A History of the World in 100 Objects – Hawaiian Feather Helmet


Episode: Hawaiian Feather Helmet

Series: A History of the World in 100 Objects

Release Date: 6 October 2010

Host: Neil MacGregor, author of A History of the World in 100 Objectson behalf of the British Museum


Episode Link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00v2y7d

TRANSCRIPT: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00v2y7d/features/transcript 

Tags: World History, History, Polynesian, Hawaii, Artifacts, Objects, Conflict, Island, Exploration, 18th Century, Anthropology, Museum Studies, Pacific, Colonialism, Public History, Material Culture, Transnational



Mini Lecture/Interview: This episode tells the story of Europeans’ first contact with Hawaiians as told through one object – a mahiole or feather helmet – at the British Museum. The episode includes interviews with historians who describe Cook’s problematic encounter with Hawaiians as a harbinger of colonialism to come. In addition, the episode uses the helmet’s construction as a lens into key attributes in Hawaiian culture prior to colonial contact. 

Notes: Kera Lovell: I have assigned this as the first episode of the semester in my US history courses for a couple of years now. I like to begin here because it is a very short 15 minute episode with a transcript that introduces students to the complicated legacies of this era of contact in a clear, focused way. Most US history classes often ignore Hawai’i, so I alsofind that beginning in the Pacific ocean decenters the traditional narrative of US history. I have always assigned this podcast episode with the introductory chapter from Gary Okihiro’s history textbook American History Unbound so that they can synthesize their analysis of the two sources.

In their written responses for this podcast, students almost always fail to critically analyze this episode – both in analyzing the podcast and in thinking critically about this historic moment of exchange. Students are quick to jump into a reductive argument that the feather helmet symbolizes a simple cultural misunderstanding. Most often, student responses to this episode conclude with teleological comments about how, thank goodness, the world is better now. “Thank goodness we can learn from these misunderstandings.” In essence, I set students up to fail in a very low-stakes analytical review assignment so that I can challenge these assumptions head on in week 1 and introduce the idea that the legacies of this area continues to shape the context of colonialism today. 

The episode focuses on one object in the British Museum’s collection – a feather helmet given to Captain James Cook on his return visit to Hawai’i. “This feather helmet would have been worn by a Hawaiian chief during a ceremony or in battle. It is made from wicker basketry and covered with the red feathers of honeycreepers and the yellow feathers of honeyeaters. Red and yellow were the Hawaiians’ most important colours and were regarded as tapu – holding a sacred quality. Feathers enhanced mana – a spiritual force that can fill individuals or objects with power. Birds were regarded in Polynesia as spiritual messengers.” (BBC)


Assignment Ideas & Discussion Questions:

1) Anthropological History, Linguistics Research: An interesting activity can be having students use the online Hawaiian dictionary to research more about topics from the podcast. If you want to direct them to specific terms, I’d suggest: bird, red, yellow, feather, and the gods  and Lono.

Discussion Questions: 

  • What can you learn about ancient Hawaiian culture through these definitions? What was important to them? What do these definitions reveal about how did Hawaiians made connections between plants, animals, the spirit world, and humans?
  • Hawaiians named their seasons after specific gods with certain behaviors. Using this situation as an example, how did Hawaiians’ understanding of time throughout the year shape their interactions with one another and their environments?



A brief but important read on the political and cultural importance of restoring knowledge about life in ancient Oceania is the essay “Our Sea of Islands” by Epeli Hau’ofa. 

2) Centering Hawaiians, Further Reading: I highly recommend pairing this podcast with a reading on pre-colonial Hawaiian culture. If you are looking for a reading more broadly on Polynesian navigation and culture, especially Asian influences to Pacific American history, I would recommend this initial chapter from Gary Okihiro’s history textbook American History Unbound. If you want students to do a deep dive into the culture and function of featherwork in Hawaiian society, I would recommend Leilehua Yuen’s “Hulu Manu – Hawaiian Featherwork” blog post. If you’re interested in learning more about the role of birds in Hawaiian symbolism and culture, I would recommend this brief excerpt from Martha Beckwith’s Hawaiian Mythology (1940). 

Discussion Questions: 

  • What can featherwork teach us about pre-colonial Hawaiian culture?
  • What’s the “so what”? Why should we care about Hawaiian featherwork?


3) Decolonizing Museums/Public History: If you’re interested in pairing the podcast with a source that explicitly directs students’ attention to the role of museums historically as colonial tools of extraction, try this short film by the Department of Hawaiian Affairs on the cultural importance of the triumphant return of Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s cape and helmet from the National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. 

Discussion Questions: 

  • Using these artifacts as examples, how have museums functioned as tools of extraction and colonization?
  • Using this situation as an example, what does it mean to “decolonize” museums?
  • Historically objects such as the Hawaiian feather helmet have been placed in museums behind glass cases with little information on an adjacent placard – the uses of the object, materials, creator, and year of creation if known. This podcast opens a window into complex discussions about the meanings and legacies of objects from past to present. How might you as a museum curator, design an exhibit around objects like a Hawaiian feather helmet to engage audiences in these complex discussions of colonialism, loss, and pride?


4) Environments Today/Creative: If you’re interested in getting students to make connections between the importance of the environment to Hawaiian culture in the past and how our environment shapes our culture today, one creative exercise could be to use EBird.org to research what birds migrate through their hometown/region. Then choosing a design of a ‘Ahu ‘ula (feather cape) from this Google Image search, draw, color, and label what a feather cape would look like made from migratory birds in your area. Finally, because the cape was gifted as a mutual show of respect from a Chief to a Captain, the assignment could include a brief essay component explaining to whom they would gift their creation. I would particularly recommend assigning Beckwith’s brief excerpt on birds in Hawaiian mythology along with this exercise to gain a better perspective on their symbolic role in Hawaiian culture.

E Bird
A screenshot from eBird website where you can locate birds that migrate through any region in the world. One interesting tool that could be of use are “Bar charts” that show

Discussion Questions: 

  • How was Hawaiian culture (religion, society, art) shaped by the environment? 
  • Opinion: Birds used to make feather helmets, capes and other Kāhili (featherwork) have become either extinct or endangered as newer species of birds that came with colonists overtook native birds habitats. Do you think historians today have a role to play in conservation (both biological and cultural)? Why or why not?
  • Why is it important to know now just how featherwork objects were made, but their role in symbolizing hierarchies of power and respect in this era?


The image shows the red and yellow feathered cloak given by Chief Kalaniʻopuʻu to Captain James Cook. According to Pringle at Hakai MagazineIt took the feathers of an estimated 20,000 birds to make this cloak. The garment was made entirely from the yellow feathers of the now extinct Hawaiian mamo (Drepanis pacifica), a dark-colored bird that possessed only a small number of sunny yellow plumes.” Photo courtesy of Te Papa Tongarewa


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