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Birdman kite

  • Object type

  • Museum number


  • Title (object)

    • Birdman kite
  • Description

    Bird-shaped kite made of sewn cotton textile, manuka wood and fibre strings bound together. The anthropomorphic face is a textile mask with inked patterns and eyes made of mother-of-pearls and shell. The bird's talons are made of fibres and kahu feathers.

  • Ethnic name

  • Date

    • 19thC (early)
  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Width: 236 centimetres (of crate)
    • Height: 122 centimetres (of crate)
    • Depth: 20.5 centimetres (of crate)
  • Curator's comments

    Extracts from the British and Medieval Register 1757-1878, typescript, p.47:
    June 22nd. A New Zealand kite brought from Plenty Bay: presented by Mr. Read.

    British Museum registration slip description, date of writing unknown, appears to be the handwriting of James Edge Partington, so possibly late 19th century:
    Presented by Mr Reid, Reed or Read
    New Zealand
    Kite in form of a bird with human head
    [Added later in different handwriting, that of Bryan Cranstone?] Brought by Capt. Manning from Plenty Bay (=Bay of Plenty)Volume 'Acquisitions 1843-1845 Ethnography', Dept. of Antiquities, p. 122:
    'New Zealand Kite in rude imitation of a bird flying with expanded wings, made of cloth ornamented with native patterns, and eyes of a kind of nacre or mother of pearl of the ear shell, disposed on a framework of twigs.
    Presented by Mr Reid
    "Read" Documents
    "Reed" Register

    [In different writing] Brought by Captain Manning from Plenty BayInformation from Pacific Art in Detail: Made in the Bay of Plenty on the North of the Island of Aotearoa, this kite was made within the tradition of kite flying for spiritual purposes. The face is inked with a facial tattoo that recalls rocks engravings of birdmen in Aotearoa dating from about 1400. Birds have long been seen in the Pacific to be creatures providing a conduit between the tangible world of the living and the intangible realm of the spirit. These kites were often flew to discern the course of a proposed battle. The long tail of the kite was really powerfull and could send down to ennemies a bolt of destructive spiritual energy.
    In pre-contact times these kites were covered with beaten barkcloth ('aute'), but this is an object of its time, using imported cotton. This particular kite was sold to a British captain, and it might have been commissioned rather than for intented use in spiritual connections.
    We only know two of these kites today: the other one is at the Auckland Museum in New Zealand.


  • Bibliography

    • Newell 2011 pp. 56-57 bibliographic details
  • Location

    Not on display

  • Exhibition history

    1998 27 Jun-1 Nov, London, BM, Maori

  • Subjects

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date


  • Department

    Africa, Oceania & the Americas

  • Registration number


Bird-shaped kite made of textile, wood, pearl-shell.

Bird-shaped kite made of textile, wood, pearl-shell.

Image description



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Object reference number: EOC1040

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