New Zealand’s Stuff.co.nz Website reported last week that the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, also simply known as Te Papa, had returned two priceless Hawaiian artifacts to their original home with a moving ceremony at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. The two items were an ‘ahu’ula (feather cloak) and a mahiole (helmet). Both of these items have spent more than two centuries away from Hawaii, after being gifted to Captain Cook in 1779 by Chief Kalaniopu’u.
The two objects were given a farewell in style from Te Papa a week before being transferred to Hawaii. When they arrived at the Bishop Museum, it was Hawaii’s turn to reciprocate in a day of formalities that was attended by around 400 people, including descendants of Kalaniopu’u. In the shadow of the museum’s sperm whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling and watched over by a carving of Ku, the Hawaiian god of war, speaker after singer after dancer after drummer celebrated the cloak and helmet’s place in their history and culture, and the significance of their return.
Grace Hutton, Te Papa’s Collection Manager said, “the workmanship and skill that has gone into the cloak is mind-boggling. It contains more than a million yellow feathers and more than three million red feathers from an estimated 20,000 birds, and it is crafted into a backing woven so finely that conservators struggled to find holes large enough to put a needle through when strengthening the cloak with an extra backing. Making such a cloak would have taken years.”
The two artifacts had a lengthy journey before ending up at the Bishop Museum. After being gifted to Cook in 1779 they returned to England with his ship. In England the artifacts passed through the hands of a number of owners, ending up with the collector Lord St Oswald, who unexpectedly gifted them with his entire collection to the Dominion Museum in New Zealand which was Te Papa’s predecessor.
The artifacts are of significance not just because of their part in the story of Kalaniopu’u and Cook. Feather cloaks and helmets were extremely valuable objects in traditional Hawaiian society, reserved for royalty.
If you happen to be visiting Hawaii, take a trip to the Bishop Museum to view these unique and intricately exquisite pieces of Hawaii’s history.