22 September 2019

Situating Pacific Barkcloth in Time and Place

Today we have another project profile, this time from Frances Lennard.  If you wish to have a project, collection or object you are working on profiled on the MEG blog then please email web@museumethnographersgroup.org.uk  

Dr Mark Nesbitt, Dr Andy Mills and Dr Adrienne Kaeppler examining a rare Samoan upeti at Kew.
We have recently come to the end of a three-year research project on Pacific barkcloth, Situating Pacific Barkcloth in Time and Place, at the University of Glasgow, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project grew out of long-standing relationships between the three project partners, the Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History at the University, the Economic Botany Collection at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (EBC) and the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (NMNH). 

The three investigators: Prof Frances Lennard in Glasgow, Dr Mark Nesbitt at Kew and Dr Adrienne Kaeppler at NMNH, were keen to take a new approach to research into Pacific tapa. Investigation focused on barkcloth as a material, through a close examination of the objects in two collections, the University’s Hunterian Museum and Kew’s EBC, backed up by Adrienne Kaeppler’s previous research into the NMNH collections. 

The three project researchers came from different backgrounds: Pacific art historian, Dr Andy Mills, researched the provenance of the two collections and looked at the plants used to make barkcloth, drawing on historic cloths in other collections and working with tapa makers and botanists in the Pacific. Dr Margaret Smith, materials scientist, developed methods of identifying the plant species used to make barkcloth and carried out analysis of fibres and colourants in conjunction with other scientific specialists, while Misa Tamura, research conservator, carried out conservation treatment of the cloths, improved their storage and investigated tapa conservation techniques.  
Dr Margaret Smith using portable  X-ray fluorescence to identify inorganic pigments on a Hunterian barkcloth.

This interdisciplinary approach gave us new insights into the preparation and manufacture of barkcloth, showing how small changes in manufacturing techniques led to variations in cloth type. Historic records list many different plant sources but, interestingly, our research identified only a small number of colourants on the cloth in the two collections; this aligns with research into the British Museum and National Museums Scotland collections.
Reggie Meredith Fitiao demonstrating barkcloth
 beating during a workshop for conservators.

We were fortunate to be able to interact with many tapa makers, curators and conservators through workshops held at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, the Bishop Museum in Hawaii and here in Glasgow. We were delighted to welcome Reggie Meredith Fitiao and Uilisone Fitaiao, barkcloth practitioners from American Samoa, who led workshops on making and decorating tapa in Glasgow for conservators, project partners and students. 

Specific outcomes from the research are forthcoming – in the near future we will launch a new website which will contain information on barkcloth and a searchable database of the Hunterian and Kew collections (https://tapa.gla.ac.uk is the address for both the existing and new websites). An edited volume with contributions from project partners and collaborators is also in preparation. An exhibition, Barkcloth: Revealing Pacific Craft, is at the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow until 29 November.  As well as describing the research project and key findings, it gave us the opportunity to display some of the fine tapa cloths in the Hunterian collection for the first time, as well as some of the tools and other interesting botanical materials from the EBC.  

Misa Tamura treating a Hawaiian tiputa from Kew.
Further project funding from AHRC is allowing us to hold a series of barkcloth workshops for regional museum staff and for the public in museums around the country in April 2020. There will be more information about these on the project website and on twitter  (@UofG_Barkcloth).

All images © University of Glasgow

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