11 may 2011

Birdskin parka

Name: Birdskin parka (annuraq)
Origin: Smith Sound, Greenland
Museum: British Museum, London (UK)
Materials: skins of auks
Reference code: AOA 1899-419
Age: end of 19th century
This birdskin parka was made by the Inughuit of the Smith Sound area in northern Greenland. It was collected by the American explorer Robert Peary (1856-1920), who visited the area several times between 1891 and 1909 in preparation for his expeditions to the North Pole.
The Inughuit often used the skins of auks or little auks to make parkas. The skins are sewn together into belts, and the belts are then sewn into poncho-like garments. The feather-side of the skin would have been turned to the inside. Birdskin parkas were worn directly on the body as inner parkas by men, women and children, usually under an outer parka of sealskin. After 1910, when Knud Rasmussen opened his trading-post in Thule, birdskin parkas were quickly replaced by European underwear bought in the store.
Birdskin clothes are light, warm and waterproof, but they tear easily. On arrival in the Department of Conservation of the British Museum, the skin of the parka was torn in several places. With ageing, the feathers had become less securely attached to the skin and were easily dislodged. The tears were repaired by adhering patches of a Japanese tissue paper coloured to match, or where possible with goldbeaters' skin, a transparent membrane prepared from ox intestine, which more closely matches the appearance of the skin. The parka was then gently padded with acid-free tissue paper. However, the parka remains fragile, and cannot be exhibited, because this might lead to further damage and loss of feathers.

© Photos and text: British Museum

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