Caring for the only known full kākāpō feather cloak in the world

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How do you set about conserving an extremely fragile Māori cloak, made from the feathers of a critically endangered parrot, while observing culturally appropriate practices? This was the balancing act facing a joint team from Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Scotland (PMAG), and the British Museum, and the results have led not only to a sensitive conservation, but to empathetic networks of knowledge and skill.

Known as the kahu kākāpō, the cloak is covered in feathers of the green, flightless kākāpō bird and is the only one of its kind known in the world. Residing in the collections of PMAG (managed for Perth & Kinross Council by Culture Perth & Kinross), it was among a number of taonga (highly valued cultural heritage) collected by David Ramsay, a Perth-born doctor who sailed to Australia as a ship’s surgeon, settling there in 1823. He donated his collection to the Perth Literary and Antiquarian Society in 1842, and so the cloak represents a historically significant time of change for Māori weaving in the face of European colonisation, and is amongst the most significant preserved in UK museum collections.

A photo of the cloak after conservation, against a black background.
The kahu kākāpō, after conservation ©2022 Trustees of the British Museum, ©2022 Culture Perth and Kinross.

The cloak was designated for a key display for the new museum being developed in Perth, set to open in the spring of 2024. While in remarkably good condition considering the cloak’s age, which is estimated to have been made in the early 1800s, after European contact, the kahu was nonetheless fragile, and in danger of losing feathers and fragments of plant fibre when handled. PMAG therefore contacted the British Museum for assistance with its conservation, as the Museum’s Organic Artefact Conservation studio has a wealth of experience treating these materials.

To support the collaboration, a UK Partnership Knowledge Share project was set up. This programme promotes the sharing of skills between UK-based museum staff, and allowed Anna Zwagerman, PMAG’s Conservation Officer, to spend three weeks in London to treat the cloak alongside British Museum conservators Misa Tamura and Nicole Rode.

Two conservators working on the cloak, using small white triangles to identify areas of damaged feathers.
Anna Zwagerman and Nicole Rode at work conserving the cloak. The white triangles sitting on the surface of the cloak indicate damaged feathers that require treatment. ©2022 Trustees of the British Museum, ©2022 Culture Perth and Kinross.

In addition to skills sharing, one of the key aims was to include culturally appropriate care in the conservation process. PMAG was already in the process of forming a memorandum of understanding with the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa) – so they were brought on board as the third partner of the project. Awhina Tamarapa became the Māori curatorial adviser on the team. The team then liaised with members of Ngāti Rānana London Māori Club as well as the New Zealand Society Scotland, and asked them to provide the culturally appropriate protocols.

Cultural care was given through three ceremonies: a Leaving, Welcome and Farewell ceremony. To conduct the ceremonies, PMAG and the British Museum were honoured to welcome Perth and London-based Māori representatives, some of whom were weavers. The resulting ceremonies were powerful and moving for all involved, and a befitting homage to the cloak. All ceremonies allowed for the appropriate cultural practices to be observed, which included reciting karakia (prayers), singing and spending time with the cloak.

A group of people wearing feather cloaks standing around the cloak before it leaves Perth.
Members of Ngāti Rānana and the New Zealand Society Scotland greet the cloak in Perth for the first time in an emotional ceremony to mark its departure to London. From left to right: Rose Chandler, Kiwiroa Marshall, Jackie Naylor, Anna Zwagerman (PMAG), JP Reid (PMAG), Mark Hall (PMAG), Michelle Rigby and Ereti Mitchell. ©2022 Trustees of the British Museum, ©2022 Culture Perth and Kinross.

Ngāti Rānana and New Zeland Society Scotland Members Esther Kerr Jessop, Ereti Mitchell and Kiwiroa Marshall later explained that the ceremonies were:

ways of greeting the cloak… waking the kahu… welcoming the kahu to the daylight… letting the cloak know that her people were here… providing care, love and support’ and ‘providing safety and protection during the cloak’s travels

They also explained that the ceremonies were an important way for them to ‘reconnect with our taonga’, and that the connection was made even stronger ‘with the opportunity to touch the kahu’, while admiring the cloak’s fine craftsmanship or packing the cloak in Perth for the journey to London.

As part of each ceremony, we all moved to a space where we could share a meal. Here the formal changed to informal and we had the opportunity to meet each other, learn about Māori cultural practices, discuss conservation techniques and celebrate the new chapter in the life of the kahu kākāpō.

A group of people wearing feather cloaks, welcoming the cloak into a conservation studio.
Members of Ngāti Rānana welcome the cloak to the British Museum. Front row l to r: Rose Chandler, Esther Kerr Jessop, Mark Hall (PMAG), Jackie Naylor, Angelei Mann. Back row l to r: Louisa Burden (BM), Michelle Rigby, David Jones, Kiwiroa Marshall, Nicole Rode (BM). ©2022 Trustees of the British Museum, ©2022 Culture Perth and Kinross.

Having observed these important ceremonies, we turned our thoughts to the physical support we could offer to the weak and damaged areas of the kahu. Our main concerns were the stability of the delicate feather shafts, as well as the pōkinikini – the cylindrical, dried strands made from harakeke, the unprocessed leaves of Phormium tenax, also known as New Zealand flax. While these natural materials were remarkably well-preserved, considering they were at least 180 years old, many of them had weakened from age and required stabilisation.

The feathers of the kākāpō had been woven into the ground weave of the cloak by their very fine, thin shafts. Over time, some of the feathers had become bent, partially split at their shafts, or completely detached from the weave. To support them, a strong but lightweight mulberry paper was used, after being toned and cut to match the colour and very narrow lengths of each damaged shaft, which were often less than 2mm wide. Each piece was then carefully secured along individual shafts with a conservation grade adhesive and left to dry under gentle pressure.

