Embedded Nature: Tapa Cloths from the Pacific Islands

Man's Tapa Loincloth
Man's loincloth, Hawaii. PM 90-17-70/48434.1

This exhibit celebrates the Peabody Museum’s extensive barkcloth collections and highlights the museum’s efforts to preserve these valuable cultural artifacts. In 1997 the Peabody began a three-year project devoted to the conservation of 275 barkcloths or tapa. Some of the results of this project are displayed here, and the panels and labels provide detailed information about regional variations in technology, design, and use, as well as about conservation challenges and solutions to preserving tapa.

The Pacific Ocean surrounds hundreds of islands. Some are coral islands that are low to the sea and marked by limited vegetation. Other islands are volcanic mountains and contain rich soils that produce abundant food crops and trees such as the paper mulberry. For centuries, the inner bark of the paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) has provided the primary material for tapamaking. Paper mulberry is not indigenous to the islands of the Pacific but was propagated by plant cuttings carried, as early as 3,000 years ago, from Asia to Indonesia and eventually to settlements throughout the Pacific. Tapamaking requires fertile land and labor specialization involving knowledge of tree cultivation, tool production, fiber processing, sheet formation, and decorative techniques.

Barkcloth-making technology was once known in communities covering nearly half the globe. Tapa from the Pacific Islands, especially from Polynesia and Melanesia, is the focus of this exhibit. “Tapa” is generally the more popularly understood term for “beaten barkcloth.” “Kapa” is the Hawaiian word for “the beaten.” “Siapo” refers to beaten cloth in Samoa, and in Tonga the word “ngatu” is used.

The Peabody Museum holds some of the earliest known tapa from the Pacific Islands. In the eighteenth century, European traders returned with tapa cloths and tapamaking tools from their island visits. Some of the objects featured here were collected during the first half of the nineteenth century and, in many cases, were passed from individual collectors to marine societies and antiquarian institutions in the Boston region. Other items were collected during late-nineteenth-century scientific expeditions, and some were recently acquired as gifts or museum purchases.  

The preserved and slightly damaged examples displayed here are an invaluable reference and source of inspiration for researchers, museum specialists, artists, contemporary tapamakers, and the public. Usually, artifacts that are poorly preserved or documented are not presented in an exhibit. However, the decision to include such examples here allows the museum to share with visitors research into the causes of deterioration and into the methods by which the long-term preservation of these collections can be assured. Documenting how these cloths were made and decorated as well as their current condition enhances the understanding of specific production techniques, past use, and conservation history. The ongoing study and preservation of this collection, which contains valuable material evidence of Pacific Island cultures and history, are central to the mission of the Peabody Museum.