A Rare Ceremonial Headdress from the Austral Islands

   headdress general

Fig. 1. Front view of headdress. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Gift of the Heirs of David Kimball, 99-12-70/53617.

The Peabody Museum actively supports research, teaching and access to the material culture collections stewarded at the museum along with a loan-sharing program to national and international venues that further expands the public reach of and engagement with the collections.

The public recently had a special opportunity to study a very rare and unique late-eighteenth-early-nineteenth-century chiefly headdress (99-12-70/53617, FIG 1) thought to be from Tubuai or Ra’ivavae in the Austral Islands, the southernmost archipelago of French Polynesia in the central South Pacific Ocean. Acquired by the Peabody Museum in 1899, the limited associated documentation suggests it may have previously been part of the collection from the Peale Museum, the first museum in the United States, established in 1784.   


Fig. 2. Detail of latticework of coconut fiber cordage.

The headdress and several other Polynesian items were requested for a short-term loan as part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 2018 exhibition "Atea: Nature and Divinity in Polynesia). Numerous associated programming events were sponsored by the borrowing institution’s curatorial staff, engaging local Pacific Islanders and the general visiting public. New information and understanding of the headdress came to light during implementation of this loan and its subsequent public engagement.           

The loan process and decisions to consider

As part of the museum’s internal loan process, conservators locate and review all existing prior documentation to better understand the history of each requested item, prior repairs or conservation interventions, and any other referenced preservation challenges.

Historical records indicated that the Polynesian headdress - measuring nearly 4 ft wide/110 x 110 x 21 cm - was quite fragile and structurally unstable due to its construction materials and its monumental size. Sometime in the late 1960s, a support panel was added to provide essential structural integrity, however the entire rear side of the headdress was obscured in the process.  Fortunately, there are two early historic photographs that reveal and confirm the complex nature of the tenuous plant fiber understructure. A second preservation risk identified was the vulnerability to insect activity as noted by an earlier infestation that resulted in damage to feathers and to the narrow wood rods supporting the intricate feather work.


Fig. 3. Rear view of headdress in ~1910 prior to attachment of support panel.


Fig. 4. Side view.

The success of this loan project could be assured with several low-impact steps including low temperature treatment (to reduce potential for an insect outbreak at the borrowing institution); surface cleaning and structural stabilization, along with proper packing, transit, and exhibit mounting.

Materials, construction and condition

It became clear during the stabilization process, that the fan-shaped headdress with its affixed basketry head cap was achieved through incredible specialists’ and artisans’ technological skills. Its layered construction includes several types of feathers, shell, bark cloth, human hair, cane, and other natural plant fibers. Met curator Maia Nuku (2019) suggests that this “range of materials is a bold visual index that underpins island cosmologies.” Charged with divine presence, the collective piece acts as “a kind of material genealogy connecting divine ancestors and former rulers with a living individual” and “signals chiefly dominion over the distinct realms of the land, sea, and sky".


Fig. 5. Detail of iridescent blue green feathers.



Fig. 6. Pacific black duck in flight. Credit: Dan Forster (photographer)Macaulay Library of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML98460291).

The foundation consists of narrow wood rods that radiate out from the lower area and then are held perpendicularly with several narrower rods in a semi-circular shape with plant fiber cordage, and then a thin top layer of latticework of narrow braided bands of coconut fiber (Cocos Nucifera).


Fig. 7. Seven arc-shaped bands with one showing red-orange parrot feather loss.

Affixed on the latticework are different materials in seven arc-shaped bands: (1) at the lower front/forehead are 68 marine shell pieces held with coconut fiber, (2) followed by short cut white duck feathers (Anas platyrhynchos f. domesticus), then (3) red-orange parrot feathers (Kuhl’s lorikeet), (4) longer cut white duck feathers (5) iridescent blue-green feathers of Pacific black duck (Anas superciliosa pelewensis), (6) a band of flatter narrower rods, and (7) at the outermost area, long brown feathers of jungle fowl with a top layer of bundled human hair strands.


Fig. 8.   Bark cloth-covered head cap.


Fig. 9.  Detail of oval form hanging from rim of head cap.


Fig. 10.  Interior of basketry head cap with bark cloth lining.

The coiled basketry head cap is covered in bark cloth (of beaten inner bark fibers of the paper mulberry tree). On its rear side is an applied vegetable-fiber knotted net section on which bundles of human hair are attached. There is a small oval-shaped form (possibly an amulet or personally identifying charm) wrapped in bark cloth that hangs from a short cord at the rim of the cap.

Top cap

Fig. 11. Exterior top of basketry cap with hair bundle.

Knot net

Fig 12. Knotted net piece and hair strands at rear of head cap.

Depending on environmental conditions and other circumstances, organic materials can be impacted in many ways. The structure of feathers can be significantly altered and lost by insect activity and/or by handling and use. The red-orange parrot feathers are nearly fully lost due to insects. The knotted net with human hair shows large areas of loss and broken vegetable fiber cords from use and handling.


Fig. 13. Details of shells (held with coconut fiber) and white duck feathers.


Fig .14. Long jungle fowl feathers with losses and earlier repairs.

Treatment considerations

To ensure safety of the headdress during packing and transport and for the installation in the exhibit case, several minimal interventions were implemented such as: surface cleaning to remove insect debris; securing loose, bent or separating feathers; reinforcing the basketry cap and reattaching lifting sections of bark cloth; stabilizing loose shell pieces and rejoining a broken one; and making sure the headdress was still firmly attached to its under-support panel.


Fig. 15. Headdress in its interior packing container with foam stops.

Ongoing consultation, packing, shipping and installation

Communication with our loan collaborators took place throughout the preparation process. Dimensions and photographs of the headdress along with two custom-designed steel display armatures were sent down ahead of time so that mountmakers at The Met could fabricate the display case. The headdress was packed horizontally in a lidded custom-sized archival-grade cardboard box and then placed in a rigid crate lined with several inches of cushioning foam. The Peabody Museum senior conservator served as courier during truck shipment and for the exhibit installation at which time the headdress’ condition was compared with its accompanying traveling condition report. Met art handlers attached the two steel supports to the rear wall of the display case, and then the headdress was positioned on them.

Steel support

Fig. 16. Detail of steel support with headdress in position.

Light levels were adjusted and any dust or debris was removed from the display case, and the exhibit case’s acrylic bonnet was lowered into place. Display cases serve to limit light exposure, soiling and air movement across the feather work components and to provide security during exhibition.


Fig. 17. Headdress in exhibit case and associated graphic on nearby gallery wall.


  • Maia Nuku (Maori, iwi Ngai Tai), associate curator of Oceanic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Christine Giuntini, conservator, Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • David Rhoads, collection manager, Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Christiane Jordan, conservator, Museum of Ethnology and Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna
  • Jeremiah Trimble, curatorial Associate/collections manager, Ornithology, Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology
  • Peter Schilling, formerly senior exhibitions specialist at Harvard Art Museum
  • Genevieve Fisher, formerly senior registrar, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
  • Ingrid Ahlgren, curator of Oceanic Collections, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology



Nuku, Maia. Knowledge positions in Aotearoa and Turtle Island Art Museums: Interview with First Nations curators Kathleen Ash-Milby, Maia Nuku and Nigel Borell in Artlink Issue 40:2 (June 2020).

Nuku, Maia.  "Atea: Nature and Divinity in Polynesia." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 76, no. 3(Winter 2019)