Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Conservation of a 19th Century Tahitian 'Poncho'

As part of the final year of my MSc in Conservation for Museums and Archaeology at UCL, I am undertaking a five-month internship in the Conservation Department of the Pitt Rivers Museum. I have been lucky enough to spend some of my time here researching and conserving a fascinating object. Although it was "found unentered" (that is, found without an accession number or other identifying information) in the Museum store in 1984, more has since been discovered about the object's provenance. More recently, it came to the attention of Conservation staff, who blogged about it here - which is how it ended up as my internship project.

Based on analogies with objects at the Royal Economic Botany Collection at Kew Gardens (42977, 73328 and 73329) and at the British Museum (Oc1960,11.22, Oc1960,11.24 and Oc1960,11.25), the object can be identified as a traditional Tahitian poncho-like garment called a tiputa. It consists of a rectangular piece of barkcloth with a central opening to pass over the wearer's head. It is elaborately decorated with rosettes made of folded monocot leaf strips or stems and long fringes of extremely delicate plant leaf epidermis.

PRM 1984.3.1, front shown after conservation treatment © Pitt Rivers Museum

Given the lack of information about how the poncho came to be in the Pitt Rivers Museum collections, it is not implausible to suggest that - like the comparable objects from Kew and the British Museum - it may have been collected by Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, during a visit to Tahiti in 1869.

The Duke of Edinburgh is shown in this carte-de-visite photograph surrounded by Tahitian royal women in 1869 (image taken from the web page 'Ahoy - Mac's Web Log', where a now defunct commercial website '' is credited as the original source of the image). 

Prince Alfred's visit took place almost exactly a century after Captain Cook's first voyage, by which time there had already been extensive contact between Tahitians and Europeans. In fact, contemporary travellers' and missionaries' accounts describe islanders wearing a combination of barkcloth and Western woven textile clothing. It is interesting to note that by the mid-19th century, barkcloth production had probably ceased on Tahiti, so the material may have been imported from another Polynesian island. The highly decorated style of the poncho, moreover, does not fit in the traditional category of Tahitian high-status barkcloth, which was white and undecorated. All of this points to the poncho being the product of a period marked by dynamic, creative use of material culture to define colonial identities.

PRM 1984.3.1 as found in storage, before conservation treatment © Pitt Rivers Museum

From a conservation point of view, the poncho presented several problems, many of which resulted from inappropriate storage conditions in the past. The garment had been folded in half twice, and was then tightly packed into a wooden crate. This led to distortion and creases in the barkcloth material itself, as well as extensive damage and material loss to the fragile decorations. The decorative fringes which remained on the object were tangled, creased and damaged. The object was also rather dirty.

Bag of detached fragments. PRM 1984.3.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Thick covering of dirt on one of the rosettes. PRM 1984.3.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Tangled, creased and damaged edge fringes. PRM 1984.3.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Besides providing an opportunity to revisit some research into the poncho's cultural and historical significance, the main aim of the conservation treatment was to improve the structural stability of the poncho, while also improving its visual appearance. I used a Preservation Pencil to humidify the fringes one by one, straightened and untangled them, and repaired damaged areas with small patches of Japanese tissue paper adhered with starch paste. I cleaned the rosettes with a fine brush and vacuum tweezers and then misted them with a consolidant coating to strengthen the material. Finally, integral to the conservation treatment was devising a more appropriate storage solution, which would allow the object to be stored more comfortably and accessed more safely and conveniently in the future.

Humidifying and straightening the edge fringes, in progress. PRM 1984.3.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

The scale of a conservation project like this cannot be underestimated. I spent 110 hours in total on the treatment and used around £78 worth of archival-grade materials (corrugated polypropylene board, Plastazote foam, cotton calico and polyester wadding) for the repacking. The volume of the new storage box is approximately 540 litres - nearly eight times the volume of the old crate. This clearly has implications for space availability inside the Museum store, an increasingly precious resource.

PRM 1984.3.1 in its new storage box, with the old crate pictured alongside © Pitt Rivers Museum
Finally, the treatment has provided me with an opportunity to collect already detached samples of the various plant materials present, with a view to carrying out more detailed identification using scanning electron microscopy and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy at UCL's Institute of Archaeology. This analysis will be done over the next few months and I hope to be able to share the results in a follow-up blog post then.

Naomi Bergmans
Conservation Student

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