Tapa: Situating Pacific Barkcloth in Time and Place

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Barkcloth at European Researchers' Night

20th December 2016

European Researchers Night

The barkcloth project team have had many visitors over the last 11 months. These have included historians, scientists, conservators, curators and some people who were just interested in the project and what the team at Glasgow are researching.

However, to bring the project and its aims to a wider audience we have also taken the project on ‘tour’.  Our first, of hopefully many ventures, was to take part in the European Researchers’ Night, as part of the University of Glasgow’s Explorathon activities, at the Hunterian Museum on the 30th September. The event actually took place from 12noon until 4pm!

All the Glasgow team were there manning our research stall which was based on the second floor of the Hunterian Museum. On the stall we had examples of contemporary barkcloth, a small barkcloth piece from the Hunterian’s own collection, a variety of raw materials used in barkcloth making and a small sample of resin embedded barkcloth that visitors could view using a microscope. 

Of the numerous visitors that stopped to view the items and discuss the research many left comments in our visitors’ book. They ranged from visitors who had never encountered barkcloth to those who had previous interest in this art form. Here are a few of these comments:

‘I knew nothing about barkcloth at all! Thanks for an interesting and informative experience’.

‘Absolutely fascinating project.  So nice to see a strongly interdisciplinary team investigating something like from so many different angles.  Clearly explained. Look forward to hearing more in the future’.

‘It was exceptionally fascinating and I’m glad the research is finally being done on the Pacific bark!’

In 2017 the Glasgow team are planning to bring their research to a number of venues and we will be advertising these in the near future.

For a fuller report on ‘Situating Pacific Barkcloth Production in Time and Place’ at the European Researchers’ Night can be found at:


Below shows some images from the event.

Andy Mills the project historian


Misa with visitors


Barkcloth Treasures in Glasgow Museums

15th November 2016

A pre-1897 serrated circular siapo mamanu from Leone village, Tutuila, American Samoa

(above) A fine siapo mamanu in the classic style of Leone village, Tutuila, American Samoa. Pre-1897.

Over recent months, we have been building a useful collaboration with the World Cultures team of Glasgow Museums. We have many shared goals for improving our understanding, and promoting public awareness, of important Polynesian barkcloth collections in Scotland - particularly in the city of Glasgow. Due to the city’s maritime heritage and long history of scholarship and study, Glasgow Museums have accumulated a rich collection of fine tapa from the 19th Century. I was fortunate to spend three busy but satisfying days with Glasgow Museums’ curator Pat Allan, and her colleagues Katie Webbe and Ed Johnson, surveying the Glasgow Museums collection. This revealed a number of very fine cloths of great beauty and art historical value.

A finely painted salatasi waist-cover from Futuna

(above) an intricately hand-painted salatasi waist-cover from Futuna, north-western Polynesia. Pre-1897.

I was particularly delighted to find three books of barkcloth samples that our project partner, the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, had donated to the Kelvingrove Museum in the late 19th Century - part of the collection of Hawaiian kapa brought back to Britain by the Reverend Andrew Bloxam aboard HMS Blonde - much of it gifted by King Kamehameha III and Poki, Governor of Oahu - all of it dating to 1824-5. As part of the distributed Kew collection, these samples are a central to our research work, and provide a uniquely accurate picture of Hawaiian barkcloth style in the 1820s. They provide a fascinating contrast to the styles of kapa collected, for example, on James Cook’s third voyage in 1778-9, and provide an interesting impression of how barkcloth manufacture in Hawaii changed over the first fifty years of recorded collection.

Andy Mills, Research Associate: Historical

Sample book of Hawaiian kapa collected by Andrew Bloxam 1824-5

(above) a sample book of Hawaiian kapa collected on the voyage of HMS Blonde in 1824-5, reflecting a range of early styles.

Mulberry paper used for conserving barkcloths

9th September 2016

Paper made of inner bark of paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera), often generically called “Japanese paper”, is in fact manufactured widely in Far East and some areas of South East Asia. It is often employed in conserving various materials from book and paper to three-dimensional, organic as well as inorganic objects. The kind of mulberry paper the conservators favour to use is long-fibred, naturally sun-bleached and un-sized. Its flexibility, modifiability, light-weightiness and long-term stability make it ideal to create backing and lining repairs, loss compensation and other types of structural support that’s visually and materially sympathetic to often fragile historical objects.

