Conservators care for tapa cloth at Kew

By: Daniel Barter & Cristina Liria - 15/08/2011

Two conservation students from Camberwell College of Arts have spent three weeks surveying barkcloth specimens from the Pacific.

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We are BA students on the undergraduate conservation degree at Camberwell College of Arts. As part of our course, students spend three-week placements in a wide range of historic collections, ranging from St Paul's Cathedral to the Royal Collection. These give us a chance to apply our skills to real-life collections, resulting in experience for us, and useful work carried out for curators. Past students have worked on Kew's collections of paper and Egyptian archaeology.


Daniel and Christina looking at tapa cloth

Cristina Rico Liria and Daniel Barter working in the Collection store (Photo: Daniel Barter).

During our time at Kew we have undertaken a survey of the tapa cloth in the Economic Botany Collection. Tapa is the term usually used for barkcloth from the Pacific Islands where its manufacture is an ancient craft which has been practised for thousands of years, and was once widespread. Tapa is made from the inner bark of several trees, mainly paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera), which is coppiced as a sustainable source of bark (PDF). Kew's collection was formed between 1840 and 1900 and is unusually wide-ranging in geographical origin.

Barkcloth from Indonesia
Barkcloth from Ceram, Indonesia, collected by Henry Ogg Forbes in 1883. One of several barkcloths from Indonesia, made from a jackfruit species (Artocarpus). We idenified this as a conservation priority because of the fragile tassels. (Photo: Daniel Barter).

Our survey found 51 objects, most being tapa cloth garments, blankets or room dividers. A few items of the collection however were part of the tapa cloth manufacturing process, such as heavy wooden beaters. The aim of the survey was to assess the condition of the collection. We drew up a "condition form", describing the stability, condition, potential treatment and packaging of each specimen, as well as a photographing everything. This information will then be used to inform decisions on prioritising object treatment and packaging. Some pieces have already been conserved by other students, so this was also a good opportunity to see different treatments and methods of packing.

Tapa poncho from Samoa

Tapa tiputa or poncho from Samoa. Collected by Captain Home of HMS North Star, on its trip to New Zealand and the Pacific in 1846. The shiny glaze is probably from the sap of Bischofia javanica (o’a), a naturally brown resin that acts as waterproofing. Conserved by Judith Hubbard at the Textile Conservation Centre in 2008. EBC 42861. (Photo: TCC).

We have both found this a very beneficial experience. It has enabled us to become involved in the inner workings of an impressive collection, and has increased our knowledge of tapa cloth and how to perform collection surveys. We were also able to repack quite a few pieces into larger boxes, a cheap and easy form of preventative conservation.

We are very grateful to Kew for giving us this opportunity and we hope to be conserving and preserving objects from their collection very soon.


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