Possum skin cloak

Contributed by: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

The outside of the cloak, featuring designs carved into the skins The inside of the cloak Detail of the carved designs Detail of the carved designs Detail of the inside
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Object information

Significance statement

This cloak is extremely significant, as it is an extremely rare historical example of an element of the clothing of Indigenous people in South Eastern Australia that has continued importance today.

There are many reasons why the majority of skin cloaks did not survive to the present day. One of these reasons was because when a person died all their belongings were disposed of, also some people were wrapped in their skin cloaks after their death. During the early colonial days there was not an institution that was capable of collecting and preserving these cloaks and they were also highly susceptible to insect attacks. Also the introduction of European style clothing and with the annual issuing of blankets from the Crown in 1814 the manufacture and use of skin cloaks began to cease. The issuing of these blankets to the Aboriginal community also caused them to suffer colds and serious respiratory problems especially when it rained, as they did not provide the same waterproof qualities of the skin cloaks.

There are only fifteen skin cloaks located in Museums within Australia and overseas. In Australia there are skin cloaks held in the Western Australian Museum, Gloucester Lodge Museum, Western Australia, the South Australian Museum and the Museum of Victoria. Overseas there are cloaks in the Smithsonian Institution - Washington DC, The British Museum - London, Museum of Ethnology -Berlin, Germany and the Pigorini Museum in Italy. European anthropologists collected most of the cloaks found in museums overseas during field trips to Australia in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

During the International exhibitions of the 1800s there were two skin cloaks that were displayed. The Sydney International exhibition held in 1879 displayed a possum rug from Tasmania, which was awarded a honourable mention. In the Centennial International Exhibition held in Melbourne during 1889, platypus and possum rugs from NSW were displayed under the category of travelling apparatus and camp equipage.

Today many Aboriginal people have new cloaks and rugs made from kangaroo skins. They are used in performances or often as they were traditionally as a nice warm rug or cloak.

Author: Fabri Blacklock, 2007.

Description

Cloak made of 22 full and one quarter rectangular skins of of the brush tail possum (TRICHOSURUS VULPECULA) and one skin of the grey kangaroo (MACROPUS CANGURU). The skins are laid in four rows of six each, sewn on the skin side, edge to edge, with a very fine cord of cotton sinew. The surface is covered with large concentric diamond shaped designs, and some stylised human figures, made by scraping a thin layer of skin away. The fur has been left on the reverse.

"From card: "Made of the split open skins with head and extremities cut off, so each in rectangular form, 22 1/4 skins of the brush tailed opossum (trichosurus vulpecula) and one skin on one side which is different and appears to be the great grey kangaroo (macropus canguru) -identifications made by Dr. David Johnson, Div. Of Mammalogy 6/28/62. Skins are laid in 4 rows of six skins each, and sewn on the back, edge to edge with very fine overhand stitch of cotton cord."

Original designation as 'kangaroo' in error."

- Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Anthropology Department online catalogue.

Link to further information about this object

History and Provenance

Do you have any stories or community information associated with this?

1958 or 59 Dr. Carl Schuster from Woodstock in Connecticut came in to to study this cloak, after having done some research on it. He said that this apparently was the only specimen of its kind in the World, the only other being a small fragment in the British Museum. This was not entirely accurate, but such cloaks are very rare, and this example is in particularly good condition.

Mulder, J. 'The Geelong Naturalist', Vol. IV, No. 1, Aug. 1909, Geelong, Victoria, Australia., p.11:

'Others had a sharp projecting tooth; these being handy tools for making carvings on their shields, waddies, boomerangs, also for scratching the inside of their opossum rugs in order to make them soft and pliable. The natives did not appear to have tanned their rugs; at least I have never seen a tanned rug on a native. Those I have seen were all scratched in close diamond-shaped markings.'"

How does this garment relate to the wider historical context?

