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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.