The World of Feathers

The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge holds an incredibly rich collection of featherwork that was produced across the globe throughout various times, and scholars are eager to study these unique holdings in more detail. During the last months, the archaeological and anthropological collections managers, Imogen Gunn and Rachel Hand, hosted two Cambridge University historians, Professor Ulinka Rublack and Dr Stefan Hanß, to conduct joint research on the cultures of featherwork. Their research on feathers allows Rublack and Hanß to approach early modern cultural encounters and European identity formations in the light of the history of emotions, the body and the senses. In particular, they examine the extent to which the production and circulation of early modern featherwork coincided with the transmission of artisanal skills and the shaping of emotional styles that mirrored debates on religion, natural philosophy, and gender.

Professor Ulinka Rublack (University of Cambridge) and Rachel Hand (Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Cambridge) study an Amazonian headdress. Photograph by Stefan Hanß.

Dr Stefan Hanß (University of Cambridge) uses the digital microscope to reveal details of constructions of Peruvian featherwork. MAA 1929.65. Photograph by Imogen Gunn.

Throughout the last months, Ulinka Rublack and Stefan Hanß visited the museum various times to study its collections together with Rachel Hand and Imogen Gunn. Consulting artefacts from the pre-Columbian period to the present day, the researchers examined the material qualities of feathers as well as the variegated artisanship of featherwork. Highlights included a feather poncho from pre-colonial Peru, eighteenth and nineteenth century Hawaiian feather helmets (mahiole) and cloaks (‘ahu ‘ula), and Amazonian material such as Brazilian headdresses and ceremonial batons and Ecuadorian necklaces with bird’s heads and bodies attached. A digital microscope turned out to be a particularly fruitful research tool to study the variety of techniques that people applied to feathered artefacts in different cultural contexts for netting, knotting and gluing feathers. The microscope furthermore revealed the wide colour variety of feathers as well as their opalescent character that was often integral to their use in performances throughout the early modern world. This helped immensely to explore how birds and their feathers were crucial in the staging of social hierarchies, to address notions of the supernatural in complex rituals, and to negotiate cultural as well as mercantile contacts.

A close-up view reveals the complex knotting techniques of pre-colonial Peruvian featherwork. MAA 1929.64. Photograph by Stefan Hanß.

Detail from an Ecuadorian necklace with affixed bird heads. MAA E 1903.247. Photograph by Stefan Hanß.

A Hawaiian feather cloak with a dimension of 72 inches (base). MAA Z 6139. Photograph by Stefan Hanß.

This fruitful cross-disciplinary exchange motivated the participants to further promote an object-based dialogue between anthropologists, archaeologists, conservators, historians, and museologists. The ‘Feather Conservation Workshop’ led by Allyson Rae and hosted by the University of Cambridge Museums was a welcome opportunity to learn more about conservators’ perspectives on featherwork. Furthermore, Rublack and Hanß are currently organising a workshop that surely provokes further stimulating and more detailed discussions about the early modern world of feathers.

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