The National Museum of Denmark has donated its most exceptional Brazilian cape of 17th century feathers in the new National Museum of Brazil to help restore the museum’s legacy after its entire ethnographic collection of 20 million irreplaceable artifacts was destroyed in a fire in 2018. Interestingly, the iconic scarlet ibis feather cape was not among them, as all of the few known surviving examples were in European museums.
The cape, made by hand-tying scarlet ibis and macaw feathers to a woven cotton net, dates from the early 1600s and was made by the Tupinamba people of Brazil. The Tupinamba were the first indigenous people the Portuguese encountered when they reached eastern Brazil in 1500. European chroniclers note that the Tupinamba were skilled craftsmen in the processing of feathers and used the feathers of local birds in jewelry, belts, headbands, cloaks, and even as tattoo needles. Used in important rituals and ceremonies, scarlet ibis cloaks were revered for their beauty and religious significance.
Tupinambas were described as taking painstaking care of their feathered possessions, handling them with kid gloves to prevent them from spoiling. They were not treated as carefully by the Portuguese, Spaniards, and functionaries of the Dutch West India Company, which occupied parts of the northeast of Brazil between 1624 and 1654. Spectacular cloaks with feathers ended up in the collections of European monarchs and other wealthy collectors. but few have survived the centuries.
To date, only 11 Tupinamba feather capes are known, some of which also belong to the National Museum of Denmark. The recently donated cloak is the best preserved. Compare it to the cloak in the Ambrosian Pinakothek in Milan to see how denser the feather covering is and how pristine each individual feather looks. It even retains a small hood of yellow macaw feathers, long lost from the Ambrosiana specimen.
Tupinamba populations declined drastically after encountering European pathogens, but the tradition of feather-working never ceased. Today, there are about 4,600 recognized Tupinamba in Brazil, and their leaders are working with officials from the National Museum in Rio to negotiate the return of the sacred feather cloak from Copenhagen.
Upon receiving a letter from Dr. Rane Willerslev, director of the National Museum of Denmark, Chief Tupinamba Babau said: “For us, the gift of the Tupinamba mantle means the return of an ancestor! It is also the return of the hope that never dies: a concrete answer for those who believe in the strength of their people and continue to fight for their culture, secrets and religion. We continue to create other mantles. But now, thanks to a generous donation, our greatest relic is back in Brazil! The bird that symbolizes this mantle, the ibis, which is no longer in our region, is born and becomes grey. When eating crabs, their feathers turn red. This is a sign of the transformation taking place in everything, in people and their culture. Many thanks to the National Museum of Brazil and Denmark for the opportunity to hear again the sacred words of our ancestors. The cloak is back!”
The Museu Nacional is in the process of restoring its ethnographic archives and physical collections in close collaboration with the country’s indigenous peoples and museums outside of Brazil. The National Museum of Denmark and a number of other European museums are already supporting the renovation by creating digital catalogs that will make available Brazilian artefacts and archival materials held in European museums. (…)
“The feather cape has a prominent place in our collection, but it is of greater importance to the Brazilian population as a cultural symbol, as a material heritage of the Tupinamba, and as evidence of Brazilian-European historical, colonial contacts. In Brazil, it will be available to indigenous peoples with close historical and cultural ties to it,” says Christian Sune Pedersen, Head of Research.
The cape will remain in Copenhagen long enough to be photographed in high resolution and analyzed to determine its age, origin and exact composition. Meanwhile, the National Museum of Brazil will focus on creating ideal conditions for the long-term preservation and display of the cape.