At the start of July, Kew’s Mark Nesbitt and I attended the 2017 conference of the European Society for Oceanists (ESfO) at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in the beautiful city of Munich, to present our ongoing barkcloth research. At Kew Gardens, Mark curates over 60,000 plant-derived objects from all over the world, and he spoke first about the role that such economic botany collections have historically played in the preservation of traditional ecological knowledge. Kew played an instrumental role in defining the model for economic botany museums around the world, and Mark discussed a number of botanical collectors and British naval personnel who made the long journey out to the central Pacific. By exploring the collections of barkcloth, basketry and woodcarvings these scientists sent to Kew when they returned home, Mark showed how we can continue to glean important information from these historical collections about the social history of the Pacific, and humanity’s complex relationship with the plant world.
The following day, I convened a panel on ‘Barkcloth in Pacific Environments’ with Dr Fanny Wonu Veys of the Museum Volkenkunde, the Dutch National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden. Wonu and I were delighted at the response to our call for papers, and we were privileged to hear from some of the leading European and North American names in the field of barkcloth research.
Anna-Karina Hermkens provided us with a national overview of Papua New Guinea’s many barkcloth traditions in both Broussonetia papyrifera and Ficus prolixa, while Pierre Lemonnier focused in on the significance of Ficus prolixa barkcloth cloaks in coming-of-age ceremonies among the Anga of southwestern Morobe Province.
Lamont Lindstrom took us out into Vanuatu with a discussion of Tanna men’s Ficus barkcloth belts, and then I reviewed the state of our knowledge about the use of secondary barkcloth species in Polynesia – i.e. those not composed of Broussonetia, which are frequently wild or (like Breadfruit) primarily cultivated for other reasons. Wonu Veys closed the panel with a discussion of colour-classifications and production methods for Tongan barkcloth pigments.
Many of these papers directly, or indirectly, addressed the key research questions of this project, aiming to increase of our knowledge of the core fabrics, dyes and pigments involved in Pacific barkcloth production, and we aim to publish completed versions of these papers next year.