Tapa: Situating Pacific Barkcloth in Time and Place

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Barkcloth workshops and visiting practitioners from American Samoa

18th April 2018

There have been exciting developments for the barkcloth project team recently – at the end of March we hosted a visit from two barkcloth practitioners from American Samoa and also held a workshop for conservators to both share knowledge of the conservation of barkcloth and to gain experience of making and decorating traditional Samoan siapo.


We were delighted to welcome Reggie Meredith Fitiao, Professor of Art at American Samoa Community College and siapo maker, and Uilisone Fitiao, contemporary artist and teacher, to the University for ten days to work with us.  As well as the conservation workshop participants, groups of textile conservation students and some of our research colleagues, as well as the core research team, benefited from the opportunity to make barkcloth themselves by beating the bark and experimenting with different methods of decoration under Reggie and Uilisone’s inspiring guidance. This hands-on method of learning is absolutely invaluable in improving researchers’ and conservators’ understanding of barkcloth and can be of great help in understanding the way historic cloths were made, as well as contributing to decisions about the best methods to use when choosing conservation treatments.


While project staff have visited the Pacific and talked to barkcloth makers and enthusiasts there, it was also really valuable for the exchange to happen in the opposite direction.  We benefited enormously from learning from Reggie about the making skills which have been handed down from one generation to another in Samoa, and from finding out more about the traditional designs for siapo from Uilisone.  We were delighted that Reggie and Uilisone could take part in the project’s annual advisory panel meeting and we all felt that their personal knowledge and understanding enriched our discussions greatly. They have made Samoan siapo a living experience for us all and we thank them very much for making the long journey to Scotland.




The three-day conservation workshop was another exciting project outcome which gave museum conservators from the UK and the Netherlands the opportunity to learn more about the practices involved in preserving historic barkcloths for museum storage and display. It was led by Research Conservator Misa Tamura who was able to share the experience she has gained from her intensive experience of working with barkcloth on the project. Topics included an introduction to the way barkcloth is made and its regional diversity, and an introduction from Research Associate Margaret Smith on her research into the analysis of barkcloth fibres, dyes and pigments. Practical sessions were an important part of the workshop, giving participants the opportunity to try out treatments on modern barkcloth samples, including cleaning, humidification and structural repairs. The chance to make their own small samples of barkcloth with Reggie and Uilisone was an added bonus for the conservators.  We’re also very pleased that the workshops have produced two larger pieces, decorated with traditional Samoan designs, which are tangible outcomes of the project.




With many thanks to everyone involved, particularly Reggie Meredith Fitiao, Uilisone Fitiao, Misa Tamura, Dr Margaret Smith, our student volunteers who helped with the workshop: Eva-Maria Catic, Staphany Chang, Megan Creamer and Kim Tourret, and to the workshop delegates for their input.




Frances Lennard, Project Principal Investigator

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Tapa symposium at Auckland War Memorial Museum

8th January 2018

In an exciting new stage of the project, the barkcloth research has moved to the Pacific in recent months. In the first instalment of our travels, Andy Mills and Frances Lennard spent two weeks in New Zealand in October, visiting collections, carrying out research and meeting barkcloth makers, curators and conservators. Our visit was centred on Auckland, the city with the world’s largest Pacific population.

The main focus of the visit was a tapa symposium, kindly hosted for us by Auckland War Memorial Museum and organised by Fuli Pereira, the Pacific Curator. This was a wonderful opportunity to meet contemporary artists and tapa makers of Pacific heritage and to see how contemporary art practice is inspired by tapa. We were welcomed to the museum by the Director, Dr David Gaimster who, satisfyingly, had supported the development of the project in his former role as director of The Hunterian at the University of Glasgow! The museum has an exciting ongoing project, the Pacific Collections Access Project (PCAP) which brings Pacific knowledge holders to the museum to share knowledge and understanding of the museum’s Pacific collections, and our symposium was able to draw on this rich knowledge base.

After a presentation by Frances and Andy about the aims and research methods of our project, we heard individual presentations from the participants about their own experiences of working with tapa. A key theme was the makers’ experience of drawing on their heritage – information about barkcloth making has survived to a greater or lesser degree in the different island groups of the Pacific, and we heard from Glenda Vilisoni, for example, about her efforts to learn the art of her ancestors despite the long ago loss of the tradition in Niue. The participants also spoke of their determination to see the skill of barkcloth making survive and the challenge of interesting younger generations in its survival. The day was enriched with food and drink, conversation and song, and it was clear that bringing together artists and makers from different traditions in this way was extremely rewarding for all concerned. We would like to thank the Auckland War Memorial Museum, particularly David Gaimster and Fuli Pereira, very much indeed for welcoming us and for hosting the event, and we would like to thank all the participants very warmly for sharing their knowledge with us. We hope they will keep in touch.

