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

Friday, 21 August 2015

'A Matt Pierced with Holes'

Forster No.56 is a waist mat or kie fau from Tonga, described in the 'Catalogue of Curiosities' as 'A Matt Pierced with Holes'

Kie fau or overskirt, Tonga.  Forster 56, 1886.1.1178

We wanted to display it as an overskirt on a mount, but this caused problems.  Normally we sew velcro mounted on a strip of calico to the back of a piece of clothing in order to attach it to the mount - this is what we do with Maori cloaks, for example.  But the overskirt is made from the inner bark of the purau (Thespasia populnea), which, while flexible, is not suitable for sewing into.  The solution was to use the fact that the skirt is, as the Forsters describe in the 'Catalogue of Curiosities', 'pierced with holes' to help us.

First, a mount was made with a top and base made from ZFMDF and a thick layer of dense, inert Plastazote foam in the middle.  This was covered with polyester felt, and then fabric.

Completed mount covered in display fabric

The skirt was rolled around the mount:

Overskirt rolled around mount, making sure the holes in the overlapping layers lined up

Chris and Al, the technicians working on the case, had made 25 'staples' from copper wire, sharpened at the ends and covered with inert plastic tubing to cushion them.

A staple

The staples were the correct width to pass through adjacent holes in the skirt and into the foam mount below.

One the skirt was pinned to the mount all the way around, it was securely held in position for display.

Overskirt on mount

 Here it is in position in the mock-up of the new Cook-voyage case:

Monday, 3 August 2015

A Tongan Fishing Net

The Tongan fishing net collected by the Forsters is 8m long - too big to be displayed in its entirety.  We needed to find a way to display a part of it, while keeping most of it rolled.

When I first worked on the net, I sewed it to Tyvek, an inert non-woven fabric, so that it could be rolled for storage.  We hoped that by rolling the net and mounting the roll vertically, just the last 50cm or so of the net could be displayed, hiding the roll behind the case structure.

Chris and Al, the technicians working on the Cook-voyage re-display, made a tube for the net to be rolled around.  The indentation at the bottom was to accommodate the rocks, used as weights on the net.  The tube was made from inert polyethylene piping and zero-formaldehyde MDF, and was covered with synthetic felt.

The roll, covered with synthetic felt

The fishing net was unrolled, still attached to its Tyvek backing, and the backing was trimmed.

The fishing net unrolled in a Museum corridor

The backed net was rolled onto its new tube, leaving a short section free at the end.

The Tyvek backing was then sewn to the covering of the tube through all the layers to keep the net in place when it was mounted vertically.

This is the structure of the mock-up of the case, ready to receive the net:

The case structure ready for the mounted fishing net.  The ends of the roll will be held by the brackets at top and bottom.  The end of the net will feed through the slot and be mounted on a panel

The net was mounted in the case, and the end fed through the slot.

Feeding the end of the net through the slot in the case

The end of the net, once through the slot, was mounted on hooks which supported the rocks and the twigs used as floats.

The roll will be hidden by a panel once the display is complete

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Tongan Barkcloth

As I said in my last post on barkcloth, the large size of many of the pieces in the Cook-voyage collections makes it difficult to know how to display them.  In the past, the pieces were folded and stacked on shelves, but after many hours of conservation work to humidify creases we didn't want to fold the barkcloths again.  This is especially problematic for the Tongan barkcloths, which are thick and have a shiny, almost resinous surface. 

Tahitian barkcloth and mats, folded in a previous display

The solution for us was to roll the barkcloths onto a padded roll, overlapping them as we did so.  Most of the roll could then be hidden behind the structure of the case, with only small section of overlapping barkcloth being visible.

Tongan barkcloth mounted in the mock-up of the new case

Our next challenge is the Tongan fishing net, which is over 8m long...

Monday, 8 June 2015

A Feather Headdress

The feather headdress on the Tahitian Mourner's costume surprised us when we dismantled the Cook-voyage display back in 2009 and took the costume apart for the first time for over 20 years.  We expected the headdress to be a single object, when in reality is was made up of seven bundles of feathers tied around the top of the hat. 

Detail of construction of feather bundles

Each feather is split along the vane from the tip almost to the end. They are then bound, both individually and in groups of two or three, by coconut fibre cord. Four of these small bundles of bound feathers are then attached to a loop of coconut fibre. Four, or sometimes more, of these loops are then threaded on to a thicker cord made from twined barkcloth to form an individual feather bundle. There appears to be some distinction in size of feather used between bundles: feathers of approximately the same size are used in each bundle. The bundles were attached to the headdress with a string made from loosely twined barkcloth.

