The De Young in Fine Feather

A magnificent collection of featherwork artifacts is now on display.


Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali'i 

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco is offering a stunning exhibition of royal featherwork through the end of February 2016. Featuring over eighty masterpieces (capes, cloaks, helmets, tiaras, leis and more), the presentation allows the visitor to revisit the rich cultural heritage and history of the Hawaiian Islands.

The entrance sets the tone with ethnographer Mary Kawena Pukui 's definition of a lei printed on the wall:

A lei- what is it ?...
A lei is a baby dearly loved...
A lei is a sweetheart...
A lei is a chanted poem or song accompanying a flower lei...
Leis made of the feathers of our native birds were reserved for royalty only.

Rare Feathers

The exhibit focuses on the 18th & 19th century, mostly on the reign of the Kamehameha dynasty. The garments and accessories made of rare feathers symbolized the divinity, super-natural power, and social status of the ruling elite. They were worn during ceremonies and battles.

Sometimes the common people used the highly sought feathers as currency to pay taxes: the visitor can admire a framed feather bundle entitled "Feather Money from Karakakua Bay." 


Another part of the exhibit is dedicated to the materials and construction of the artifacts.

Using "Olona," a strong, natural nettle fiber, the bird catchers tied the feathers together according to the purpose of the netting: for helmets, it was rigid to maintain a specific shape; for capes it was flexible to allow movement and flow. Most of the designs are complex and intricate geometric patterns amazing works of art of vibrant colorful motifs which necessitated exceptional technical skills.

The Birds

A display of birds (not live!) show the white-tailed and red-tailed tropic birds, the Apapane, the I'iwi, and many others. You can also see domestic fowl and seabirds, such as terns and albatross.

Returning to Hawaii

This visit would make a perfect holiday or post-holiday outing. Once the exhibition closes its doors, the pieces, loaned by museums of the US and Europe, will be returned to the Hawaian Islands for the first time in more than two hundred years.

Further Reading

Some informative library books on the subject:

Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thorn Hanson

Hawaii by John Chambers:

Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii by Susana Moore:

And for the younger reader:

Feathers by Jennifer Boothroyd

Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart


Author Bio: 

Jocelyne C. is an extra-help assistant librarian who loves to spend a week day in San Francisco with her husband for a visit at the museum followed by a gourmet lunch!

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