Tapa: Situating Pacific Barkcloth in Time and Place


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Until the twentieth century barkcloth or tapa, a non-woven cloth made from the inner bark of certain trees and flowering plants, was used throughout the Pacific islands and other areas of the tropics. It continues to be produced and used in many parts of Polynesia and Melanesia, although it is rarely used for clothing today, except on special occasions.  

Sheets of the inner bark were stripped and soaked to soften them, then beaten with wooden mallets to stretch the cloth and make it softer and stronger before dyeing or decorating with hand-painted, rubbed, printed or stencilled designs. Barkcloth has been integral to the lives of Pacific islanders for millennia, used for clothing (including religious masks and ceremonial garments), as a form of presentation valuable, as soft furnishings and room dividers within the home, as ceremonial pathways for chiefly investitures, weddings, funerals, and countless other things.

The project aims to transform our understanding of Pacific barkcloth through research into the historical, cultural and material significance of three internationally important collections: those of The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, UK (Hunterian), The Economic Botany Collection, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK (Kew) and The National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, USA (NMNH). Multidisciplinary research will combine investigation of the artefacts’ provenance, history and cultural context; analysis of their materials and manufacture; research into conservation assessment and treatment methods to improve the collections' condition; and exploration of contemporary making and use, engaging with projects in Hawaii responsible for re-introducing the skill-base for barkcloth manufacture.

A fine siapo mamanu in the classic style of Leone village, Tutuila, American Samoa. Pre-1897A fine siapo mamanu in the classic style of Leone village, Tutuila, American Samoa. Pre-1897