Monday, 2 June 2014

Cook Website now Live

A major outcome of my project, 'Conserving "Curiosities"' is a website, bringing together the research done on the Forster and Banks collections over the years by museum staff and visiting researchers. The site was made possible by the generosity of the Clothworkers' Foundation.

This website is designed to provide researchers and the general public with access to all the information that the Pitt Rivers Museum holds about the objects in its care that were collected on the famous Pacific voyages of Captain James Cook (1728–1779). At its heart is a searchable catalogue that links to the relevant records in the Museum's regularly updated online database. The site also provides information about the collectors, Joseph Banks and father-and-son Reinhold and George Forster, about the history of the collections in the form of a timeline, further readings, and a bibliography. Further materials will be added as they become available.

Please visit the site and explore the collections.

Monday, 3 March 2014


Several events related to the Cook-voyage collections have taken place over the last couple of months.

The Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, Cologne

In January I was invited to speak at a conference at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne.  The symposium, about barkcloth,  was called 'Made in Oceania', and I gave a presentation about the Cook-voyage barkcloth at the Pitt Rivers.  Other speakers covered subjects as diverse as the cultural meaning of tapa, and presentations about the material qualities of barkcloth, such as dyes and surface decoration.  I was grateful to have been asked to speak at this very interesting conference, which is just one of the events accompanying the special exhibition 'Made in Oceania: Tapa - Art and Social Landscapes'.  The exhibition is described as presenting 'a number of unique masterpieces from the museum's own collection in combination with loans from major institutions such as the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington or the Australian Museum in Sydney. Many of them will be shown in Europe for the first time. The selection ranges from the oldest objects dating back to the 18th century - the Cook collection - to contemporary artworks from renowned Polynesian or Melanesian artists like John Pule, Fatu Akelei Feu'u, Michel Tuffery, Shigeyuki Kihara, Timothy Akis or Mathias Kauage. Various media such as film or audio stations bring people and stories behind the objects to life. Connections between past and present, everyday life and art and from island to island can be independently discovered.'  It runs until the 27th April 2014.

In February, the Pitt Rivers was pleased to announce that it had been awarded £64,845 from the DCMS/Wolfson Foundation's Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund.  The award will allow the museum to purchase a new display case for the Cook-voyage collections, and the case will be big enough to enable objects like the fau (Tahitian Priest's helmet) and the Tahitian Mourner's costume to be displayed to their full effect for the first time.  A generous donation from the Friends of the Pitt Rivers will help with installation costs. 

A digitally constructed image of the Tahitian Mourner's costume, showing how it will look when redisplayed

The fau, along with 18 other Cook-voyage objects, was lent to The Collection in Lincoln in February, for the exhibition 'Joseph Banks: A Great Endeavour'.  The exhibition centres on Benjamin West's portrait of Banks, wearing a Maori cloak (possibly one in the Pitt Rivers Collection, also loaned to the exhibition).  Many original illustrations and sketches have been brought together for the exhibition, which runs until the 11th May 2014.

Portrait of Joseph Banks by Benjamin West, The Collection , Lincoln

Packing the fau for loan is difficult, as it is large and fragile.  However, we had previous experience of doing this a few years ago, when the headdress was part of the large touring exhibition, "James Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific' which had venues in Bonn, Berne and Vienna.  Because packing material might actually damage the structure of the headdress during transit, we developed a system whereby the fau is held just at the top and bottom.  The crate dismantles completely, allowing us to see what's happening as the sides and top are added or removed.  A padded post screwed to the bottom of the crate fits inside the headdress and holds the bottom securely, while a cushion, loosely filled with polystyrene beads, is stapled to the lid. This gently folds around the top of the headdress and stops it from moving.  The fau arrived in Lincoln without damage, as did the other objects in the loan.

The fau, 1886.1.1683, during packing

Friday, 20 December 2013

Project end

Today marks the end of my two-year project, funded by the Clothworkers' Foundation, to conserve and investigate the Cook-voyage collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum.  During the course of the project, with help from interns, I have worked on over 200 objects, generating new information and nearly 1000 photos for the new Cook website, which will be launched next year.

