A living tradition: Expanding engagement with Pacific barkcloth

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Culture & Creative Arts


Pacific barkcloth is a little known but fascinating, beautiful and meaningful material. Barkcloth is made from the inner bark of the paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) and other plants, beaten to soften and expand it into a fabric. It was traditionally used for clothing, furnishings, ceremonial practice and all other 'textile' purposes in the Pacific islands until the 19th century. There are several significant collections of Pacific barkcloth in European, north American and Australasian museums, but there are also innumerable small museums and historic houses in the UK and around the world which contain barkcloth, from just one piece to a small collection, relics of Pacific travel by local 18th and 19th century explorers, scientists, missionaries and administrators.

A recent project, Situating Pacific Barkcloth Production in Time and Place, brought together researchers from Pacific art history, materials science and conservation practice to investigate what a close study of barkcloth as a material can tell us. The project has given us new insights into the materials used to make barkcloth, including the introduction of new methods of identifying the plant fibre which was previously extremely challenging. We also now have, for example, a much better understanding of the effect of the different stages of manufacture on the properties of the finished cloth and how this varied across the Pacific.

The project results make it possible to provide information in a more accessible form and we will hold five workshops in museums in England and Scotland to engage a wider audience with this fascinating material. The host museums have expert staff with specific collections knowledge and significant collections which will provide reference material for the workshops. The involvement of two practitioners from American Samoa will be vital to the workshops' success: Reggie Meredith Fitiao and Uilisone Fitiao have extensive experience of traditional and contemporary barkcloth making and design. Their involvement in the original project demonstrated the enormous value of working with people for whom this practice has a real, contemporary significance. They will lead the workshops, creating a dynamic link between objects in a museum display case and the living tradition of barkcloth making.

The two-day events will cater for different audiences. On Day 1 curators from local and regional museums and historic houses who do not have specialist knowledge of barkcloth will participate in a workshop aimed at raising awareness of its significance, materials, manufacture, decoration, use and history. This will give them context to understand their own collections and the resources, skills and inspiration to make their barkcloth pieces accessible to their visitors and to use them as the basis for engaging activities. This will also encourage further displays of barkcloth, and a greater regional understanding of collections through the formation of networks of interested museum staff.

On Day 2 the curators will be invited to take part in a workshop for the general public at the host museum. The workshops will include a demonstration of beating the inner bark, the opportunity to handle the raw materials and modern barkcloths and beaters and interactive activity replicating on paper some of the designs found on barkcloth using traditional methods of painting, stencilling, printing using bamboo sticks and leaves or rubbing over a raised design. Visitors will learn that the meaning of the designs is more complex and has greater significance than is at first apparent. This will encourage museums to broaden the range of their engagement activities beyond the core areas of natural history and European art, enabling adults and children to gain an understanding of the natural history, artistic skill and cultural significance of this probably novel material.

Planned Impact

The project will engage two specific groups:

Non-specialist museum curators and access and learning staff
It is notable that specialist fora, such as the Museum Ethnographers Group conference hosted by the project in 2017, mainly attract those who already have a knowledge of world cultures material. This project aims to give tools and resources to the much larger number of non-specialist curators in local and regional museums around the UK, helping them better understand their collections, inspiring and enthusing them to work with these particular artefacts and enabling greater access to collections for the general public through specific activities and also by putting more barkcloth on display. This group includes curators working in historic houses, for the National Trust, for example. The workshops will host 10 curators from each region. Travel and accommodation costs will be met for the participants, an important factor for regional museums where funding is scarce.

The workshop participants will find out more about barkcloth artefacts, with the opportunity to learn about their manufacture, use, meaning and provenance. Basing the discussions around the host collection will root the information in locally significant stories and identify artefacts with shared provenance. Curators will have the opportunity to work with the RA to disseminate significant artefacts and interesting stories on the museums' websites and other dissemination channels. Artefacts will also be added to the project database, so reaching a wider audience. The curators will benefit from contact with specialist staff and collections in their region, creating a more sustainable network for the future. Advice on storage, packing and conservation treatment will also be available from the PI. Learning and access staff will be able to re-use the materials and knowledge gained from the public workshops to design further educational materials and activities for schools and other communities. Feedback collected from the workshops will assess the degree to which the participants enhanced their level of understanding and identify successful and less successful methods of engagement; this will be of value to the museums as they develop further events.

General public
While exhibitions and publications on Pacific material and barkcloth tend to attract enthusiasts and art lovers, this new project aims at exposing Pacific barkcloth to a much wider audience of adults, students and children, the local community and tourists, based in local museums. Adults, perhaps attracted by the opportunity to share a fun and educational interactive experience with their children, are just as likely to encounter a new material which they have not previously encountered. The host museums are all in university cities and would provide new insights for students of social anthropology, museum studies and material culture. For all groups, an understanding of the way barkcloth is made will highlight human ingenuity in creating useful and beautiful artefacts from seemingly unpromising materials. Key messages will be the uncovering of the symbolic meaning in the apparently simple patterns, along with an understanding of the skill of making and an appreciation of the artistic values involved in the design. The involvement of the American Samoan practitioners will underline the importance of this material to their history and culture. Feedback will be collected from the workshops as a means of iteratively enhancing the workshops themselves and the resources created for the museums. The information gained will be disseminated to museum staff to enhance future activities.


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