Tapa: Situating Pacific Barkcloth in Time and Place


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Through the project, we have forged close collaborative research partnerships with several institutions in Scotland and the wider UK. Our aims are to conduct research into major UK barkcloth and botanical collections, to promote their documentation and understanding, and to raise public awareness of barkcloth as a material.

Glasgow Museums

Glasgow Museums is one of the largest museum services in the UK, and holds a rich collection of Polynesian barkcloth, particularly from Western Polynesia. In addition to this, in 1879 the service’s flagship Kelvingrove Museum was the recipient of important Hawaiian barkcloth samples from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, which were part of the collection made in 1824-1825 by the Reverend Andrew Bloxam on the voyage of HMS Blonde.  Other barkcloths were acquired from characters such as James T. Goudie, author of Notes & Gleanings: Being Leaves from the Diary of a Voyage to Australia & New Zealand in 1893. We are working with Glasgow Museums’ world cultures team to research this collection and to chart the distributed Kew collection.

University of Aberdeen Museums

There is a strong and well-documented collection of Pacific barkcloth in the museums of the University of Aberdeen. This includes a large set of cloths from Fiji and southern Papua New Guinea that were collected by Sir William Allardyce, the Aberdeen-educated one-time Governor of Fiji. Other rarities include several pieces of Pitcairn Island barkcloth, which show how the skills of Tahitian barkcloth manufacture developed in isolation among the women kidnapped by the mutineers of HMS Bounty in 1789-90. The university also holds a rare piece of historical Hawaiian barkcloth manufactured from mamaki (Pipturus albidus) using techniques which are not presently known. Our collaboration with colleagues at Aberdeen is working towards answering some of these key art historical questions.

Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh

Scotland’s national botanic gardens hold in their living collections a number of plants used in Polynesia to produce pigments for barkcloth. Colleagues in Edinburgh are providing fresh samples of these plants for scientific analysis, enabling us to chemically characterise them for the first time. One key example is noni (Morinda citrifolia), a small tree better known for its superfood fruits; the aerial bark of noni was used in several Polynesian island groups to produce a yellow pigment, while noni root bark produces a red pigment. Another sub-project we are collaborating with RBGE on is the reconstruction of the scarlet dye known as mati, produced by an unknown chemical reaction between the juice of Ficus tinctoria fruits and the leaves of Cordia subcordata and other related species.

Glasgow Botanic Gardens

Since they were founded in 1817 with the assistance of Professor William Jackson Hooker, Glasgow Botanic Gardens have long been closely affiliated with botanical and scientific research at the University of Glasgow. The Botanic Gardens have substantial living collections of tropical economic botany, and they were the Glasgow institution twinned with Oceania as part of the cultural celebrations surrounding the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. The Gardens’ team of horticulturalists are growing living specimens of Paper Mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera), Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) and other species used in the manufacture and decoration of tapa. We are collaborating to sample and scientifically analyse these fabric materials, to discover how they are transformed by soaking, fermentation and beating during the manufacturing process. We are working together to develop educational resources on barkcloth for the Gardens’ many visitors, to accompany the living plants in the glasshouses there.

Department of Africa, Oceania & the Americas, the British Museum

The British Museum has one of the largest and best-documented collections of Polynesian barkcloth in the world. Both in 1877 and 1960, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew sent the BM barkcloth items from Hawaii and the Society Islands – many pieces from the voyage of HMS Galatea. As part of the distributed Kew collection, we are working with the Department of Africa, Oceania & the Americas to research and document this collection, including a number of rare late Tahitian tiputa (poncho). We are also carefully studying the British Museum’s large collection of Central Polynesian barkcloth beaters to establish the finer stylistic variations in barkcloth-making tools between the Cook Islands, Society Islands and Austral Islands, with the aim of coming to better understand the variation in plain watermarked cloths. 

The examination of barkcloth objects at the National Museums ScotlandThe examination of barkcloth objects at the National Museums Scotland