Feather headdress and mounts before assembly

The feather headdress is the final part of the costume to be mounted.  Chris and Al, the museum technicians working on the display, made a ring from firm, inert Plastazote foam which fits over the top of the hat and rests on the bindings. 

Plastazote ring covered in linen scrim

The ring was covered with scrim, a loosely woven linen fabric, to disguise the ring. Separate wire mounts, covered in a plastic covering to protect the feather bundles, were inserted into the foam around the ring, spaced to hold the bundles in position to give the appearance of a headdress.

The headdress in postion on the costume

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Tongan Mats and Barkcloth

This week we've been laying out the Tongan barkcloth and mats so that the technicians can begin to prepare the mounts for the new case.

Because of the relatively large size of the barkcloth it has to be rolled for the most part.  Some of the smaller mats, and the overskirts such as the sisi fale, seen on the right in the picture below, will be more visible.

Case layout - the top of the image represents the top of the case

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Tahitian Mat

Mounting a large mat from Tahiti to the back wall of the new case was the next challenge we faced.  We decided the answer was magnets!  Small rare earth magnets have been used to mount barkcloth and textiles for several years now.  They have the advantage that they are small, but very strong, easily powerful enough to hold a mat in place.

Applying steel tape to the board

Finished board
The first step was to make a board slightly smaller than the mat from zero-formaldehyde MDF.  To provide a metallic surface under the mat for the magnets to stick to, we used strips of steel tape, which were riveted to the board to make sure they stayed in place for the duration of the display. 

The magnets were covered with synthetic tissue, which had been painted with acrylics to tone into the mat.  Once in place, they are almost invisible.

Mat mounted on the wall of case mock-up

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Tahitian Barkcloth

Chris and Al, the Pitt Rivers technicians working on the new Cook-voyage display, have mocked-up the case to make the process of mount making and object installation easier.  Otherwise, this work would have to be carried out in the Lower Gallery, causing disruption to visitors for longer than is necessary.  Only when all the mounts have been made and the objects placed according to the design, will the final installation into the real case occur.

One of the first challenges we've been working on is how to display the Tahitian barkcloth.  Even though the new case is 8 metres long and nearly 3 metres high, there still doesn't seem to be much room!

In previous displays, the barkcloth has been folded, and often other objects placed on top.  We wanted to recreate something of the feel of this type of display, but at the same time wanted to avoid creating deep creases in the barkcloth, which can be caused by folding them tightly.  We needed to find a way to reduce the size of the barkcloth too, and reluctantly decided to omit 1886.1.1248 which at over 12 metres long was too big to fit in at all.

The solution was to roll the barkcloths over oval-shaped rolls, reducing the height of each roll, meaning that we could fit more into the space available.  A section of barkcloth could extend from the roll, and be held over a padded metal bar - this is the model Chris and Al made to illustrate the concept - you can see it allows us to stack the barkcloths in a limited space but still give an idea of the different colours and designs on the cloth, as well as the sheer volume of barkcloth collected.

Model of barkcloth mount

The next stage was to make the rolls - they were constructed from zero formaldehyde MDF with inert foam edges.  The rolls were covered with Moistop barrier foil and aluminium tape to seal the surface, as the barkcloth was rolled directly onto them. 

Ironing Moistop barrier foil onto the rolls

Careful calculations of the space available and barkcloth sizes allowed us to sort the barkcloths into their positions in the stack.  The barkcloths were rolled onto the supports, with a measured amount protruding from the roll to hand over the padded bar.

Preparing to roll a barkcloth

Once rolled, the supports could be slotted into position in the case mock-up, and the barkcloth arranged over the bars.

The bottom two barkcloths in position

Friday, 10 April 2015

New Cook-voyage Case

The new case

The new case for the redisplay of the Cook-voyage collections has been in place on the Lower Gallery of the museum for a few months now.  Made by Mayvaert, the case is 8 metres long and 2.8m tall, and will provide space to display nearly all of the first and second voyage collections.  The modern showcase could be seen as a departure from the more 'traditional' cabinets at the Pitt Rivers, but we wanted the objects to speak for themselves, without the distraction of a case designed to appear Victorian.

The case had to be lifted into the museum in sections by crane - a nerve-wracking experience for everyone concerned!

Lifting case components into the back of the museum

The new display has been designed by two of our Museum Technicians, Chris Wilkinson and Alan Cooke, and over the next few weeks I'll be showing how we are meeting the challenges of mounting some of the objects for display.