While we were in Auckland we took part in two other events. Firstly we spoke at an evening meeting at Auckland Central Library where members of the public were able to see one of the treasures of Auckland Libraries, their copy of the Alexander Shaw book of 18th century tapa samples. We are very grateful to Daren Kamali, inaugural Senior Curator Pacific at Auckland Libraries, for inviting us to take part in this event.

Finally we were hosted by the project Ancient Futures: late 18th and early 19th century Tongan arts and their legacies at the University of Auckland Business School where Andy led a workshop on the barkcloth garment, the malo or maro. With many thanks to our colleagues at the University, particularly Dr Billie Lythberg and Dr Phyllis Herda. We are grateful to all our colleagues in New Zealand who made our visit such an enriching and informative experience.

Frances Lennard, Project Principal Investigator

Matua Robert Newson meets Andy Mills. Matua Bobby Newson welcomed the visitors to the museum on behalf of the Ngati Whatua, the local iwi or tribal group, in the mihi whakatau ceremony.

Matua Robert Newson meets Andy Mills

The Fiji panel

The Fiji panel.

The symposium participants.

The symposium participants

Viewing the Shaw book at Auckland Central Library

Viewing the Shaw book at Auckland Central Library

Pacific artists, Rosanna Raymond and Numangatini MacKenzie, demonstrate different methods of tying the maro.

Pacific artists, Rosanna Raymond and Numangatini MacKenzie

Rosanna and Numangatini demonstrating methods of tying the maro

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Two-Day Workshop at the Bishop Museum, Honolulu

29th November 2017

"Caring for Tapa" workshop will take place at the Bishop Museum in partnership with the project.

 Kapa workshop flier


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New Barkcloth Research at the ESfO Conference 2017

10th July 2017


Kew EBC Museum

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.

Andy Wonu Discussing


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

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.  


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Work at the Kew Archives is Producing Some Fascinating Insights

5th July 2017

Recently I spent three very stimulating weeks working with our project Co-Investigator Mark Nesbitt and his colleagues at our primary UK partner institution, the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. The UK’s national botanical garden, Kew not only contains the largest herbarium (reference collection of preserved plant materials) in the world, it continues to be one of the world’s leading centres of botanical research and teaching, and a mecca for those of us who love the history of scientific discovery. Kew’s economic botany collection is a museum collection of artefacts and samples made from the world’s plants that have been useful to humanity; everything from bamboo to birch bark, and rubber to raffia. Within this fascinating and wonderful collection of baskets, timbers, spices, medicines and so on, there is naturally a collection of tapa samples from many different parts of the Pacific.

These particular samples of cloth have the rare virtue of having generally been sent to London by trained botanical collectors, usually alongside other gifts of dried specimens, seeds, or living plants. We often know, therefore, which species of plant was used to manufacture each cloth – a vital piece of information for this project’s research objectives. During a rare heatwave which saw London’s temperatures soar to rival those of Polynesia, and which made the freshly watered flowerbeds exude a pungence that evoked my fond memories of the beautiful gardens of Tonga and Fiji, I sought refuge from the heat in Kew’s air conditioned archive.

Seemann homecoming letter

Leafing carefully through the 19th century journals and correspondence of botanists like the Scotsman William Grant Milne, and the German Berthold Carl Seemann – both of whom botanised on the 1850s voyage of HMS Herald to Fiji, Western Australia and other parts of the Pacific - I gained a sense of the physical extremes the two men went to in their plant collecting: walking vast distances every day, climbing mountains and trees, swimming through mangroves and fording rivers, exploring remote corners of the bush, to collect specimens from every ecological zone – and all against the ticking clock of Captain Denham’s expedition timetable. As Seemann's letter to William Jackson Hooker from Southampton shows, even after such hardships were overcome, many people suffered greatly on the long voyages out and back. We hope to use our study of fine archival resources like those of the Herald voyage botanists at Kew to learn more about precisely where, when, and under what conditions, these cloth samples were collected.


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Special Research Visit from Ngaa Kitai Taria Pureariki and Dr Michaela Appel

26th June 2017

Last week the Barckloth Conservation Lab was pleased to receive a visit from Dr Michaela Appel, Curator at The Museum Fünf Kontinente and Ngaa Kitai Taria Pureariki, from Aitutaki in the Cook Islands.

