Polly Bence, British Museum
This feather cloak is made from woven New Zealand flax fibre (Phormium tenax). It is decorated with dyed fowl feathers and the green feathers are from the rare kākāpō bird – a ground-dwelling parrot species native to New Zealand.
This is one of 153 cloaks in the British Museum’s Oceanic collection, 49 of which have feathers as a decorative element. Feathered cloaks (kahu huruhuru) became increasingly popular from the end of the nineteenth century, becoming the most prestigious type of cloak at the beginning of the twentieth century. This cloak is in superb condition, dating between 1900 and 1906. It was donated to the British Museum by Sir Herbert Daw in 1936 after being one of several cloaks placed on the coffin of Richard John Seddon, a former New Zealand Prime Minister at his funeral in 1908.
Weaving is predominantly undertaken by women, and cloak manufacture (whatu kākahu) is one of most highly respected of all fibre arts. Historically the finest cloaks were worn by high status men, reserved for special occasions. Some were given personal names, reinforcing their significance. Starting with the collection and preparation of the flax fibre and made without using a loom, a cloak can take several months to make depending on the style, complexity and materials used. It is thought that early cloaks took up to two years to finish. Today cloaks are held in extremely high regard because of their associations with chiefly status.
A large number of people visit the Oceanic collection every year, many of whom come to research, contemplate and admire the fibre arts in the Māori collection. The manufacture of cloaks experienced a number of stylistic and material adaptations over time and they continue to be made today. Many contemporary fibre artists are keen to study and to replicate traditional techniques, as well as introduce new materials.
The London-based community group Ngāti Rānana promotes Māori values and traditions, welcoming anyone with an interest in Māori culture. Also part of this wider community is Te Kōhanga Reo o Rānana, an environment for young children and families to experience and learn Māori language.
Ngāti Rānana actively participates in a wide variety of events including those in the museums and gallery sector. When the Māori display case was opened in the Wellcome Trust Gallery in 2008, the group performed a traditional blessing of the taonga or treasures on display.
Cloaks in particular are widely understood to be symbols of national Māori identity. The complex artistry is not only respected by the local London Māori community but by those farther afield, by fibre artists, academics and Museum professionals alike.
This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 18 October 2012.