The mulberry paper is extensively used for the conservation programme for this project in order to stabilise the objects with tears, splits and compromised fibre structure. Many of the Pacific barkcloths the project deals with are of course made by the inner bark of paper mulberry themselves. Therefore, repairs made using the material are often compatible in weight and general texture of the barkcloth objects. This helps the conservation addition achieves long-lasting stabilisation effect as well as helps the repair to blend in nicely for display. Visual sympathy is as important as material stability in such circumstances because the conservation treatment should not ideally be too distracting or dominant to the viewership. Simultaneously, barkcloths and the paper have properties that make them distinct from each other. The differences are largely attributed to respective manufacturing methods - barkcloths are beaten while the paper is macerated and strained. These differences help us easily differentiate the two in close examination as to avoid confusion between the original material and conservation addition.

The paper can also be tinted to match the colour of the barkcloth if required for display, such as shown in the example with GLAHM E.458/2 (Fig.1).

09-09-2016 MT 01

Fig.1 Tengujo paper (5gsm) tinted to match the base colour of GLAHM E.458/2 during its conservation treatment

The repair tabs can be used as a temporary securing solution as well as for permanent repair. Here is an example of the barkcloth GLAHM E.601. The structural repairs are usually applied from the back of the object in order not to disrupt the applied surface. However, in this instance, the feathered edges of the tears prevented to make a good alignment of the joins while the strong linear design was very unforgiving of misalignment. So I made a re-moistenable paper tabs impregnated with weak, cellulose-based adhesive to align and temporarily secure the joins. After the structural stabilisation was carried out from the back, temporary tabs were removed by dampening them slightly using deionised water. The tabs were safely removed without damaging the fibre structure or leaving visible excess adhesive residue on surface (Fig.2-5).

09-09-2016 MT 02

Fig.2 A damaged area on GLAHM E.601 before treatment

09-09-2016 MT 03

Fig.3 Temporary securing tabs applied to GLAHM E.601 in order to secure the aligned joins

09-09-2016 MT 04

Fig.4 The damaged area after treatment and after removal of temporary securing tabs

09-09-2016 MT 05

Fig.5 GLHM E.601 after treatment

The structural stabilisation is one of the key conservation works to be carried out within this project. Stabilised objects can be safely accessed and handled, thus facilitating and increasing the opportunities for them to be studied by the interested parties as well as to be displayed so that they can be viewed appreciated by the museum visitors.

Misa Tamura
Research Conservator

Explorathon - Researchers' Night Scotland

2nd September 2016


Explorathon 2016 is the third edition of the largest celebration for European Researchers’ Night across Scotland. It takes place on the 30th September.

We are happy to announce that we will be part of this year’s Explorathon program. Come along to the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery on Friday 30th September to find out more about our research. We'll be taking part the event Hunterian Unlocked and will have a stand showcasing the barkcloth research. Bring your own barkcloth along, or come to see the barkcloth plants and pieces from the Hunterian collection in detail and though the microscope. For more information visit http://www.explorathon.co.uk/glasgow/hunterian


Barkcloth in Cross-Section

1st September 2016

The technique of taking paint cross-section samples, often less than a millimetre in size, has been employed for over a century. It is used to understand and identify the layers of materials employed to create artworks such as oil paintings, wall paintings and polychromes. Commonly the technique involves embedding these tiny samples in resins and polishing the resin to bring the samples to the surface enabling them to be viewed by light microscopy. Through magnification, these tiny samples are revealed as preparatory ground and paint layers and sometimes the underlying support, often a textile. The use of this technique to study the construction of painted barkcloth has not been exploited before now. However, recent samples from a Hawai’ian painted cloth (GLAHM E.667, Fig.1), part of the Hunterian Collection, have been embedded in an acrylic resin and viewed using light microscopy. Figure 2 shows a typical area where paint has been used to decorate the barkcloth fibre. In the cross-section sample (Fig.3) shown here it is clear that two paint layers have been used, a lighter and a darker red. The top darker red layer is extremely thin. 

Figure 1

Fig.1 GLAHM E.667

Figure 2

Fig.2 GLAHM E.667

Figure 3

Fig.3 Cross-section GLAHM E.667

Polishing a complete cross-section including the beaten bark poses problems that a cross-section of paint layers alone would not. The beaten bark is easily damaged if polished and so here a layer of resin still remains. The sample shown has still some resin on top of the sample which slightly impairs the quality of the image.  Further developmental work is needed to improve the microscopic imagery from painted barkcloth cross-sections which may include sandwiching them in a softer embedding material that can be cut revealing the layers without the need for polishing which can so easily damage the bark.

