Museum stories
Sharing knowledge in Tahiti: reflections on the chief mourner’s costume

At a time when we are all at home more than usual, I have been thinking back to last November when, thanks to the British Museum Research Fund and the Wellcome Trust, I was fortunate to spend three weeks visiting the islands of Tahiti, Taha’a and Ra’iatea in French Polynesia. Travelling with Pacific collections curator Julie Adams and scientist Chris Mussell, the main aim of the trip was to share and exchange knowledge about the heva tūpāpā’u, or chief mourner’s costume, from Tahiti, which had been such a significant project for us over the past two years.

Sharing our research

Made of barkcloth, feather, pearl shell and coconut shell, the heva tūpāpā’u was acquired by Captain Cook during his second visit to Tahiti in 1774. It is a rare survival of a tradition that came to an end shortly after this time, and no complete historic costumes survive in French Polynesia. It would have been worn during ceremonies mourning the death of a chief in 18th-century Tahiti. Cook collected this costume on his second voyage (1772–1775) in HMS Resolution, when Tahitian chiefs agreed to receive sacred red feathers from Tonga in exchange for the mourner’s costume. Very few of these costumes survive, so this is one of the most important objects in the collection. You can read more about this fascinating costume and its recent conservation and research here.

A photograph of the Tahitian mourner's costume, showing the pearl-shell and feather mask, feather cape, and barkcloth sheets.
Tahitian Mourner’s costume. Spectacular costumes of this kind were witnessed during Cook’s voyages as being worn by a ‘chief mourner’ as part of funerary and mortuary rituals.

Through a series of public lectures, press interviews and discussions with museums, cultural groups, artists and artisans, and even our local taxi driver, we presented the recent study, conservation and scientific investigations into the costume in our collection.

Over the course of the trip I came to realise the extent to which knowledge of pre-Christian Tahitian culture had been lost following the influence of missionaries in the early 19th century, and the banning of many religious and ceremonial practices and beliefs. Since the 1980s has there been an increasing resurgence of interest among Tahitians in their traditional culture, encompassing history, arts and crafts, language, music and dance, and tattoo, and we were keen to seek out many of these leading voices during our time there. With so much of the historic material culture destroyed or passed out of the country, opportunities to make connections to the past through objects like the heva tūpāpā’u are all the more important.

The people we met were overwhelmingly welcoming and interested in the Museum’s research, in particular expressing their thanks to the team for bringing this information back to Tahiti.

Exchanging stories

The trip gave us the opportunity to take part in conversations with Tahitians about the heva tūpāpā’u, to hear their responses to the costume and thoughts on the cultural significance of materials and colours, who might have made and worn it, and how it would have offered protection to the chief mourner during his confrontations with the spirit world.

One of these discussions was with Hinatea Colombani, who together with her husband Moe, has set up the wonderful Arioi Cultural Centre in Paparā on the main island of Tahiti. At the centre they run Tahitian cultural workshops and develop links with local schools, aiming to inspire the next generation to take a greater interest in their heritage.

A photograph of Hinatea and Moe Colombani sitting down with a folder of images.
Hinatea and Moe Colombani shared their thoughts on the heva tūpāpā’u.

At the age of eight I was able to see the image of the mourner in a book for the first time. This impressive costume was intimidating through the eyes and even more with its name HEVA TŪPĀPĀ’U to the understanding of a little girl this name reasons directly with the ghosts. Unfortunately, no one at the time could tell me more, when I was already curious to know and understand my culture. The presentation and the meeting with the BM team transported me to this moment of my childhood but this time with the knowledge necessary to understand and learn again. These exchanges are of great importance so that we rediscover our culture through this scientific research.

Hinatea Colombani, Arioi Cultural Centre

For Hinatea, having only ever seen pictures in books, being able to see each element in detail finally enabled her to start making more sense of the heva tūpāpā’u. She speculated how by wearing feathers, the chief mourner might have ‘teased’ the spirits into thinking he was a bird, a messenger of the gods, enabling him to move freely between Po (the spirit world) and Ao (world of the people).

The wrapping of the body of the chief mourner in so many layers of barkcloth and feather reminded her of to’o, god images wrapped in sennet, barkcloth and feather for protection, while the iridescent pearl shell face mask and breast plate might have reflected light so the spirits couldn’t catch and trap your soul. She felt strongly that ‘the opportunity for not only children, but also adults who don’t know about their history [to learn about] old ceremonies, and symbols of the old ceremonies, is important, because they have been too influenced by colonisation and Christianity, and now we have to tell the truth.’ As she so wonderfully ended our conversation, the heva tūpāpā’u may have once been ‘the symbol between two worlds, the Po and Ao, but maybe now it is the symbol of the past, the present, and even the future’.

A photograph of Hinatea and Moe Colombani sitting with Julie Adams and Chris Mussell.
Hinatea and Moe Colombani shared their thoughts on the heva tūpāpā’u.

Hearing thoughts on the costume like these certainly adds to our understanding and interpretation of the costume, but meeting Tahitians like Hinatea also reaffirmed for me, as a conservator at the Museum, just why, and for who, we are preserving the collections. It confirmed the value of carrying out detailed technical documentation of objects as part of conservation treatments, and just how important it is that this information is made accessible. Seeing objects as part of a living culture, and understanding what makes them important to that culture, will help me make better decisions in my conservation treatments.

Making barkcloth

While we were at the Arioi Centre we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take part in one of their barkcloth-making sessions. Many of the elements of the heva tūpāpā’u are made of barkcloth, and I was eager to learn more about this material, known as ahu in Tahitian.

