of the mounts to the real case.

The current appearance of the case

Thursday 8 October 2015

Displaying Maori Cloaks

There are eight Maori cloaks in the Cook-voyage collections held at the Pitt Rivers museum.  Five have been selected for the new display, and they form a visual balance to the Tahitian fau and the Mourner's costume at the other end of the case.  Many of the cloaks have only been displayed flat in the past, but inspired by the photos in 'Whatu Kakahu/Maori Cloaks', edited by Awhina Tamarapa and published by Te Papa Press in 2011, we wanted to display these taonga to more represent the way they were worn.

The five cloaks mounted in the display mock-up

Torso-shaped mounts were made from inert Plastazote foam and low-formaldehyde MDF, and covered in polyester wadding and conservation-grade fabric.  Velcro strips were sewn to calico, and then attached to the back of each cloak using a herringbone stitch, passing between fibre bundles.  The corresponding part of the velcro strip was sewn to the mount, and in this way the cloak could be held in place. 

Cloaks mock-up with tissue paper during the mounting process.  The torso-shaped mounts can be seen underneath

The cloaks selected for display include 1886.1.1124, a rain cape, and 1886.1.1134, a cape made from fibres from the cabbage tree (ti kouka, Cordyline australis) which has the remains of feathers still attached.  Also chosen is 1886.1.1132, a cloak made from New Zealand flax and collected on the second voyage. It incorporates a red woollen thread which must have been obtained from a first voyage wool textile.

A thread of red wool incorporated into the cloak