05 July 2009

Hawaiian Feather Cloaks Repaired by Textile Students

Intricate repair work on three culturally significant Hawaiian feather cloaks has made them ready for public display later this summer.

Under the supervision of Valerie Free, Museum Conservator of the Bishop Museum at Honolulu, Hawaii, two graduate student interns, Aimee Ducey, from New York University, and Elizabeth Nunan, from Buffalo State College, completed treatment and mounting of three feather cloaks.

The project was supported by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

"Known as ‘ahu ‘ula, the cloaks were worn by male members of the Hawaiian ali’i, the chiefly or royal class in traditional Hawaiian society," according to a project profile on the IMLS website. " Each magnificent cloak, one of which dates back to the mid-18th century, is made of bundles of tiny red and yellow feathers of now-extinct birds secured to a net foundation. The cloaks, are eight feet wide and weigh 20 to 30 pounds each.

"The cloaks were cleaned, broken netting repaired, loose feather bundles reattached, holes stabilized, and fragile sections reinforced with support materials. The treatments for the cloaks and the development and construction of the cloak mounting system were fully documented in written reports and extensive digital photo documentation."

An article "The Conservation of Three Hawaiian Feather Cloaks," coauthored with Elizabeth Nunan, and published in the journal of the Textile Society of America, "describes in detail the manufacture of the cloaks," said Ducey. "In brief, they were constructed from netted supports made from a local plant. Tiny bundles of feathers were then tied to the netting in overlapping rows to create the richly colored patterns of the surface. The techniques that the Hawaiians used to make the cloaks can be taught today, but few people have the skill to make such finely knotted nets. Also, the significance of the different patterns on the cloaks is not known today which is a great loss to our understanding of this culture. The cloaks are therefore vivid but enigmatic symbols of the people and place that produced them."

"At the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts (NYU) I studied objects conservation, the grouping that we use in the field to differentiate this type of conservation from the paper and paintings specialties," said Aimee Ducey, currently studying objects conservation specializing in modern, contemporary, and ethnographic art as a graduate student at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU. "As a result, I was exposed to the properties of a variety of materials, including feathers. Based on this broad range of experience, artifacts that employ feathers are particularly fragile and difficult to conserve. Damage and deterioration of feathers is almost impossible to reverse or to repair."

Aimee Ducey, removing accretion from the Chapman feathered cloak. Image courtesy of IMLS, and used via a link to their website.

"The project to conserve the Hawaiian Ahu'ula was a unique opportunity, and the sacred nature of the cloaks to Hawaiian culture was always present in my mind as we worked on them," Ducey said. "The fact that the feathers also come from birds that are now extinct is also an important part of their history and how they are interpreted in the present. It is a sign of the impact of colonization on the Hawaiian Islands, and the difference in value systems between the native population and the newcomers."

"The most commonly used feathers in the ahu’ula are from the o’o, the mamo, and the i’iwi birds. The brilliant yellow tufts of the Hawaiian o’o were plucked from beneath the wings and rump of the bird," according to the journal article. "The color is described as lemony-yellow, and the barbs of the feather are long and wispy. The o’o was over a foot in length including its long tail, and though some accounts tell of the feathers being plucked and then the bird being set free, others mention that it was eaten as a delicacy. The o’o was virtually extinct in Hawai`i by the 1920’s. The Hawaiian mamo was already extremely rare by 1888, with the last sighting in 1898. As compared to the o’o, the mamo feather is warmer and described as crocus-yellow. The feather shape is shorter and more elliptical than the o’o. The i’iwi is a honeycreeper that is still found in the forests of Hawai`i, with the females being of a deeper red color than the males. The downy feathers of the head and chest were used in the cloaks, allowing more feathers to be collected per bird as compared to the yellow o’o and mamo."

"The feathers are very fragile. Although the preservation of the cloaks involved repairing the netting material to which the feathers are attached, handling of these large and heavy garments must be carefully undertaken in order not to damage the feather surface."

Both students were recruited for the project, and once accepted, were flown to Hawaii, provided with stipends for living expenses, housing and bus transportation for the internship period during June-August 2007. As part of their internship, they both attended workshops on related topics, and went on field trips to pertinent cultural sites.

"It was an honor to be given the opportunity to conserve such finely constructed artifacts and because of their powerful meaning within Hawaiian culture," Ducey said. "The highlight was of course at the end of the summer, when the repaired cloaks were placed on the museum mounts designed to display them. The project was an important step in preserving the cloaks."

The repaired cloaks will be displayed at the Bishop Museum when it reopens the renovated Hawaiian Hall in August.

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