A conservator applying repair paper to a broken feather shaft.
Carefully applying repair paper to a broken feather shaft. ©2022 Trustees of the British Museum, ©2022 Culture Perth and Kinross.

The treatment of the pōkinikini required similarly delicate care. The black, dyed sections along the pōkinikini lengths were likely coloured with an iron-tannin dye, which over time had eaten away at the fibres, making the dyed areas exceedingly weak.

To support these areas, narrow strips of lightweight mulberry paper were toned to match the pokinikini’s alternating dyed and undyed stripes. The paper strips were then applied as discreet bridges, linking sections of damaged pōkinikini to ensure no areas were lost. For other types of damage, toned mulberry paper was pulped into fibres, and then carefully inserted into the centre of the cylindrical pōkinikini strand to bring together and support the split fibres. Overall, the treatment for these fragile elements required more than 100 hours of sustained focus and manual dexterity, along with very fine-tipped forceps and strong magnification!

A conservator working with tweezers to stabilise a strand of the cloak.
A strand of pōkinikini being stabilised. ©2022 Trustees of the British Museum, ©2022 Culture Perth and Kinross.

With the cloak’s elements stable, we began to make the cloak’s mount. To do this, we first had to know how the kahu was going to be presented, as the way the cloak was worn would have been a personal choice.

To get a better understanding of how the kahu may have sat on the wearer, we made a mock-up out of the padding material the cloak would eventually be supported on. While the padding material wasn’t as fine and flexible as the kahu, it allowed us to see the overall shape, and where certain elements may have sat, such as the red kākā feather near the front of the cloak.

Three photos showing three ways the cloak may have been worn around the shoulders.
Three ways the cloak may have been worn. ©2022 Trustees of the British Museum, ©2022 Culture Perth and Kinross.

After making a mock-up, we also inspected the kahu for clues as to how the cloak was worn. We noted that there seemed to be more abrasion along the left and top edge, suggesting the cloak could have been worn with an opening at the right side.

A birds-eye-view of the cloak, showing wear patterns in the feathers along two edges.
Wear patterns in the feathers, circled in red above, suggested the cloak may have been worn with an opening at the side. ©2022 Trustees of the British Museum, ©2022 Culture Perth and Kinross.

We also noted the cloak may not have been worn frequently, as the holes where the cords came through – the cords that held the cloak against the body – weren’t overly stretched from wear.

A close up photo of the edge of the cloak, showing a depression in the edging cord.
A depression in the edging cord told us where the missing strap had sat. ©2022 Trustees of the British Museum, ©2022 Culture Perth and Kinross.

With clues such as these, as well as historic photos, the team decided to present the cloak with a side opening.

To make the mount, a paper maché technique was used – strips of buckram fabric were layered using a conservation grade adhesive, creating a firm base. Using the mock-up as a guide, sections of the mount were then cut away, so none of it would be visible on display. To give even more rigidity, as well as something to stitch into, the shaped base was then covered in a polyester fabric, and finally covered with the black display fabric. 

Conservator Nicole Rode wearing a dark blue apron, making a mount to display the cloak.
Conservator Nicole Rode making the cut-away buckram mount on which the cloak will be displayed. ©2022 Trustees of the British Museum, ©2022 Culture Perth and Kinross.

To engage with a wider group of cultural representatives during the conservation of the kahu, a closed Facebook group was set up. Led by Māori curatorial advisor Awhina Tamarapa, Māori weavers, cultural professionals, scholars and members of Ngāti Rānana were invited to join.

We posted daily, highlighting details of the cloak, explained the treatments being carried out, and asked questions of the community. Members were able to comment on the existing posts as well as post themselves, resulting in lively, full discussions, highlighting related research projects, and other cloaks known to contain kākāpō feathers.

Although the group did not instigate changes to the treatment and mounting proposals, it widened the horizon of all those working on the project, broadened our knowledge and understanding of the materials and culture, and made for a truly inclusive project where we were not working in isolation.

The conserved cloak mounted and shown against a black background.
The kahu kākāpō after conservation and mounting ©2022 Trustees of the British Museum, ©2022 Culture Perth and Kinross.

The treatment of the cloak also resulted in the unexpected opportunity to contribute to a DNA research project run by colleagues at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa as part of their wider project to conserve the kākāpō parrot (Kākāpō: New Zealand native land birds, which includes fantastic sound recordings).

A sample of a feather shaft in a small vial of liquid.
Samples of kākāpō feather shafts, sent to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa ©2022 Culture Perth and Kinross.

The project to conserve the kahu kākāpō nests within a framework of bigger projects – the new museum being developed in Perth and the memorandum of understanding developed between PMAG and Te Papa. In shaping a shared understanding of the cloak, the project reflects the wider project’s aim of developing a new, collaborative understanding of Māori taonga in the Perth collections and to share that knowledge with the world.

As a result, empathetic networks of knowledge, skill, making, performance and professional best practice have been established. The kākāpō cloak is a powerful, living force and the careful, Māori-community sanctioned conservation highlights the deep cultural significance of the kahu and inspirational role in supporting Māori identity. It has been a great privilege for us at Perth Museum and Art Gallery and the British Museum to contribute to the care of this fascinating and enduring taonga and to help ensure the kahu can take wing into a secure future.

The Kahu Kākāpō Team would like to thank:
• Ngāti Rānana The London Māori Club
• The New Zealand Society Scotland
• Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
• Culture Perth & Kinross and the British Museum

This collaborative project was supported by the Vivmar Foundation as part of the British Museum’s national Knowledge Share programme.

The cloak will be on display in the new museum developed in Perth, set to open in Spring 2024.

The post Caring for the only known full kākāpō feather cloak in the world first appeared on British Museum Blog.