Tapa: Situating Pacific Barkcloth in Time and Place

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Research Studentship Working on the Barkcloth Project

12th June 2018

My name is Jennifer Brunton and I have recently completed a five-month research studentship on the Pacific barkcloth project, a multi-disciplinary project funded by the AHRC. Working under the supervision of project scientist Dr Margaret Smith and project conservator Misa Tamura, I have been able to expand upon my knowledge of barkcloth, both in terms of scientific analysis and conservation issues. My role focussed on carrying out analysis on cloths through cross-section embedding and polishing for light microscopy, Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy for molecular identification, X-ray Fluorescence for pigment analysis and optical microscopy to determine morphology. Figure 1, viewing cloth E609 from the Hunterian Collection.


Figure 1. Viewing cloth E609 using stereomicroscopy.

A cloth from the Hunterian collection is shown (figure 2):


Figure 2. Bottom right of cloth E537 from the Hunterian collection. The markers indicate where samples were taken.

Prior to beginning this studentship, I undertook my MLitt in Technical Art History at Glasgow University. Technical art history places focus on the importance of art technological sources alongside scientific analysis and technical reconstructions. This allows conservators and curators to consider artists’ intent, making and meaning, ensuring the artwork is appropriately conserved, interpreted and accessible to future generations.

Conducting optical microscopy has provided an interesting comparison, and solution, to the problems encountered using cross section embedding to analyse barkcloth samples. I initially carried out cross-section embedding to attempt to understand the application of dyes and pigments applied to the cloths. Cross-section embedding involves taking a small sample from the barkcloth and placing this into resin, afterwards this is cured and polished. This provides an image of a layer structure; however, from figure 3 the difficulties faced with taking good quality cross-sections are visible.


Figure 3. E537, cross section image 1. x 50 magnification.

Interestingly, optical microscopy provides a much better image of barkcloth. It provides a visual image of the surface (or reverse) of the material, whereas cross sections capture the object from a lateral perspective. Taking high magnification images also highlights the uneven topography of these cloths; therefore taking stacking images became the most efficient way to look at the surface of the barkcloth. Stacking creates a flattened image of the uneven surface, capturing the whole sample in focus. This is a particularly appropriate way to communicate barkcloth deterioration; in some cases, this has highlighted micro cracking (figure 4).


Figure 4. Optical Microscopy. E537 stacking imaging (S1, P1, T3).

One particular cloth, which has benefitted from stacking imaging, was cloth E537 from the Hunterian collection. This patterned and coloured cloth is thinly beaten and tangibly flexible. From looking at the cloth with the naked eye, it looks in deceptively good condition. However, once a sample had been taken (from sample sites highlighted in figure 1) and optical microscopy and stacking imaging was carried out, it became clear from the extensive micro cracking that the paint structure was under significant stress.  

Being able to understand, analyse and appreciate the historical significance of these cloths at first hand has been an invaluable experience and has led me to have a real interest in barkcloth and as a result expand upon my own research interests.







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