In 1936, the Dominion Museum was given a gift so rare and strange that it made the news. Described in the Auckland Star and in museum records as a “witch doctor’s outfit”, the garment was subsequently displayed for many years in the Buckle St building that opened that same year.
During an ongoing survey of Te Papa’s International History collection, I closely examined this item to make a record of its condition, materials, manufacturing techniques, and storage requirements. While the garment is rare, there are others in museum collections to which it can be compared to help understand more about it.
According to the label, the “cape” was collected in Nyasaland, a British colony that became Malawi upon independence in 1964 . The garment is described on the label as being made up of monkey’s tails.
However, the shape and colouration of the fur and skins is so diverse that I suspect a wide variety of mammals have been incorporated. Perhaps only one of the strips of skin has a shape consistent with that of a tail, otherwise whole pelts have been slashed so as to curl into tassel shapes. The examples C and D below appear to be from either a genet or a serval. Any specialists on the wildlife of Malawi out there are invited to contribute their best guesses.
One way to learn more about the types of skins used is to look at the details of the scale patterning on the fiber exterior (cuticle) as well as the interior space (or medulla) of the hairs. Two hairs were taken from the portion of the garment that most resembles a monkey’s tail (the image below shows several vervet monkeys, common to Malawi)
Most often this tells you what a fiber is not, rather than being conclusive about what it is, especially in the absence of samples of known identity to which the unknowns can be compared–perhaps not surprisingly, Te Papa does not have a large collection of southern African mammal specimens. But thanks to the marvellous and handy Guide to the Identification of Animal Fibers (H.M. Appleyard, copyright 1978, British Textile Technology Group) there are reference images of hairs just about anything you can make a fur coat out of. Using fiber “C” an example, the images I took, when compared to reference images, suggest that this stripy bushy tail is likely to be that of a genet.
A fair question might be, why does it matter what animals were used? From a materials preservation point of view, it does not, since the chemistry of their deterioration is identical. However, in our anthropocene age, artifacts made with materials sourced from the natural environment may one day be significant as being records of those species that no longer exist.
A secondary smaller component of the outfit, labelled a “sporran”, has a large decorative ball at the top, made of grass or leaf fibres interlaced like a basket to enclose the internal wadding, and covered with glass trade beads. The beadwork is an example of peyote stitch, a technique also used in Native American and Zulu beaded items. Peyote stitch results in alternate rows of beads being laterally offset from one another and enables the beads to more densely cover an object. Glass beads were exchanged with Europeans in Southern Africa beginning in the 16th century.
A similar pair of objects, dating to c. 1900, are in the collection of the National Museum of Scotland (listed as a “sporran” and “kilt” in their records) . This type of garment may be associated with the Chewa people of Malawi and were worn by men of the Nyau society in Gule Wamkulu performance. This tradition is still practiced today and recognized by Unesco as important traditional performing arts heritage. The Angoni, also of Malawi, also wore skin garments, so the Te Papa garment may have origins in that culture (see comments below by Dr. Andrew Tracey). The girdle and “sporran” would likely have been worn together with a mask or headdress, enabling the dancer to assume a role in the dance. The animal skins and fur-covered cloth wrappings present along the top edge would also impart potency to the garment and status to its wearer. The newspaper article cited in this post alludes to a “headdress” being part of the bequest but this has not yet been surveyed.
Sadly, the garment has previously suffered extensive pest grazing and sheds frass (insect excrement) each time it is moved. However, because of the number of skins used, this does not detract from its overall effect. There has been no recent pest activity, and treatment can be undertaken to clean and stabilise the damage if the garment is to be displayed in the future. Some of the skins are damaged and almost detached from the rest of the garment, so treatment would also address making these more secure. In the meantime, current storage conditions are optimal for its long term safety.