Sunday, 10 July 2016

Take One.. Tahitian Mourner's Costume

Take One.. Mourner's Costume is a new primary school project which has been launched at the Pitt Rivers Museum.  It is part of the National Gallery's Take One... brand which encourages schools to take one picture or object, and use it as a springboard for pupils' critical and creative thinking.  Pupils are challenged to take a close look at the spectacular Mourner's Costume collected on Captain Cook's Second Voyage of the Pacific (1772-75).

Costume made up of a headdress, mask, apron and barkcloth cape
Mourner's Costume 1886.1.1637.2.1© Pitt Rivers Museum
During the 75 minute taught session pupils explore the different components of the Costume, examine the materials used and find out the fascinating story of how it was collected.  They are given the opportunity to look at other artefacts collected on Cook's Pacific Voyages, focusing on the patterns, and use their research to design their own celebratory costume.

Children stand in the Pitt Rivers Museum and hold up their costume design
Pupils present their costume design © Pitt Rivers Museum

After the initial stimulus, schools can develop their own response to the object with explorers, costumes and ceremonies, and materials being key lines of enquiry.  Teaching Notes available here. Take One... encourages a whole school celebratory event as demonstrated by West Oxford Community Primary School who used an art exhibition open to parents and the local community this week to showcase their response to the project.  This was the culmination of every year group visiting the Museum in June to experience a Take One... session.

Replica Mourner's Costume stands in the middle of a school hall
Replica Mourner Costume © Pitt Rivers Museum

When I walked into the school hall at West Oxford Community Primary School I came face to face with a life-size replica of the Mourner Costume.  I loved the way shiny paper had been used to resemble the pearl oyster apron, buttons imitated discs of coconut shell and crepe paper stood in for the barkcloth cape. This had been the masterpiece of Year 1, co-ordinated by Senior Teacher Liz Newman.  I was also very excited to see the cloak designed by the Reception Class, ingeniously made from dyed wet-wipes.  I was warned not to smell too closely as they had used potent dyes ranging from coffee, turmeric, tea and beetroot.  They had wanted to use natural dyes in the same way that the Tahitians had done when creating their barkcloth.

Cloak made from brown, yellow and pink wet wipes
Cloak made by Reception class © Pitt Rivers Museum

I really enjoyed finding out the different directions classes had taken the project in.  Some groups had immersed themselves in the life of Captain Cook, plotted his journeys of the Pacific, designed his boats and written detailed diary entries. 

Map of world showing Captain Cook's Voyages of the Pacific - replica boats below map
Captain Cook's Pacific Voyages © Pitt Rivers Museum

Some classes had developed their work on patterns and experimented with different methods of printmaking.

Year 1 brightly coloured print patterns on pieces of paper
Print patterns inspired by barkcloth © Pitt Rivers Museum

Brightly coloured printed patterns on pieces of paper pinned on the walls of a school hall
Print patterns inspired by barkcloth © Pitt Rivers Museum

There are definitely some talented costume designers at West Oxford Community Primary School, as seen in the picture below captioned 'Party Time'.  I particularly liked the design where confetti could be released from the knee-caps of a costume.

Brightly coloured and collaged cosume design reading 'Party Time' at the top of the piece of paper
Celebratory Costume Design © Pitt Rivers Museum

If you would like to find out more about the project, book Take One sessions or organise teacher INSET then please contact me at

Becca McVean
Primary School Education Officer
Pitt Rivers Museum

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