Reach 08 - Situating Pacific barkcloth production in time and place

A’ Suidheachadh Dèanamh Clò-Rùisg a’ Chuain Shèimh ann an Tìm is Àite

Barkcloth has been used to make clothing, furnishings, garments and ritual masks in the tropical islands of the Pacific, such as Samoa, the Cook Islands and Hawaii for around 5000 years. It was made by beating the raw tree bark until it became a soft, tactile, non-woven textile. Although Western styles and fashions are now more common in the Pacific, the material is still used across the region as an expression of cultural identity. Yet very little is known about the material itself, and about how best to display, store and preserve barkcloth collections.

Frances Lennard, a Senior Lecturer in Textile Conservation, is leading a new AHRC funded project to study bark cloth as an art form. Lennard’s team includes Misa Tamura, a specialist in the conservation of ethnographic collections, material scientist Dr Margaret Smith who is studying the material properties of the cloth, and art historian Dr Andrew Mills who will be placing the artefacts in their historical context. The broader aim of the project is to ‘find out whether materials, techniques and designs originated from particular islands, how they were transmitted around the region and the effect of globalisation on this tradition.’ Cutting edge techniques will also be used to try and identify which plants were used to make the barkcloth, including protein and DNA analysis and isotope analysis.

The team at the University of Glasgow are focused on studying the Pacific art collection at the Hunterian Museum believed to have been collected during Captain Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific. There are also barkcloth objects donated by the missionary Reverend George Turner from his travels in Samoa. They will also be collaborating with botanists and curator Dr Mark Nesbitt, a co-investigator in the project, to study the raw plant materials and finished bark cloth artefacts in Kew Gardens’ Economy Botany Collection.

As Mills pointed out, one of the inherent problems with the barkcloth collections donated to museums is that the Europeans who collected the art were often either uncertain or uninterested in asking the Pacific islanders questions such as: what materials did they use? How did they use dye or pigment to make the barkcloth? Often curators don’t even have access to such basic information as what island did the artefact come from or when it was collected. Understandably this is a concern for museum curators and Pacific communities alike.

There is currently a strong revitalisation movement to bring the barkcloth collections back to the Pacific communities, as they are an integral part of Pacific heritage and ethnography lost through the processes of colonialism. Hawaiian scholars and bark cloth makers are enthusiastic about studying the collections themselves. However, in order to offer access to the collections it is crucial that we learn more about how to identify when and where the artefacts were sourced

To understand the materials, the project is informed by the work of the second co-investigator, Dr Adrienne Kaeppler, the curator of Oceanic Ethnography at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. Conservator Michele Austin-Dennehy from the NMNH has trained Tamura in the conservation techniques they have developed thus far, in order to continue sharing the knowledge about conserving this significant and delicate art form. The ultimate goal is to be able to share findings about barkcloth with Oceanic and Pacific communities and museums, so that it can become more accessible. A barkcloth exhibition is planned for the end of the project, but meanwhile the team hopes to foster future partnerships with Glasgow Museums and the National Museum of Scotland. They also plan to contribute to the Museum Ethnographers Group Conference to be held in Glasgow in 2017. The theme is textiles and costume, and they hope to host a panel on barkcloth and form a dialogue with those researching African barkcloth in the National Museum of Scotland.

To find out more about the ongoing research, or to contact investigators involved, you can visit the project website.



If you wish to find out more about this article or about how you can progress your ideas (i) as an academic wishing to engage with a non-academic organisation or (ii) as a non-academic organisation interested in engaging with the academic knowledge base, please email the College of Arts KE Team.


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