Barkcloth, or tapa, is an organic material and its lifespan is shortened by use and wear, and by environmental factors, such as light and high humidity. In the Pacific tapa is not intended to last for ever. In everyday use it wears out and is re-purposed; it is cut up for distribution and continually reused.
In the West, and in museums around the world, a more preservation-focused approach is often taken, aiming to help artefacts to survive in good condition for as long as possible. If you are interested in the long-term preservation of your barkcloth – historic or contemporary – rather than its continued cultural use, the pointers below will help you to care for it.
Barkcloth in the Pacific
Tapa in the Pacific – and that used by Pacific communities around the world – was, and still is, folded both for presentation and for storage. It is stacked in piles for future use or safe-keeping, and in some areas it is rubbed with coconut oil to keep it supple while not in use. Laying tapa out in the morning dew is a regular practice, the sun drying and softening it throughout the day. Keeping it supple and soft is important because, in many Pacific cultures, tapa is wrapped around the body and around ceremonial objects, creating creases, folds and movement. Tapa in the Pacific is meant to deteriorate over time to a certain extent – except in important ceremonial circumstances, it is meant to be ‘lost’ by those who possess it. Barkcloth is shared in gift exchanges, pieces are cut up for distribution, and used for purpose after purpose. If damaged or in poor condition, a piece is repaired, repurposed and its use continues until it no longer can be. And even then, it becomes part of something else. Its care reflects its cultural significance. The sharing and distribution of tapa is starting to shift slightly now with the existence of large diasporic communities, including in urban contexts within the Pacific, and the sometimes lack of regular access to tapa, but its care by makers and users remains the same.
When applying the Western conservation standards that aim to preserve barkcloth for the long term, the main goal is to avoid damage by providing good storage conditions and eliminating major risks.
Ideally barkcloth should be stored flat. Keep small pieces in an acid-free or archival box – avoid ordinary cardboard boxes or wooden drawers as they contain acids which can damage vulnerable materials. Wrap or interleave the pieces of barkcloth with acid-free tissue paper or washed white cotton cloth. Pad three-dimensional pieces with tissue paper to maintain their shape. These measures will protect barkcloth from light as well as from dust and dirt which are often acidic.
Traditionally larger pieces are folded, but as tapa ages, it becomes more brittle and folds can become fixed. If pieces are too big to store flat, rolling them will prevent creases setting in. You need a cardboard or other tube slightly longer than the shortest dimension of the barkcloth. Acid-free card tubes are ideal, but you can cover an ordinary cardboard tube with polythene or aluminium foil as a barrier layer, then cover with tissue paper or cloth. Place the barkcloth face down on a clear, clean surface, cover it with tissue paper or cloth, and roll, taking care not to set in any creases. It’s a good idea for two people to work together to roll large pieces. Cover the rolled barkcloth with more tissue paper or a cloth. If you have several pieces, add a label so you can find one easily without having to unroll it. Store boxes or tubes in a clean, dry, dark space.
High light levels are very damaging to organic objects and cause weakening and eventual breakdown of the plant fibres. It also causes fading of dyes, though some pigments won’t be as badly affected. Keep stored barkcloth in the dark, ideally in boxes. If you display barkcloth, put it in a place away from direct light from a window, and avoid shining bright lights onto it. Daylight is particularly damaging as it contains high-energy ultraviolet radiation.
Barkcloth, like all organic objects, is particularly affected by high humidity levels which can encourage mould growth. Very dry conditions are less of a problem but can make the cloth more brittle. An environment which is continually fluctuating between damp and dry conditions can lead to long-term damage through stress as the fibres expand and contract in response. Temperatures which are too high or too low can also damage objects but, more importantly, they directly influence changes in relative humidity.
Barkcloth, like all organic objects, is affected by high humidity levels which can encourage mould growth – this is a particular problem in tropical regions. Very dry conditions are less of a problem but can make the cloth more brittle. Temperatures which are too high or too low can also damage objects but, more importantly, they directly influence relative humidity levels.
Keeping barkcloth in an acid-free box will help to buffer conditions and keep the environment stable, but you should still avoid storing it in extreme conditions. Avoid attics which are prone to major temperature changes or damp basements, and keep barkcloth away from radiators and other heat sources where the temperature continually cycles from hot to cold.
Most European insect pests don’t cause problems for barkcloth. The most damaging pests, such as moths and carpet beetles, target protein fibres like wool and hair, not cellulose fibres like barkcloth. In tropical climates, however, insect pest damage is a risk and here you should inspect barkcloth regularly for signs of infestation, such as insect frass or droppings (which look like fine sawdust or pellets).
Chemical treatments are not recommended as they are harmful to people. Instead good housekeeping measures help to prevent pest damage: keep barkcloth in clean, dry conditions with good air circulation and check it regularly. Contact a conservator if you need advice on an insect attack.
Larger pieces of barkcloth in good condition can be hung for display. This should be done carefully to avoid making holes, or introducing stress through too few hanging points. In particular, don’t use metal nails, tacks or staples – these will make holes in the barkcloth and there is a risk that they will rust and cause staining. One of the simplest ways of hanging barkcloth is to drape it over a padded pole – any wooden elements should be covered with a barrier layer (see Storage). Strong pieces of barkcloth in good condition can also be clamped along the upper edge. Conservators in museums often use rare earth magnets to hold barkcloth in place against a metal surface or tape – barrier layers are introduced so the magnets aren’t in direct contact with the cloth. A conservator will be able to help with display.
Barkcloth on open display will probably need to be cleaned occasionally to remove any build-up of dust, which could be damaging in the long term. The barkcloth should be taken down from the wall and laid flat on a clean surface. A low-powered vacuum cleaner can be used to remove dust – vacuuming through a nylon mesh (from a hardware store) will prevent accidental damage.
Smaller pieces of barkcloth can be framed, and glazing will protect them from dust. Use a reputable picture framer and specify that they should use acid-free, conservation grade materials. UV-screened glass or Perspex/Plexiglas glazing can be incorporated to protect the barkcloth from the harmful UV content of daylight or artificial light. It is not a good idea to pressure mount the barkcloth between the backboard and the glass – leaving a space for air to circulate will help to prevent condensation and mould.
If your barkcloth is in poor condition – if it has firmly set creases, is very dirty or is damaged and torn – it is best to consult a professional conservator for advice. Ask at your local museum, or in the UK you can find a conservator through the Conservation Register. Conservators can also advise on mounting or pest damage.
Stocks of acid-free boxes, tubes, etc. are available from archival suppliers such as Preservation Equipment Ltd.