A photograph of the mourner's costume showing the barkcloth elements.
Many elements of heva tūpāpā’u are made of barkcloth, ranging from the thicker and more fibrous cloth of the main tiputa (poncho style garments) to the very thin and delicate cloth of the waist sash.

Barkcloth is made by beating the inner bark of certain types of tree to form a thin and supple material – which can be joined to form large sheets.

We tried our hands at making ahu using bark stripped from the aute (paper mulberry), uru (breadfruit) and ora (banyan) trees. Hinatea and Moe took us through the stages, from scraping off the outer bark the traditional way using a shell, to peeling off the inner bark and beating it with wooden beaters. It was hard work, but it was rewarding to see how my small section of bark expanded into a supple creamy white sheet of cloth.

A photograph of Monique Pullan beating barkcloth into a thin sheet with a wooden tool.
Beating the barkcloth.

Reflecting back to the incredibly fine barkcloth on the waist sash of the mourners costume I could understand just why cloth of that quality and quantity was highly prized, and was in awe of the skill of the people who had made it.

Barkcloth production had effectively died out in Tahiti by the end of the 19th century, and is only recently making a comeback. Like most of today’s practitioners in Tahiti, Hinatea and Moe had learned their skills from makers in Hawaii, Samoa, and the Marquesas Islands. They are also planting and cultivating the necessary aute (paper mulberry or broussenetia papyrifera) trees on their land, at one time so abundant across the islands, but now scarce.

A photograph of a group of people sitting in a circle and beating barkcloth in the Arioi Cultural Centre.
The Arioi Cultural Centre runs Tahitian cultural workshops including dance, music, cookery and barkcloth making.
Exploring natural dyes

Moe also showed us how to make some of the natural dyes they are using to colour and decorate barkcloth, including a bright scarlet produced by grinding leaves of the tou tree with mati berries. Having read about this scarlet mati in botanist Joseph Banks’ Journals during his time on Tahiti on Cook’s first voyage, it was great to see it for real. We collected samples of the various dyes to bring back to the Museum – these will be added to the reference collection of traditional plant dyes, helping scientists here confirm identifications in the future.

A photograph of a piece of barkcloth from the mourner's costume that shows hand and finger prints in a red-brown dye.
Discovered folded underneath the costume during the 2018 conservation treatment, this large piece of barkcloth was most likely associated with the mourning ceremony in some way. Dyed a now faded yellow using morindia citrofolia, it is covered with finger and handprints in a reddish brown dye, which was also identified as being morindia citrofolia.

In turn Hinatea and Moe were interested to hear about the various dyes and colours we had identified on the heva tūpāpā’u, in particular the use of the dye citrofolia morindia. Called nono in Tahitian, this is known today as a yellow dye, but the fact that British Museum scientist Diego Tamburini had identified it as both a yellow and a reddish brown colour on several of the parts of the costume led us to speculate how this would have been achieved in practice. The addition of ground coral to change the pH in order to alter the colour was suggested, and we left Moe keen to experiment further.

Visiting the sacred site of Marae Taputapuātea

One of the many highlights of the trip for me was a visit to the large marae complex of Taputapuātea on the neighbouring island of Ra’iatea. A marae is communal sacred place used for religious, ceremonial, political and social purposes in Polynesian society. They were places where the world of the living intersected the world of the ancestors and the gods. Built between the 14th and 18th centuries, the marae complex at Taputapuātea – now a UNESCO World Heritage site – was perhaps the most important marae in the whole of Polynesia. A stone from here is said to lie within all other marae.

A photograph of the marae complex at Taputapuatea, showing large stones arranged in the foreground and a tall white monolith in the mid-distance.
The marae complex at Taputapuātea

Taputapuātea comprises a number of roughly rectangular areas paved with blocks of black larval stone, bordered by walls of standing stones, and some with raised platforms.

Taputapuātea would have undoubtedly been familiar to Tupaia, the Tahitian who acted as Captain Cook’s guide and navigator during his first voyage, and who came from Raiatea. His drawing of the chief mourner, now in the British Library’s collection was one of our key resources in redisplaying the heva tūpāpā’u. Standing here looking across the stones a shiver ran down my spine, as I felt a direct connection to him and to the chief mourner, who may well have inhabited this space too.

A drawing showing a woman dancing, and a Chief Mourner wearing a mourner's costume.
Drawing by Tupaia showing a woman dancing and the Chief Mourner. Drawings illustrative of Captain Cook’s first voyage, 1768–1770, chiefly relating to Otaheite and New Zealand, by A. Buchan, John F. Miller, and others. British Library.
Māuruuru roa!

I have only been able to feature a fraction of what we got up to during our trip, but I hope you have enjoyed hearing about some of it.

We are already discussing future collaborations and in December 2019 hosted a return visit to the Museum by staff from the Centre des Métiers d’Art, French Polynesia’s main applied arts school. With them we are exploring the feasibility of commissioning a new feather cloak to display as part of the costume, in place of the original which is now too fragile for further travel or exposure – a very exciting project.

Staff and students at the Arioi Cultural Centre gave us a wonderful welcome.

I would like to take this opportunity to say a massive thank you (māuruuru in Tahitian) to Hinatea, Moe and everyone who made us feel so welcome, invited us into their homes, shared food and their personal knowledge with such generosity. I truly hope that one day I can return, and in the meantime stay safe.

The trip was supported by the Wellcome Trust. Conservation and scientific research for the Tahitian mourner’s costume was supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Radcliffe Trust, Normanby Charitable Trust, Dr & Mrs Lucas and the Wellcome Trust.

You can find out more about the latest research into the Tahitian mourner’s costume in the video below.