Friday, 27 January 2012

The Tahitian Mourner's Costume Display

Earlier this week, the Tahitian Mourner's costume went back on display in the Museum.  In this post, Chris Wilkinson and Alan Cooke, Display Technicians, explain the process of designing a case.

1:10 scale model of the display

'The objective of the display was to give an ‘exploded’ view of the mourner’s costume. Restrictions, due to the case size, primarily its height, lead us to create a 1:10 scale maquette to fully understand how the objects would be positioned in the case. We then built a full size mock-up of the case. 

The mock-up of the case

To complete a final layout we first produced the mounts for each object and then arranged them within the mock-up case to determine their final positions. Individual temporary bases allowed us to do this. In the final case two permanent plinths took the place of these. The barkcloth mount is on a buckram torso and gave a central ‘body’ to the display around which the other artefacts were arranged.
The mounts were made using zf mdf (which does not contain formaldehyde) covered with an inert foam or calico covering to protect the artefacts and provide grip. These were then mounted upon poles as fixing to the sides or the back of the case would have meant too much visible structure due to the size and weight of the artefacts. The poles were colour matched to the case to minimize their visual interference. 

Chris (right) and Al install part of the costume

Particular difficulties were the fragile nature of most of the artefacts, for instance the feathered cloak required full support and this was achieved by stitching to a padded calico covered panel. Also the breastplates and masks needed multiple wire fittings to support individual components of the whole artefact.
As the display had been created off site transferring the mock-up into the case in the museum was a relatively simple task.

The final display

Monday, 23 January 2012

The Friends of the Pitt Rivers go behind the scenes...

On the 18th January we hosted two groups of Friends of the Pitt Rivers in the Conservation Lab so that I could talk to them about my work on the Tahitian Mourner's costume.  Juliette Gammon, the editor of the Friends Newsletter, writes:

'Friends of the PRM went ‘Behind the Scenes’ of the Conservation Lab for a very special and privileged insight into Jeremy’s work on the Tahitian Mourner’s costume. Multi-layered and dyed barkcloth ponchos topped with an extraordinary cloak of bundled Tahitian pigeon feathers led one Friend to exclaim: “It must have been awfully hot to wear.”

We were fascinated by a ‘lost’ Forster collection object, a tamau or headdress made from a mile long rope of plaited human hair which was hidden under the feathered headdress, and learnt the spiritual significance of the plate-sized oyster shell breastplate and mask, the latter spiked with tropic bird feathers.

Among the many anecdotes from Cook’s two Tahitian voyages we heard how Joseph Banks, naturalist on the first voyage, entered into the spirit of things by donning a loincloth and blackening his body with charcoal. But, on that first trip, Cook came away empty-handed. On the second he was wiser, and stopped off in Tonga to gather objects containing red feathers - much prized for their symbolism in Tahiti. These were successfully traded for around ten mourner’s costumes.

Jeremy - many, many thanks from all of us for our own voyage of discovery. You can read more in the May issue of the Friends’ Newsletter.'

If you're interested in joing the Friends of the Pitt Rivers (FPRM) details can be found here:

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Catalogue of Curiosities

The cover of the 'Catalogue of Curiosities'

The Cook-Voyage collections at the Pitt Rivers are from the first and second voyages.  The second voyage collection is the largest, and was donated by Reinhold and George Forster, father and son, who were the naturalists on board the Resolution.  The collection was given to Oxford in January 1776, and was accompanied by a document, the ‘Catalogue of Curiosities sent to Oxford’, which has been identified as being in George Forster’s hand. 
The catalogue divides the collection geographically, starting with Otaheitee (Tahiti) and the Mourner's costume.

The object numbers in the Catalogue correspond to labels attached to objects from the collection, although these have been lost in many cases. This is the Forster number on the Mourner's costume cloak, and the corresponding entry reads 'The feathered Coat, or Ahow-roope, consisting of strings in form of a Net, covered with bunches of feathers, and worn on the back.'