Aboriginal people throughout south-eastern and western Australia wore skin cloaks, as these temperate zones were much cooler than the northern parts of Australia. The cloaks were made from the skins of possums, kangaroos, wallabies and other fur bearing animals. Early European observations noted that many of the local Aboriginal people wore skin cloaks. These observations were recorded in literature, paintings and photography.

Skin cloaks were often the main items of clothing worn by Aboriginal people in the cooler temperate zones. The cloak was worn by placing it over one shoulder and under the other it was then fastened at the neck using a small piece of bone or wood. By wearing the cloak this way it allowed for movement of both arms without any restrictions and allowed for daily activities to be carried out with ease. The cloaks were worn both with the fur on the outside and on the inside depending on the weather conditions. If it was raining the fur would be worn on the outside, providing the same waterproof qualities it did to the animal from which the skins came. The cloaks were also used as rugs to sleep on at night. Many women wore cloaks that had a special pouch at the back in which they could easily carry a small child. This is illustrated in the photo to the right of Nahraminyeri, a Ngarrindjeri woman from Point McLeay in South Australia; this photo was taken in about 1880.

When wearing the fur on the inside the spectacular designs incised onto the skin could be seen and this is well illustrated in the paintings of Aboriginal artist William Barak. Barak's paintings illustrate the magnificent designs that the cloaks were decorated with. Many of his paintings depict ceremonies with people singing and dancing in their cloaks.

- Blacklock, F. 'Aboriginal Skin Cloaks', on The National Quilt Register

Where did this information come from?

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Department of Anthropology online catalogue.

Blacklock, F. 'Aboriginal Skin Cloaks', on The National Quilt Register - http://www.collectionsaustralia.net/nqr/fabri.php

Blacklock, F. 'Snapshot: Aboriginal Skin Cloaks', in Berg Encyclopaedia of World Dress and Fashion: Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. Berg, 2010.

A reference to this sort of cloak is made in the 'Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition', vol. II, p. 196.

Viola and Margolis, 'Magnificent Voyagers' by S.I. Press, 1985, pp. 121-122. In this work the cloak is identified as having been collected by Horatio Hale near the Hunter River in NSW.

This garment has been exhibited

It was exhibited as part of the "Magnificent Voyagers" exhibit from 1985-1986 at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

  1. Place of origin:

    Hunter Region, New South Wales, Australia

  2. Owned by:

    Created and owned by the ?? Wonnarua/Awabakal/Worimi ?? people of the Hunter Region. Collected by Horatio Hale in 1839-1840. Donated to the Smithsonian by Charles Wilkes and the United States Exploring Expedition in 1858.

  3. Place:

    Hunter River area

  4. Designed by:

    Created and owned by the ?? Wonnarua/Awabakal/Worimi ?? people of the Hunter Region.

  5. Made by:

    Created and owned by the ?? Wonnarua/Awabakal/Worimi ?? people of the Hunter Region.

Trimmings / Decoration

Designs have been incised into the leathery side of the skin, this was done using a sharp mussel shell. The design's incised onto the cloak would have been important to the wearer and their clan group. The combination of designs helped identify who the wearer was and what group they came from. The design's often found on the cloaks from south eastern Australia include naturalistic figures, cross hatching, wavy lines, diamonds, geometric designs, lozenges and zigzag patterns.

In his book The Aborigines of New South Wales Fraser (1892:45) discusses the meaning of the designs found on the cloaks. He suggests that each family had their own design or what Aboriginal people called a 'mombarrai' incised onto the cloak, which helped identify who the owner was. He states:

...a friend tells me that he had an opossum cloak made for him long ago by a man of the Kamalarai (sic) tribe, who marked it with his own 'mombarai'. When this cloak was shown to another black sometime after, he at once exclaimed, "I know who made this; here is his 'mombarai'."

