A full ceremonial costume made from barkcloth, pearl shell, feather and coconut shell on display.

Research project

Reimagining a Tahitian mourner's costume

Key project information

Duration

2018 – ongoing

Contact details

Email: jadams@britishmuseum.org

Partner

Musée de Tahiti et des Iles

Supported by

Wellcome Trust
Mellon Foundation
The Radcliffe Trust
Dr and Mrs Lucas
Normanby Charitable Trust in honour of The Dowager Marchioness of Normanby

Grant number

Wellcome Trust Strategic Award 097365/Z/11/Z

What can be learned about a Tahitian mourner's costume by bringing research and conservation practices into dialogue with Indigenous knowledge-holders?

The Tahitian mourner's costume (heva tupapa'u) in the British Museum collection is one of only a handful to have survived from the 18th century. These costumes were worn by a 'chief mourner' during ceremonies held to mark the death of a chief or high-ranking individual in the community. Collected on Captain Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific (1772−1775) and last studied in the 1960s, the costume remained in storage for decades due to concerns about its fragility. 

This project seeks a deeper understanding of the importance of this unique object as a record of Tahitian culture and of early European contact with Tahiti. It combines pioneering conservation work, scientific research and collaboration with Tahitian communities that has enabled it to be restored for display and made available for long-term loan to Tahiti.

Find out about the latest project news.

About the project

The Tahitian mourner's costume is believed to be one of approximately 10 that Captain Cook brought to Europe in 1775. It's a rare example of a tradition that came to an end shortly after this time and no complete historic costumes have survived in the Pacific Islands of French Polynesia. The costume is constructed from a range of ritually significant materials including barkcloth (a material made from tree bark), pearl shell, feathers and coconut shell. 

Initially, this project set out to conserve and study this rare costume with a view to learn more about the materials and methods used in its construction. Bringing together the Museum's curatorial, conservation and science teams with external Tahitian specialists, this project identified the many plant materials, dyes and pigments used to produce this rare and fragile object.

Next, the project focused on preparing the costume for display and knowledge-sharing with Tahitian communities. The costume has been readied for long-term loan to the Musée de Tahiti et des Iles – due to take place in 2022 – which will give visitors the opportunity to engage with this important symbol of their heritage for the first time in living memory. Members of the project team will accompany the costume to Tahiti and research will continue with Tahitian collaborators to document the impact of its return.

Aims

The project collaborated with Tahitian colleagues to determine the research parameters and methodologies for the conservation of the mourner’s costume. This involved:

  • Analysing the costume's cloth, fibres, feathers and dyes to reveal, for the first time, the precise materials used to create these costumes.
  • Carefully conserving each part of the costume.
  • Working with a specialist costume mounter from the Victoria & Albert Museum to design and create a bespoke mannequin on which the costume could be stored, transported and displayed.
  • Sharing knowledge with communities in Tahiti via a series of public talks, workshops, visits to educational facilities and meetings with artists. 

Looking ahead, the project will:

  • Share knowledge with the other museums around the world that care for Tahitian mourner's costumes and produce a major publication.
  • Run workshops to facilitate communication between institutions who care for these costumes and communities in Tahiti.
  • Return the costume to Tahiti in 2022 for long-term loan to the Musée de Tahiti et des Iles. It will be joined by loans from the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in Cambridge, and the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris.

Conclusion

The results of the scientific testing on the Tahitian mourner's costume has helped to redefine knowledge about mourner's costumes, shaping future scholarship and research. 

During the conservation process a bolt of fine barkcloth was found inside the costume. Unfolding the cloth revealed that it was decorated with handprints. Hidden within it was another garment – a vividly striped 'poncho' or tiputa that was probably part of the original costume.

In addition to the conservation work, which ensured that the costume can now be made accessible to a range of audiences, this project has made a lasting impact through the production of publications, films and exhibitions. A film made in conjunction with the project − New Investigations into the Tahitian Mourner's Costume − was short-listed for the Arts and Humanities Research Council's Best Research Film of the Year award (2019).

The collaborative nature of the project has also helped to establish connections with Tahitian communities. These relationships will shape how other Tahitian artefacts in the British Museum collection are researched, interpreted and displayed at the British Museum and elsewhere in the future.

Meet the team

Julie Adams.

Julie Adams

Principal Investigator
Department of Africa, Oceania and Americas
British Museum

Monique Pullan.

Monique Pullan

Co-Investigator
Department of Collection Care
British Museum

Theano Guillaume-Jaillet.

Theano Guillaume-Jaillet

Researcher
Former Director of the Musée de Tahiti et des Iles

Pauline Reynolds.

Pauline Reynolds

Researcher
Historian and independent researcher

Meet the team continued

Outputs

'Tupaia and the Heva Tūpāpāʻu: voyages past, present and future' in 'Tupaia, Captain Cook and the Voyage of the Endeavour: A Material History'

BOOK CHAPTER

This chapter moves between London and Tahiti to consider the significance of the Heva Tupapa'u to people in the past and present.

Julie Adams

Due to be published in 2022

The scientific study of the materials used to create the Tahitian Mourner's Costume in the British Museum

JOURNAL ARTICLE

Diego Tamburini; Caroline R. Cartwright; Julie Adams

 Journal of Cultural Heritage 42: 263-269

Published in 2020

Reimagining Captain Cook: Pacific perspectives

EXHIBITION 

An exhibition exploring the Pacific perspectives of James Cook's expeditions to this region through the work of contemporary Pacific artists, alongside objects collected on the voyages themselves.

Exhibition opened in 2018

Reimagining Captain Cook: Pacific perspectives

BOOK

The accompanying publication to the British Museum exhibition Reimagining Captain Cook: Pacific perspectives.

Julie Adams; Lissant Bolton

Published in 2019

New investigations into the Tahitian Mourner's Costume

FILM 

This film was short-listed for the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Research Film of the Year award.