Pacific barkcloth > Kew Science > Projects > Situating Pacific barkcloth in time and place

Situating Pacific barkcloth in time and place

Recovering and sharing traditional knowledge from museum artefacts.

Project details

Project Department: 
Project Leader: 
Funded By: 
Arts & Humanities Research Council

Objectives and outputs


Until the twentieth century, barkcloth was a vital material in the social, cultural and ritual lives of Pacific islanders. Sheets of the inner bark of trees were stripped and softened by soaking, then beaten with wooden mallets to stretch the cloth and to make it softer and stronger, before being decorated with painted designs.

The production and use of barkcloth was disrupted by European impact in the nineteenth century, and in some areas missionaries completely suppressed its use. At the same time, barkcloth was of great interest to travellers, and many pieces ended up in Western museums (including Kew).


There are still major gaps in our understanding of barkcloth as a material. This project will examine the development of barkcloth production in the Pacific in the nineteenth century. We want to investigate whether materials, techniques and designs originated from particular islands, how they were transmitted around the region and the effect of globalisation on this tradition. This is important both for our understanding of objects in museum collections and for contemporary barkcloth makers in the Pacific.


The project will focus on three internationally important collections at The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, the Economic Botany Collection at Kew, and the National Museum of Natural History (part of the Smithsonian Institution).

We will research the provenance and history of objects in the collections, using archival sources, analysing their materials and manufacture using state-of-the-art techniques including microscopy, protein and DNA analysis, and isotope analysis.

We will also carry out fieldwork in the Pacific islands, talking to barkcloth makers, growers and designers and experimenting with making barkcloth using different plants and beating techniques.

Kew’s role in the project

The project is a partnership, led by Dr Frances Lennard at the University of Glasgow, and jointly managed with Dr Mark Nesbitt at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Dr Adrienne Kaeppler at the Smithsonian Institution.

Kew provides access to its rich collection of about 80 pieces of tapa, and the associated archives concerning their provenance, and advises on the botany of tapa, including technical aspects of fibre identification using microscopy.

Research context

The project forms part of a wider research programme on the ethnobotany and history of plant fibres, including the history and making of paper, woven textiles, Jamaican lace-bark, and baskets, along with an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award, held by Emily Brennan, on contemporary barkcloth production in Seram, Indonesia.


  • Understand the origin of three significant barkcloth collections.
  • Use innovative techniques to determine which plants were used to make Pacific barkcloth, and how the fabric was produced.
  • Understand how the materials, techniques and designs relate to island groups and how were they transmitted around the Pacific.
  • Investigate whether different barkcloths deteriorate differently, and the implications for conservation.
  • Share results in such a way as to support the contemporary production of barkcloth in the Pacific.


  • Creating and maintaining a unified database of tapa collections at the Hunterian, Kew and Smithsonian, with rich provenance and technical data.
  • Training materials for conservators, curators and source communities.
  • Annual workshops and a major conference.
  • Project website and publications.
  • Exhibition at The Hunterian.

Partners and collaborators



Further information