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For the First Time in 237 Years a Priceless Feathered Cloak and Helmet Are Home in Hawai‘i and Now You Can Finally See Them

Here are 10 things you need to know about a feathered cape and helmet, once owned by Captain Cook, appearing together at Hawai‘i’s Bishop Museum.


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Photos: Aaron Yoshino 

 

Starting Saturday, March 19, two priceless historic Hawaiian ali‘i garments—a feathered cloak and helmet that Kalani‘ōpu‘u gave to Capt. James Cook in 1779—will be on display at the Bishop Museum after more than a hundred years in New Zealand.

 

The journey home of these royal garments was made possible by a partnership between the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, The National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum with the support of Hawaiian Airlines. Discussions for the return began in 2013.

 

 

The journals of Capt. Cook’s lieutenant James King recalled the scene of Kalani‘ōpu‘u giving the precious royal garments at the end of the meeting with Cook: “got up & threw in a graceful manner over the Captns [sic] Shoulders the Cloak he himself wore, & put a feathered Cap upon his head, & a very handsomefly flap in his hand.”

 

Museum officials from Bishop and Te Papa gave us insight into some of the extensive preparations needed for this momentous journey.

 

 

For Saturday’s opening ceremonies, the museum is inviting kama‘āina and military to see the dramatic display and the rest of the museum for free. After Saturday, the items can be seen with the normal museum admission fee. The artifacts will be in Case 19 on the first floor of Hawaiian Hall.

 

Here are 10 things to know before heading to the museum:

 

1. The Artifacts Had More Than One Owner

After Capt. Cook’s death, the cloak and helmet returned to England with Cook’s ship and crew and passed through the hands of various museum owners and collectors before Lord St. Oswald came to own them. At his death in 1912, he unexpectedly willed his entire collection to the Dominion Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa’s predecessor.

 

2. These Artifacts Need Special Care 

Housing the artifacts properly required Bishop Museum to install motion-activated lighting in the case to minimize environmental impact on the treasures so the lights dim when no one is nearby.

 

3. What the Cloak’s Designs Mean 

According to expert scholar Adrienne Kaeppler’s publication Hawaiian Featherwork (2010), Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s cloak seems to have started as a smaller cape. The design has two red triangles (huinakolu) at the neckline and a red crescent (hoaka) which formed a sacred, protective design; the resulting yellow triangles and a yellow strip at the bottom complete the original cape. The use of so many yellow feathers demonstrates the political power of Kalani‘ōpu‘u.

 

4. Ready for Battle

The cloak provided some battle protection to the regal wearer. In addition to conveying beauty and stature, the netting and feathered garments protected against blows, stones and other weapons.

 

5. It’s Not the First Trip to Hawai‘i

The cloak (‘ahu ‘ula) has traveled to Hawai‘i twice without the helmet (mahiole): May Day in 1960 and during the exhibition marking the 100th anniversary of Captain Cook and his artificial curiosities, Jan. 18 to July 31, 1978. However, this is the first time in 237 years that both the cloak and helmet are home in Hawai‘i together.

 

6. What The Artifacts Represent

From a historical perspective, the artifacts represent a period in the timeline of Hawai‘i when there was a balance between the cultural, political and spiritual parts of Native Hawaiians and the environment. The large cloak required a healthy and sustainable community to create it.

 

7. Yes, These Bird Feathers Are Real

Bishop Museum had to secure a migratory bird permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. To verify what the birds are, the species of birds needed to be identified. The red feathers are from the ‘i‘iwi bird and yellow feathers from the mamo bird as well as two ‘ō‘ō birds from Maui and Hawai‘i Island.

 

8. Counting Feathers Was Complicated

One of the import requirements of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a feather count.

 

Fortunately, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa officials were allowed to count a small section of the feather bundles densely woven into the ‘ahu ‘ula and extrapolate that across the entire cloak. No gloves were worn during the handling, because they can hinder the control of carefully placing the needle between the netting knots that make up the foundation of this cloak. Each stitch requires careful manipulation of lifting feathers to reveal the netting, positioning the needle, and then keeping the looped thread free from catching feather barbules as the thread is pulled through to the other side. In addition, the hands that conducted this process were as clean as can possibly be, according to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

 

9. How Many Feathers?

The cloak (‘ahu ‘ula) is estimated to include about half a million feathers from about 20,000 birds.

 

10. How Long Will They Stay in Hawai‘i?

In the history of significant Hawaiian cultural artifacts, this is the first time that a longterm loan from a major institution has been given to Hawai‘i. The official term of the loan is 10 years, but discussions continue about a longer-term transfer.

 

The Saturday, March 19 event He Nae Ākea: Bound Together will also feature the opening of an interactive companion exhibit, Lele O Nā Manu: Hawaiian Forest Birds, which explores the rich and diverse natural history of native Hawaiian forest birds, their importance in traditional Hawaiian culture, their direct connection to the health of native forests and the critical need for conservation.

 

Free, 9:30 a.m., March 19, 1525 Bernice St., bishopmuseum.org

 

READ MORE STORIES BY ROBBIE DINGEMAN

 

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Honolulu Magazine November 2018