Tapa: Situating Pacific Barkcloth in Time and Place

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The Project Team are Building a Collaboration on Barkcloth with National Museums Scotland

26th August 2016

Yesterday our Principal Investigator Frances Lennard and I spent a great day meeting staff from National Museums Scotland (NMS) and building bridges towards a future collaboration. A few months ago, we were delighted to learn that Sarah Worden (below right), senior curator of African collections at NMS, is herself conducting a research project on barkcloth from Uganda, where a characteristically finely beaten, undecorated and fragrant brown cloth is still produced from the bark of the Ficus natalensis. Dr Worden's research resonates with our work as the related Ficus prolixa and Ficus obliqua were similarly used to produce a naturally brown cloth in parts of the Pacific.


Antje Denner (above left), the National Museums' principal curator for Oceania, Africa and the Americas, chaired a productive meeting with her fellow curators, the Head of Collections, and representatives from textile conservation and science. We explored the strengths of the museum's barkcloth collection, which is the largest in Scotland. We were delighted to learn that the curators for Asia, Africa and the Pacific are all keen to invest their time and expertise in exploring the common ground of barkcloth's production, dyeing, cultural significance and ageing around the world. The exact details of our future collaboration are still under development, but we intend to combine our efforts in both Glasgow and Edinburgh in various ways, to develop greater understanding of how we can care for this unique material, interpret it better for the public and reveal some of its many secrets through research. 

FL AD FR SW Indonesian Skirt

We were fortunate to spend the afternoon in the stores, examining fantastic barkcloth garments from Sulawesi in Indonesia, various wonderfully made and decorated African cloths, and some stand-out Polynesian artefacts. My fascination was torn between a magnificent stamp-printed Hawaiian kapa mo'e collected in the late 1820s by Frederick Beechey, an exquisite red and yellow fern-printed Tahitian cloth, and a beautiful fringed and finely handpainted tiputa (poncho) bearing more than 300 words in the Niuean language. An inter-regional approach to barkcloth immediately showed its relevance, as we learned that some Indonesian barkcloths, like this wonderful barkcloth skirt from Sulawesi with tassels of beads and brilliantly dyed cotton flowers (above), were dyed black using the same technique of mud-immersion historically used in Polynesia. Interestingly, we found the same process of the cloth's accelerated decay that Te Rangi Hiroa recognised on black-dyed Hawaiian cloths at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu back in the 1950s, implying that the chemical properties of black mud make barkcloth particularly fragile.

Andy Mills, Research Associate: Historical


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There have been exciting developments for the barkcloth project team recently – at the end of March we hosted a visit from two bar  More >

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