Michaela and Ngaa were in Glasgow for a two-day research visit viewing Aitutaki objects held across the Hunterian Collection. Here, Michaela and Ngaa discuss two key pieces of barkcloth with our Project Conservator, Misa Tamura (E.457/8. & E.670).

Michaela and Ngaa also visited our research partners at The Hunterian Museum and Kelvin Hall. To find out more about this, visit http://hunterian.academicblogs.co.uk/cook-islands-research-visit/


Ngaa Kitai Taria Pureariki examining E.670


Ngaa Kitai Taria Pureariki & Michaela Appel examining E.670


Ngaa Kitai Taria Pureariki & Michaela Appel examining E.457/8

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Adrienne Kaeppler Research Visit to Tonga

19th June 2017

Adrienne Kaeppler with the Queen of Tonga, Her Majesty Nanasipau`u, researching a Tongan kupesi design board from the 1940s. It illustrates the tennis court from a group of kupesi that depict the sports field at Tupou College. Photo by Mary Fonua.


Adrienne Kaeppler with the Queen of Tonga, Her Majesty Nanasipau`u, researching a Tongan kupesi, design board, from the 1940s. It illustrates the tennis court from a group of kupesi that depict the sports field at Tupou College. Photo Mary Fonua

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Annual Advisory Committee Meeting and Museum Ethnographers Group Conference 2017

20th April 2017

The Pacific barkcloth team had a busy week at the beginning of April. We welcomed our advisory panel members for a visit - together we examined some of the barkcloths from the Hunterian collection, discussed the work in progress and heard reports from the three researchers, Historical Research Associate Dr Andy Mills, Scientific Research Associate Dr Margaret Smith and Conservation Researcher Misa Tamura, demonstrating the enormous progress towards the research goals made by all three in the first year of the project.

Adv Ctte in lab 1

The meeting was followed by the Museum Ethnographers Group 2017 conference, hosted by the Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History and the Hunterian Museum. We were very pleased to welcome delegates from around the UK and Europe as well as from the USA, Australia and New Zealand to the conference. Presentations over two days focused on artefacts from a huge range of cultures around the world including a Tahitian mourner’s costume, Crowfoot regalia, Guatemalan weaving, indigo dyed textiles, and barkcloth from Africa and Indonesia as well as the Pacific.

Adv Ctte in lab 2

Pacific barkcloth was a significant focus. Our own researchers discussed aspects of their work: Dr Adrienne Kaeppler talked about cultural signatures which aid identification of Polynesian barkcloths; Dr Mark Nesbitt and Brittany Curtis discussed the textiles collected by the 1867 voyage of HMS Galatea, and Dr Andy Mills spoke on the making practices of combining barkcloths into large sheets, and their resonance with the later division of cloths for ceremonial purposes as well as by European collectors. Other collections of Pacific barkcloth also featured, including those of National Museums Scotland and Aberdeen University Museums. Please see details of the programme on the MEG website – some of the papers will be published in the Journal of Museum Ethnography.

Andy MEG 2017

Delegates were able to enjoy a whistle-stop tour of the Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History one lunchtime, or could spend time assessing some interesting ethnographic objects from the Hunterian collection, and en route admiring the new Kelvin Hall search room facilities. The conference reception was held in the Hunterian Museum and was a great opportunity to see the museum displays, catch up with old friends and to meet new colleagues. The conference was a fascinating and inspiring two days, ably organised by Andy Mills, supported by Isabel Robinson, the barkcloth project administrator, and a team of student volunteers.

MEG 2017 delegates

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Volunteering for the barkcloth research project

30th March 2017

The conservation programme for the project is supported by Mphil students from Centre for Textile Conservation working with us as conservation volunteers.

In this blog post at the Textile Conservation: A blog about textile conservation at the University of Glasgow, four student volunteers share their experiences with working on the Pacific barkcloth from the Hunterian Museum and Economic Botany Collection, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

Follow the link for the article:


Beth Knight


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Open Day 2017 - Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History

29th March 2017

On 17 March 2017, the barkcloth team joined the students and facluty members of CTCTAH to host the Open Day 2017. The centre welcomed the visitors and showcased numerous projects carried out here. The barkcloth lab was opened to the visitors with some of the barkcloths and barkcloth production tools on show. We communicated the progress of the research to the public and professional colleagues. It was a pleasure to talk to the engaging and interested audience.

Read more about the day on the CTC blog, posted by Cecilia Voss on:


Open Day 2017_2

Open Day 2017_1


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