With a high quality embedded cross-section further information can be obtained from the sample which would shed light on the materials used. This could be done by using a variety of analytical instruments such as scanning-electron microscopy with energy dispersive X-ray (SEM/EDX) spectroscopy, Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy mapping. These methodologies can help identify the materials used to create the painted barkcloths. 

Dr Margaret Smith, Research Associate: Scientific

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

Project Conservators Survey the Kew Barkcloth Collections

19th August 2016

Misa Tamura, our Research Conservator, and I spent a few days at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew recently to survey the tapa collection there.  There are around 60 or 70 objects in the Economic Botany Collection (EBC), including tapa cloths, tools for making barkcloth and samples of the plant materials. The plan is that the whole collection will come to our lab at the University of Glasgow for research and conservation, as part of the project.  This will probably happen next year.

Frances Lennard in Kew Economic Botany Stores

The most exciting discovery of the visit involved a very large piece of tapa, one of the earliest donations to Kew, which had recently been removed from display in Kew Gardens’ museum. We were able to unfold it for the first time since it was donated in 1847, and discovered that it measured an enormous 5 metres x 5.5 metres. Documentation from the donor, Everard Home, explained that it was collected from Tonga and had been part of a ceremonial pathway originally two miles long. Even more excitingly, the pattern on the cloth matched that on a upeti or rubbing board, also in Kew’s collection, showing that the board had been used to make this particular cloth.  These boards, which are made out of pandanus, are very unusual survivals – there are two in Kew’s collection and one in the Hunterian – so finding one with a matching piece of tapa is extremely rare.

Kew Gardens Tongan Cloth with Kupesi

Other interesting finds were an edition of a newspaper, the Polynesian Gazette of October 27, 1885, printed on tapa.  It was also interesting to see samples of semi-processed bark, and tools for making barkcloth, including carved bamboo sticks used to print designs on the cloth.  It will be very rewarding to be able to carry out further research into the collection when it comes to Glasgow.

Misa with Polynesian Times on Tapa

Misa and I took full advantage of lunchtime walks around the gardens while we were there and discovered lots of events taking place. The Japanese Tanabata Star festival was being celebrated and we were able to join in the festival by adding our wishes, in this case for the success of the project, to one of the plants in the bamboo grove.

Frances Lennard, Principal Investigator

Misa with a Tree

The Use of Transmitted Light in Conservation Documentation of Barkcloth

21st July 2016

The conservation work for the project is underway since the project lab became operational in March 2016. Conservation work involves the physical intervention to the object to stabilise the present damages and mitigate the future risk by taking both remedial and preventative measures.

Simultaneously, it is a vital aspect of conservation to carefully document the object before, during and after the conservation work. Such documentation aims to record the individual objects’ physical nature, condition and damages to the object occurred by both external and internal factors. Details of the treatment are also recorded including materials used for stabilisation and how they were prepared and applied.

Transmitted light, or light shone from beneath the object, is an effective tool in documenting barkcloth. Transmitted light is often used in other disciplines: for instance, documenting watermark on paper and examining structure of substrate in book and paper conservation and locating breakage and cracks in painting conservation.

The transmitted light’s ability to illustrate the differential density and structure is very helpful in documenting barkcloth.

E.380/2 under normal and transmitted light

Beater marks are one of the most distinctive features in examining Pacific barkcloths. Barkcloth beaters, used to beat the inner bark in order to spread and felt the fibre to produce barkcloth, typically have grooved/carved facets. As a result of beating the grooved/carved patterns are embossed on the surface of the barkcloth.

E.596/6 Normal light

E.594/6 transmitted light

The fine texture of the beaters mark can be difficult to photograph under normal light. However, transmitted light can be used to show the outlines of the beater marks very clearly.


Transmitted light is also very useful in identifying the layered structure of the barkcloth which can consist of several layers.

E.594/6 normal lightE.594/6 transmitted light

Structural and physical issues of the cloth can be clearly highlighted by photographing with transmitted light. It is often difficult to visually differentiate what are localised soiling and what are fold marks under normal light.

E.602E.602 transmitted light

Structural weakness, such as where the fibre is thinned, split, or perforated, in turn, is difficult to capture by photographing under normal light. Transmitted light helps the conservators identify and map these problematic areas. 

The use of transmitted light is an accessible method of documentation that aid your visual examination of the objects and expands the range of information photography can capture. No technical instrument is necessary other than a camera and a lightbox. Later in the project, we hope to share these photographic documents of every object on this website together with their full conservation reports to be used as resources for conservators as well as anyone interested in Pacific barkcloths. 