Work on the Cook-voyage collections won't stop.  I am speaking at an international conference in Cologne in January - 'Made in Oceania  - Social and cultural meaning, restoration and museum presentation of Oceanic tapa - where I will be talking about the Cook-voyage barkcloth held by the Pitt Rivers.  In addition, a number of objects collected by Joseph Banks, including the amazing fau headdress from Tahiti, will be going on loan to The Collection in Lincoln in February.

1886.1.1683 - Tahitian fau

The Cook collection will be redisplayed in the museum too, hopefully in a new case large enough to display the Tahitian Mourner's costume to its full potential.  We will hear if we have been successful in a funding bid for this new 8m long, 3m high case early in the new year.

Blog posts will continue, though less regularly, to keep you updated on the work on the collection.

Friday, 13 December 2013

'Safe and without injury'

Tahitian cylindrical drum

While working on this drum from Tahiti (1886.1.1518) I noticed in the documentation (available on the Pitt Rivers online database) that this and several other objects in the Cook-voyage collections had been sent to the International Colonial and Export Trade Exhibition of 1883 in Amsterdam, for which the Ashmolean (the collections were housed there before transfer to the newly opened Pitt Rivers in 1886) won a 'diploma of a silver medal, and a catalogue.'  We also learn that the objects 'were all returned safe and without injury.'

A view of the exhibition

The exhibition was held in the summer of 1883, and took place in the grounds behind the Rijksmuseum, now the 'Museumplein'.

View of the exhibition grounds

24 nations took part, as can be seen in the map of the fairground below.

Over a million tickets were sold for the exhibition by the time it closed in November 1883.

For more information on the exhibition, see

Monday, 2 December 2013

A Red Woollen Thread

This cloak is thought to be Forster No. 103 'A dogskin coat'

1886.1.1132 Maori Cloak

It is made of muka, the prepared fibre of the New Zealand flax plant (Phormium tenax), twined in the whatu aho rua technique (double-pair weft-twining).

The 100th aho row, is in whatu aho patahi (single-pair weft-twining) - this is the only row made in this technique.

The cloak was worn as a paepaeroa, with the aho rows vertical. 

There are 7 whenu warps per cm with a 6-7mm spacing between each aho weft row. 

A single length of red woolen thread is woven into the kaupapa of the cloak.

Red wool thread woven into the cloak

The pattern formed is known as paheke, which means 'trickle' or 'flow'.   This strand of red wool must have been obtained by unravelling fabric or clothing obtained during the first voyage, and it is clearly woven in as the cloak was constructed, rather than being added afterwards.

Detail of paheke design

Because of the way that the red wool thread is woven into the cloak, with the 'tails' of the thread woven in after the main pattern,it is possible to tell that construction began at the edge furthest from the wool insertion.

Shaping rows, aho poka, are present.  There are two clear wedge inserts are present, one near the side furthest from the commencement  (1240mm from this edge) and one near the centre (790mm from the commencement edge).  A third set of aho poka are present which do not form a clear insert - these are approximately 40mm from the commencement.

Cloak showing the ends of the aho poka marked with paper triangles.  The right-hand edge was where weaving commenced.

The bottom of the cloak, the left hand edge as constructed, is finished with a twisted three-ply braid of dyed muka.  Each ply in turn is held by a successive aho row, so that each ply is attached to the cloak every third row. The muka used to make the cord is natural in colour, and also dyed black and brown, giving a variegated effect.

Cord of plied muka fibre used to edge cloak

The top of the cloak, the right hand side as constructed, is finished with a fine plaited border made of dyed muka.  In some areas the colours are mixed,  so that plies of black, brown and naturally coloured flax fibre produce a variegated effect to the plaited edge.

The plaited edge to the cloak, as well as the method of attachment of the dogskin tags

Tags of dog skin are attached to the upper corners of the cloak.  The dog skin strips are approximately 24cm in length, and are folded in half and tied to the cloak with a length of plied muka cord.  The cord is threaded through the body of the cloak, a single length being used to hold all the strips in place.

This finely made taonga (treasure), with its use of dogskin and precious red wool, was clearly a high status item of clothing.

The description of the cloak is based on information and descriptions found in Whatū Kākahu / Māori Cloaks, edited by Awhina Tamarapa. Wellington: Te Papa Press (2011)