April 2009: Interns Help Restore Sacred Hawaiian Cloaks
The Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii, will exhibit three newly repaired feather cloaks when it reopens the renovated Hawaiian Hall in August. 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. 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, which are eight feet wide and weigh 20 to 30 pounds each, were restored with the support of a 2007 Conservation Project Support (CPS) grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
Much of the repair, stabilization, and mounting of the three cloaks was done with the help of two graduate-level conservation program interns, Beth Nunan from Buffalo State College and Aimee Ducey from New York University, during an advanced three-month internship between June and August 2007. [Editor’s Note: The Art Conservation Department at Buffalo State College will partner with IMLS on the June 16-17 Connecting to Collections forum on "Stewardship of America’s Legacy: Answering the Call to Action."]
"Summer internships allow conservation students to practice what they’ve been taught," Nunan said. "And working with graduate school conservation students is a good way for museums to get a project done well while aiding in our education. It was a very well-planned internship."
"This once-in-a-lifetime internship took me out of the theory of the classroom into the real world application of methodology," said Ducey. "The experience was also important for preparing me to work in a museum environment, like I am this year at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, Germany."
Valerie Free, the former conservator at the Bishop Museum who directed the project, and Jennifer Saville, a former curator at the Honolulu Academy of Art who volunteered in the conservation department, intentionally developed the internship so that the young conservators were exposed to the museum and community as a whole. The curriculum used for the project was developed in consultation with Buffalo State University, New York University, UCLA/Getty, and Winterthur/University of Delaware. The heart of the internship was the labor-intensive restoration of the cloaks.
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.
"Sometimes we were lucky if we got an inch done a day," Free said. "Working on textiles is physically demanding. Our backs and shoulders were aching like crazy—even the young kids were hurting—because we had to hunch over a table working with tiny needles, thread like spider webs, and tiny feathers."
"It’s exhausting," agreed Nunan. "For eight hours a day, five days a week, we sewed and mended the cloaks. We got very close with Bishop Museum staff so it was like being in a sewing circle. We would talk, listen to NPR, or just get into the Zen of it. The conservation lab is spacious and the view is gorgeous."
Once the cloaks were repaired, stabilized and fitted with heavy felt removable liners, exhibition of the cloaks was addressed. In the past, the cloaks were hung vertically on the wall, which stressed the textile at the point of attachment. The flat format also did not accurately represent the cloaks’ design. In spring 2007, Free and Bob Barclay, a visiting conservator from the Canadian Conservation Institute, developed a mount that displays the cloak in the round and distributes the weight of the cloak over many points of contact with the structure. The new mount, which resembles an umbrella with wooden arms mounted on a metal pole, was much less expensive to build than previous mount designs. The savings were used to make new mounts for the six remaining cloaks in the collection.
When they weren’t laboring in the conservation lab, the interns learned about the multiple demands placed on collections by the museums and the communities, an essential part of their training, Free said.
"As conservators, we have to balance the museum’s and community’s needs with what we have learned about safeguarding the collections," said Free, who now is Exhibits Coordinator for the Anchorage Project at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
To expose the interns to various aspects of museum practices, Betty Lou Kam, the Bishop Museum’s vice president of cultural resources, lectured on how collections serve the museum’s mission and how competing interests impact the use and preservation of collection materials. In addition, Dr. Susan Lebo, an historic archeologist, presented on the stylistic development of feathered cloaks and capes through the 18th and 19th centuries and their socioeconomic impact as trade commodities. Dr. Roger Rose, former curator of ethnology at the Bishop Museum, spoke on the museum’s 100-year history of collecting Hawaiian feather cloaks.
Young conservators also learned about the community’s needs. Native Hawaiians care deeply about how their culture is presented and it is incumbent on museums to consult with them, Free said. "Once, I had to prepare a carved Hawaiian deity for exhibition. It was extremely deteriorated because it had been found on the bottom of a riverbed many years ago. Our community consultants told us that they didn’t want it to appear deteriorated. In addition to stabilizing the object, I made some improvements to the appearance by applying a wax surface coating, which is not a usual conservation practice. I tried to restore the original dignity to the piece in a very modest way."
To help the interns learn more about working with the community on cultural collections, Free arranged for a net making workshop by Umi Kai, a cultural practitioner.
"It was a rare opportunity for the students to understand the values that go with the techniques. Umi Kai explained the cultural practices related to gathering and processing the fibers for the net, the chants that are done while weaving the net, how the nets were used to catch the birds, and the reverence for the deities that provided the resources for life. It totally enhanced the process," Free said.
"The act of being culturally sensitive is essential to the field of art conservation, whether it is the handling of sacred ethnographic objects or fine art, or dealing with the effects of World War II in Germany," Ducey said. "Everything we touch, as conservators, has manifold meanings for different groups of people that must be at the forefront of our treatment decisions, and considered with respect."
Free also arranged for the young conservators to join native people on a Kapuna panel where local residents brought their objects for examination, like a Hawaiian Antiques Road Show without the monetary appraisals. After the event received media attention, staff from the Doris Duke estate and the Queen Emma Summer Palace invited the students to visit, Free said.
"Conservators need to publicize their work. It’s paradoxical because if we do our work well, we’re not seen. We can help by raising awareness about conservation," Free said.
Another part of the internship focused on stimulating the interns’ interest in research through a series of lectures and tours of the museum’s collections led by collection managers from anthropology, vertebrate zoology, botany, library, and archives. The students spent a lot of time in the library, eventually developing a paper on the cloaks for the Textile Society of America annual meeting.
"I hope Beth and Aimee were able to see how much of a collaborative effort the internship was. It’s exciting when you get so many people working towards the same goal. And It was really great to have their help after working by myself for so many years," Free said.