Tapa: Situating Pacific Barkcloth in Time and Place

Home > Participants > Ms Michele Austin-Dennehy

National Museum for Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, USA.

I am a conservator in private practice with thirty years of experience working in the field of objects conservation. Currently, and for the past decades, I have worked extensively as an exhibition and project conservator, primarily for the Smithsonian Institution’s (SI), National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). I hold a Master of Science in Art Conservation from the University of Delaware/ Winterthur Museum.

I have experience working collaboratively with museum curators and other scholars including source community members to help ensure that important collections are preserved as well as accessible. As one of a team of conservators I participated in a three-year effort by the SI's NMNH to conserve vulnerable Polynesian tapa (barkcloth) collected by The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838 to 1842. Our project goals included both preservation and access. We worked to conserve the tapa and, at the same time, to put the tapa into the hands of scholars and researchers, who often need to touch and handle the artifacts as a critical part of their research. We worked closely with community scholars from Polynesia who enhanced the project by bringing traditional knowledge, materials and experience to the team’s activities.