Our Project

A collaborative approach based on existing barkcloth collections

Situating Pacific Barkcloth in Time and Place was a research project based at the University of Glasgow and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), which took place between 2016 and 2019. The project was a collaboration between three institutions: the University of Glasgow, represented by the Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History and The Hunterian; Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; and the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), part of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA. The project was led by Prof. Frances  Lennard of the University of Glasgow. Prof. Mark Nesbitt, Curator of the Economic Botany Collection at Kew, and Dr Adrienne Kaeppler, Curator of Oceanic Ethnology at NMNH were the project co-investigators.

The NMNH barkcloth collections provided valuable context for the less studied collections at The Hunterian and Kew’s Economic Botany Collection which formed the primary research focus. These two collections total around 150 objects, primarily from Polynesia, and dating from the 1760s, when the earliest Hunterian cloths were collected on the Cook Voyages, to the 1880s.

Colour photograph showing the members of the project team members in a group whilst attending a project meeting at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (copyright University of Glasgow)
Project team meeting at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Combining art history, scientific analysis, and conservation in an interdisciplinary team

The interdisciplinary research team employed three research associates, a Pacific art historian, Dr Andy Mills, a materials scientist, Dr Margaret Smith, and Misa Tamura, the project’s research conservator. It aimed to carry out a detailed investigation of the materials and techniques of Pacific barkcloth making, whereas previous research had focused more on cultural and art historical perspectives, with the goal of finding out more about the way barkcloth was made and used in the Pacific. We were keen to inform, not just the interpretation of historic collections around the world, but the contemporary art of barkcloth making.

Colour photograph showing members of the women's barkcloth group at Lapaha in Tonga laying out a large ngatu (Tongan tapa) for folding (copyright Vava‘u Press Limited)
Women’s barkcloth group at Lapaha in Tonga laying out a large ngatu (Tongan tapa) for folding (© Vava‘u Press Limited)

Promoting barkcloth to a range of audiences

The project was rooted in collaboration, not just with the partner institutions but with colleagues in the Pacific and around the world. Two project workshops were held in 2017 to engage with contemporary tapa makers, at the Auckland War Memorial Museum and at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, and a range of events was held to disseminate research results including the Barkcloth: Revealing Pacific Craft exhibition at The Hunterian.

Colour photograph showing tapa cloths and tools on display at The Hunterian in the Barkcloth: Revealing Pacific Craft exhibition, 2019 (© copyright University of Glasgow)
Showcasing tapa at The Hunterian in our 2019 exhibition Barkcloth: Revealing Pacific Craft

Expanding engagement with Pacific barkcloth

In 2020 we were awarded follow-on funding from AHRC for a new stage of work to develop the project’s impact and engagement: A Living Tradition: Expanding Engagement with Pacific Barkcloth. Dr Maria Economou of the University of Glasgow was the co-investigator for this part of the project, and Dr Katrina Igglesden was appointed as research associate to develop further outreach for the project and its results. We worked with a group of UK museums with significant collections of Pacific barkcloth, including Horniman Museum & Gardens (London), National Museum of Scotland (Edinburgh), Leicester Museum & Art Gallery, Royal Albert Memorial Museum (Exeter), and Royal Pavilion & Museums (Brighton), and organised a series of interactive online sessions called Barkcloth Basics: Interpreting and Understanding Pacific Barkcloth. These were co-facilitated by practitioners Reggie Meredith Fitiao and Su’a Tupuola Uilisone Fitiao.

Colour photograph showing participants learning how to beat barkcloth at one of our workshops in 2018 led by Reggie Meredith Fitiao, Professor of Art at American Samoa Community College and siapo maker, and Su'a Tupuola Uilisone Fitiao, contemporary artist and teacher (copyright University of Glasgow)
Engaging with researchers and conservators at one of our workshops in 2018 led by Reggie Meredith Fitiao, Professor of Art at American Samoa Community College and siapo maker, and Su’a Tupuola Uilisone Fitiao, contemporary artist and teacher

A framework to share knowledge

This website contains detailed information about the objects in the Hunterian and Kew collections; considerable time was spent on researching the history of the Hunterian collection in particular, and both groups of objects are now much better understood in terms of their provenance, materials, techniques and cultural histories. It also contains links to other collections which the researchers drew upon and information about the collectors who brought them to the UK. You will also find information on the plants and other materials used to make barkcloth, the making processes and the Pacific islands where tapa was made.

The Hunterian and Kew collections are not evenly spread across Oceania – some regions, such as Hawai‘i and Tahiti are much better represented than others. However, the website has been constructed to create an overall framework and we hope it may be possible to add information on barkcloth collections in other museums and to create a more comprehensive picture. We include information on a range of cloth types found across Oceania but please note the list included here is not exhaustive, as it is based primarily on the cloth types represented in the two collections.

Ongoing development

We welcome all comments, both on the content and the way it is presented. The information on the objects and techniques of making barkcloth represents our research to date – if you can add further information, please let us know so that we can update the records. To promote further discussion, we have created an online forum for Pacific barkcloth. If you are interested in tapa, you are invited to join the discussion.