Art History

Developing the art historical perspective on barkcloth making across the Pacific region formed one of the key strands of our research work.

Collections and provenance research

The two collections at The Hunterian, University of Glasgow and the Economic Botany Collection at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew formed the foundation of our research. Dr Andy Mills, our Historical Research Associate, carried out significant provenance research. As a result we have a much better understanding of the Hunterian collection and also confirmed the value of the Economic Botany Collection’s holdings for its unique value for unlocking the material uncertainties of other more conventional barkcloth collections. Reviewing the University of Aberdeen’s collection was very useful for resolving several key research questions concerning Melanesian materials. Analysis of the rich and complex collections of the Bishop Museum and Honolulu Museum of Art in Hawai‘i also resolved a number of uncertainties we faced in interpreting UK-based collections in isolation.

Colour photograph showing Andy Mills (centre) with Mark Nesbitt and Adrienne Kaeppler, at the Economic Botany Collection, Kew (copyright University of Glasgow)
Andy Mills (centre) with Mark Nesbitt and Adrienne Kaeppler, at the Economic Botany Collection, Kew

Manufacturing methods

Formal analysis demonstrated the key impact of less prominent phases of cloth manufacture (initial scraping, soaking and fermentation of the bast) on defining the texture and appearance of the finished cloth. This finding suggests that known differences in manufacturing methods between nations will allow key features visible with the naked eye to provide accurate and straightforward cultural attributions for museum professionals and art historians. This is currently achieved primarily by identification of the decorative scheme. The value of the objects themselves as source research material was underlined – for example close analysis of the British Museum’s barkcloth beaters from Central Polynesia and their relationship with beater marks on the cloths helped to identify key differences between Tahitian and Cook Islands barkcloth, overcoming previous confusion in the literature. Field research, knowledge exchange and practical experimentation with practitioners and museum professionals in the Cook Islands and Western Samoa reinforced our understanding of contemporary and historic manufacturing methods.