Colour photograph showing the decoration on a detail from a Niuean hiapo hand-painted in the distinctive mid-19th Century style of the island, object reference E.417/2 from The Hunterian collection (copyright The Hunterian, University of Glasgow)
Detail showing the decoration on a Niuean hiapo hand-painted in the distinctive mid-19th Century style of the island; GLAHM E.417/2, The Hunterian

The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

The Pacific art collection of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery has a long history, and includes some of the earliest Polynesian barkcloths to be found in any museum. Its founding donor, the pioneering anatomist Dr William Hunter, acquired barkcloths collected in 1769 on Tahiti Nui by the artist Sydney Parkinson during Captain Cook’s first voyage of exploration. The Royal Navy surgeon-dentist Alexander Angus donated a collection of Hawaiian and Tahitian barkcloth to the Hunterian in 1810. The Lanarkshire missionary Dr George Turner lived in Samoa for over twenty years and travelled widely in the Pacific. Between the 1860s and 1880s, his large collection of Pacific art came to the Hunterian, including several fine barkcloths from Samoa, Niue, Erromango and elsewhere.

Colour photograph of a detail from a tikoru fabric showing non-figurative decorative features typical of Rarotongan tapa; object reference RBGK 42953 from The Economic Botany Collection, Kew (copyright The Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew)
Detail of a tikoru fabric showing non-figurative decorative features typical of Rarotongan tapa; RBGK 42953, The Economic Botany Collection, Kew

The Economic Botany Collection,
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK

The Economic Botany Collection (EBC) of the UK’s national botanic gardens contains a diverse range of artefacts reflecting the human use of plants; from foods, condiments and medicines to basketry, woodwork and fabrics. As a national collection, Kew was the destination of barkcloth, manufacturing tools and botanic specimens from several Royal Navy voyages of exploration, scientific research and diplomacy: HMS Blonde, HMS Herald, HMS Curacoa and HMS Galatea. Equally, the London Missionary Society missionary William Wyatt Gill, a younger contemporary of George Turner who lived for many years in the Cook Islands and elsewhere in Polynesia, deposited a private collection of barkcloth rarities at Kew.

Smithsonian Institution

The large and richly-documented Pacific art collections of the USA’s national museum were founded on the collections made during the United States Exploring Expedition, which circumnavigated the globe and charted many parts of Polynesia between 1838 and 1842. The collections of the US Ex Ex include fine Fijian and Hawaiian barkcloths, providing researchers with a remarkable picture of stylistic and technical variation in tapa production during a very specific window of time. The National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) collection is also particularly strong in other barkcloths and barkcloth beaters from Hawai‘i, Samoa and the Cook Islands, due to donations from such notable figures as Nathaniel Bright Emerson, Charles H. Townsend, Clifford Lee James Snr., Dewitt Clinton Ramsey and Rear Admiral L. A. Kimberly.

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 and 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.

Bishop Museum

The museum was founded in 1889 by Charles Reed Bishop in honour of his wife Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last descendant of the Kamehameha dynasty. Bishop Museum houses the largest collection of Hawaiian and Pacific cultural treasures and natural history specimens in the world. In addition, it houses a library of published and unpublished documents and biodiversity databases; paired with staff expertise, the museum is an unparalleled source of knowledge on the Pacific Basin. In particular, the ethnology collection serves as a unique resource to better understand the history of Hawai‘i and the Pacific to address the opportunities and the challenges that arise for the communities they serve and to continue to inspire practitioners, artists, scholars and the many guests the museum receives.

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.

Glasgow Museums

The collection at Glasgow Museums, which is one of the largest museum services in the UK, is rich in Polynesian barkcloth, particularly from Western Polynesia. In addition to this, the former City Industrial Museum was the recipient in 1879 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.

National Museum of Scotland

NMS has a large and diverse collection of Pacific barkcloth in Edinburgh, with a wealth of Polynesian material. Material collected on the 18th century voyages of James Cook is heavily supplemented with the former ethnographic collections of the University of Edinburgh, and some of the earliest and largest tapa sample books to be found anywhere in the world. Initial examinations suggest a close historical relationship between the barkcloth collections of the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and we are conducting a systematic review of the NMS collection to identify the details of that relationship. This partnership will both greatly strengthen the project’s research survey, and help to unravel some of the historical mysteries surrounding Scotland’s world cultures collections.

NMS has recently launched a collaborative research project, entitled “The Fabric of Life: Early Polynesian Barkcloth in Context”, which aims to investigate the history, changing nature and present day significance of Polynesian barkcloths. Commencing in Spring 2017, the 20-month project will run until the end of 2018, with an initial focus on archival research, then progressing to the examination of contemporary practices and present day significance of the historical material.

Royal Botanic Garden, 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.

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.