This documentary evidence is of vital importance in studying Cook-Voyage material.  Adrienne Kaeppler, a leading specialist in Oceanic ethnology, described the Catalogue and the Forster collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum as ‘the key to understanding all collections from the second voyage.’  
(Adrienne L. Kaeppler, ‘The Göttingen Collection in an International Context / Die Göttinger Sammlung im internationalen Kontext’, in Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin and Gundolf Kr&euuml;ger (eds.), James Cook: Gifts and Treasures from the South Seas—The Cook/Forster Collection, Göttingen / James Cook: Gaben und Schätze aus der Sudsee—Die Göttinger Sammlung Cook/Forster (Munich, 1998), p. 87)

You can read more about the Catalogue of Curiosities and see a digital version of the original manuscript here:

Monday, 9 January 2012


Barkcloth is used extensively in the construction of the Tahitian Mourner’s costume.  It is a fexible, cloth-like material made from the inner bark of several types of tree.  Tapa has become a generic name for barkcloth, although on Tahiti it was known as ahu.

Beater marks on barkcloth
The bark of the paper mulberry or the breadfruit tree was collected, then soaked in water for several days until the outer bark could be removed.  The inner bark was wrapped in leaves and left to ferment for a few days, before it was beaten into barkcloth.  Barkcloth beaters were generally square in section, and each side had grooves carved in it of various thicknesses.  Beating started with the coarsest side, and the side with the finest grooves was used to give a fine finish to the cloth.  Beater marks are often visible in the surface of barkcloth.  Thicker cloth was made by ‘felting’ thinner layers together.

Cape from Mourner's costume (1886.1.1637 .6)

Much of the barkcloth used in the Mourner’s costume is coloured, and was either dyed or painted.  The dyes are usually plant based, and red, yellow, brown and black were all commonly produced. 

At the Pitt Rivers, we have two Mourner’s costume headdresses.  Both have barkcloth capes.  The cape of the headdress currently associated with the rest of the costume has stripes of red, yellow and black barkcloth, while the other headdress is striped with brown barkcloth, and a decorated barkcloth which has resin applied on the surface in a pattern of dots.

Detail of barkcloth from second headdress, 1886.1.1637 .9

Barkcloth strips and core of plaited hair

Very large pieces of barkcloth are used to make the ‘ponchos’ which make up the bottom layers of the costume, but barkcloth is also used in other ways, for example twisted to form a cord for tying up the bindings used for the headdress. Barkcloth is also used in the bindings of the headdress as narrow strips wound around a core of finely plaited human hair.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The Cook-Voyage collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

I’m Jeremy Uden, a conservator at the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, and for the next two years I’ll be blogging here about my investigations into the museum’s Cook-Voyage collections.  

This two-year fellowship has been funded by the Clothworkers’ Foundation, which is the charitable arm of the Clothworkers’ Company (
Although the project began on the 3rd January, I’ve been conserving the Tahitian Mourner’s costume (1886.1.1637), collected on Cook’s second voyage in 1774, for over a year now. The costume will be displayed later in January in a temporary exhibition.  Each part will be mounted separately, so that all the components can be seen clearly, including the amazing feather cape.

The costume as displayed in 2010

Today I have been working on the bindings that wind around the headdress of the costume.  These are made from a core of finely plaited human hair, wound with barkcloth strips.  More plaited hair is wrapped around the barkcloth.  There is a section made up of three cords, which is over 12m long, and two much shorter pieces.

In this photo you can see the bindings, as they appeared when we took the costume apart in 2010.  The hair had become very brittle and was in poor condition. 

The bindings after conservation

I spent over 100 hours securing the hair to the barkcloth using very small amounts of adhesive.  This has made the bindings far easier to handle, and earlier today we were able to coil them up to form a turban, using the smaller length of cord as a tie at the front.  The Pitt Rivers has a second headdress from a Mourner’s costume, (1886.1.1637 .9) and the bindings on that one are tied in the same way.  The coils of the turban were tied together with silk thread, which allows us to lift it on and off of the headdress – necessary because the turban will be displayed separately in the current exhibition.