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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Title Covid masks made from Samoan barkcloth 
Description Five masks were made by the barkcloth practitioner, Reggie Meredith, in American Samoa. These were donated to the five partner museums who were involved in this project. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2020 
Impact The masks will be displayed by the museums. 
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_D0kT4eMCCc&feature=emb_title
Description This was not a research project, but it further disseminated the research findings of our previous project on Pacific barkcloth. Two guides, Barkcloth 101: Learning about Polynesian Tapa, and Barkcloth 101: Characteristic Features of Historic Polynesian Tapa, were produced and added to the project website (https://tapa.gla.ac.uk/barkcloth-101/) in order to disseminate project findings and provide guidance to non-specialist museum staff and to the general public.
Exploitation Route The project website will continue to be a valuable resource to all those interested in Pacific barkcloth. It has been set up in such a way that information on barkcloth in other museum collections could be added to it in future. The facebook forum set up following the workshops will continue, with input from staff in partner museums, as a direct legacy of this project.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://tapa.gla.ac.uk/
Description This follow-on project aimed to disseminate the findings from our previous research project on Pacific barkcloth to museum curators, and to families and the general public, through two sets of workshops in museums. In the end, workshops were held online, which enabled greater international participation (though careful timing) but did not achieve the outcomes initially planned, in terms of hands-on engagement with barkcloth. There was also no time for the planned post-workshop dissemination (due to the length of time it took for the change of plan to be approved). However the online workshops were successful. Workshop participants included museum curators, who reported that they now feel more confident in collecting, displaying and interpreting barkcloth, and Pacific community members who were pleased to find out more about their barkcloth heritage. There is little historic barkcloth in Pacific museums, and digital access to museum collections in the UK was valued. A spin-off workshop for members of the Fijian community in the UK was held later.
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description Online forum 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A facebook forum, Pacific Barkcloth, was established following the series of workshops, to act as a channel for discussion and the dissemination of information about barkcloth. It has slowly gained new followers, with almost 100 to date, many from the Pacific region.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021
URL https://www.facebook.com/pacificbarkclothforum
Description Project website 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The project website: Situating Pacific Barkcloth in Time and Place, is at https://tapa.gla.ac.uk. It contains information about the project research and findings, and acts as a database of the two collections of barkcloth studied, containing images and information on all the barkcloth objects in The Hunterian and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew collections. It also contains resources for the study of Pacific barkcloth: videos about making barkcloth from practitioners in American Samoa, a comprehensive bibliography, overview guides to identifying barkcloth, and information on its care. It is designed to be a resource for practitioners and anyone interested in Pacific barkcloth. Workshop attendees (in 2020 after the end of this project) commented on how useful it is, especially for those in museums wanting to interpret their own collections.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021
URL https://tapa.gla.ac.uk/
Description Series of five online workshops 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A series of five online workshops on Pacific barkcloth was held and attracted an international audience of around 20 people per workshop. Two barkcloth practitioners from American Samoa also took part along with staff from our partner museums. Museum curators and conservators learned more about Pacific barkcloth and now feel more confident in displaying and interpreting it. Barkcloth practitioners, Pacific community members and others learned more about barkcloth making and about museum collections.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://tapa.gla.ac.uk/