Misa Tamura, Research Conservator


Reconstructing the Dispersed Kew Barkcloth Collection

22nd June 2016

Over the last couple of months, I have been collaborating with Julie Adams and Jill Hasell at the British Museum’s Oceania department. In 1960, a particularly interesting collection of Tahitian and Hawaiian barkcloth items was transferred to the British Museum from one of the research collections at the heart of our project - the Economic Botany collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. In this period, Kew gave parts of its collections to a number of museums in London, including the BM, the Horniman Museum and the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum.

 Detail of BM Tiputa Oc 1960.11.22

At the British Museum stores, I examined a collection made in the Society Islands and Hawaii by HRH Alfred, The Duke of Edinburgh. A British naval officer before he became the Duke of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha, Queen Victoria’s second son toured the Pacific in the late-1860s aboard HMS Galatea, and made a number of state visits to Pacific nations. The Galatea voyage collections include a number of fascinating tiputa, poncho-like garments worn throughout much of Polynesia during the 19th Century, as well as some other remarkable cloths. Those Tahitian tiputa which were presented to Alfred are particularly interesting, as they are quite different to earlier plain or leaf-printed tiputa, showing both the innovative use of local materials, such as layers of the waxy cuticles stripped from the leaves of sugar cane, combined with the use of imported pigments, such as this brilliant washing blue. We can also see some Western influence in the needlework and details of their decorative appliqué work - perhaps a testament to the presence of European missionary wives. The wearing of tiputa was largely abandoned after this period, and so these items represent the final phase of a distinctively Polynesian garment.

 Prince Alfred Duke of Edinburgh

More recently, the British Museum have also kindly made their large and diverse collection of Central Polynesian barkcloth beaters available to me, allowing me to document key differences between the beaters of the Society Islands, Cook Islands and Austral Islands. These differences are not well understood, and by understanding the barkcloth makers’ tools, we are able to refine our understanding of subtle differences between the plain watermarked barkcloths of this region. These plain cloths, historically the everyday wear and storable wealth of Central Polynesia, are often wrongly attributed to one island group or another in museum collections; it is longstanding challenges like this which our project hopes to address.

Andy Mills, Research Associate: Historical 

Rare Whalebone Tahitian Barkcloth Beater BM Oc1944.O2.681

Barkcloth at the Botanics!

24th May 2016

On Monday 15th May, Andy Mills and I met with Will Ritchie, the Curator at Glasgow Botanic Gardens. The purpose of our meeting was to investigate the possibility of obtaining live plant material from the collections of the Botanic Gardens, providing us with fresh specimens of the plants used in in the making and decoration of Pacific barkcloth. Sourcing these materials will enable the Barkcloth team to prepare reconstructions of barkcloth and dyes based on historical recipes, and allow us to create analytical databases for our research methods - such as chromatography, which will be used to identify the dyes and resins we find in historical barkcloth. Will was extremely helpful and keen to collaborate with us, explaining that one of the Botanic Gardens’ aims is to work with academic researchers to develop new understandings about the use and nature of plants in the Gardens.

Louise Bustard shows Breadfruit Tree
Louise Bustard, Education Officer at the Gardens, joined the meeting and she and Will explained how the Gardens source plants and seeds. They very kindly offered to source some suitable species and varieties which will be representative of those used by the Polynesians in the art of barkcloth making. We rounded off the afternoon with a guided tour by Louise of the arid and tropical greenhouses. Here we saw the breadfruit tree (Artocarpus altilis) – one of the key species we are researching - which was very tall and thin. It is soon to be removed and replaced by younger specimens, and thus it will provide us with a source of bark for beating and analysing. We also saw the beautiful black taro plant (Colocasia esculenta), which is grown in muddy/swampy areas on many of the islands for its starchy tuber. The black mud in which it is grown has long been used for dyeing barkcloth. This is done by immersing the cloths for a few days or weeks in the taro gardens.

Glasgow Botanics Black Taro
It was an extremely interesting and useful meeting. We have made preliminary plans to build on this excellent start, and hope to work more closely with the Botanic Gardens’ team on education in particular. Once the Gardens have an established stock of barkcloth production plants, we intend to work with them to develop new educational resources for the Gardens about barkcloth and our research, which will help to spread the impact of our research within Glasgow itself.

Margaret Smith, Research Associate: Scientific