Alfred Howitt also notes the importance of the designs found on the cloaks and how these could be used to identify the wearer. He states:

...each man's rug is particularly marked to signify its particular ownership. A man's designs from his Possum-skin rug were put onto trees around the site of his burial. Passing references by others note individual designs on each pelt could represent rivers, camps, animals like grub, snakes and lizards, and plants.

- Blaclock, F. 'Aboriginal Skin Cloaks', on The National Quilt Register

Fibre / Weave

Un-dyed cotton cord sinew has been used to stitch the panels of skin together.

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye

Manufacture

The many processes involved in the making of these cloaks were complex and often time consuming. Some cloaks were made using up to seventy skins taking over a year to collect before beginning the process of making them into a cloak. Once the skins were removed from the animal, the flesh was scraped off using a sharp stone implement or mussel shell. The skins were then stretched over bark and hung out to dry often near a fire as this would slightly tan the skins and protect them from insect attacks . After the skins were dried out they were then rubbed with fat, ochre and or ashes to make them pliable and keep them supple. The cloaks were sewn together using sinew, which was taken from the tail of kangaroos. Holes were pierced through the skins using a sharp pointed stick or a pointed bone needle. The sinew was then threaded through the pre made holes to sew the skins together making them into a cloak.

There appears to be some difference in the manufacture of the cloaks across Australia. In New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia the skins were shaped into square pelts and then sewn together. In Western Australia the skin's used were mainly kangaroo and the whole skin was sewn together with another leaving the tail to hang at the bottom of the cloak. The cloaks from Western Australia are called Buka or Boka.

- Blacklock, F. 'Aboriginal Skin Cloaks', on the National Quilt Register

  1. Hand sewn
  2. Machine sewn
  3. Knitted
  4. Other

Cut

Not Applicable

  1. Bias
  2. Straight

Fastenings

Not Applicable

  1. Hook and eye
  2. Lacing
  3. Buttons
  4. Zip
  5. Drawstring

Stiffening / Lining / Padding

There is no lining.

Measurements

Width - 1473.2 mm

Height - 1447.8 mm

Dress Themes

Often used as a warm rug, cloak or sleeping mat.  Also used in traditional performances.

Additional material

Articles, publications, diagrams and receipts descriptions

A reference to this sort of cloak is made in the 'Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition', vol. II, p. 196.

Chisholm, M. The use, manufacture and decoration of possum skin cloaks in nineteenth century Victoria (AIATSIS) 1990.

Cooper, C. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collections in Overseas Museums Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1989.

Fraser, J. The Aborigines of New South Wales Charles Potter, Government Printer, 1892.

Kleinert, S. 'Aboriginal dress in south eastern Australia', in Berg Encyclopaedia of World Dress and Fashion: Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. Berg, 2010.

Lakic, M. Dress and Ornamentation in Women's Work - Aboriginal women's artefacts in the Museum of Victoria. Aboriginal Studies Department Museum of Victoria 1992.

Mountford, C. Australian Aboriginal Skin Rugs Records of the South Australian Museum, 1963.

Mountford, C. Decorated Aboriginal skin rugs Records of the South Australian Museum, Volume 13, No 4, 1960.

Sayers, A. Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century Oxford University Press, 1994.

Smithson, M. 1992, 'A misunderstood gift: the annual issue of blankets to Aborigines in New South Wales 1826-4', in The Push, A Journal of Early Australian Social History.

Young, M et al. The Aboriginal People of the Monaro. NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, 2000.

Snug as a bug: cloaks and rugs Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 1984.

Viola and Margolis, 'Magnificent Voyagers' by S.I. Press, 1985, pp. 121-122. In this work the cloak is identified as having been collected by Horatio Hale near the Hunter River in NSW.

Wright, R. A modicum of taste: Aboriginal cloaks and rugs. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1979.

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All these objects were donated to the Smithsonian by Charles Wilkes and the United States Exploring Expedition in 1858 after being collected by Horatio Hale in an 1838-1842 expedition.

Condition

State

  1. Excellent
  2. Good
  3. Fair
  4. Poor

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