Thursday, 21 June 2012

Barkcloth from the Pacific

The Cook collections at the Pitt Rivers were originally at the Ashmolean Museum, which was founded in 1683.  The majority of the ethnographic collections were transferred to the newly-opened Pitt Rivers Museum in 1886.  Because the Catalogue of Curiosities was still lost at this time, there was a possibility that some Cook-voyage objects had not been identified as such.  Yesterday, we went to look at some of the stored barkcloth that originally came from the Ashmolean, some of which came with no provenance.  Although we don't think we found any 'lost' Cook pieces, we did see some interesting barkcloth.

This is a barkcloth poncho, possibly from Tahiti.  It has been decorated with what are believed to be strips of the epidermis of banana leaves, and flowers made from plant material.

1984.3.1 Detail of decoration

Detail of banana leaf epidermis

The poncho is incredibly fragile and will require many hours of conservation work before it is stable enough to go on display.

This barkcloth stained with turmeric and with a feather fringe is from Tongoa, part of the Shepherd Islands, Vanuatu.  It was donated to the museum by Lieut. Boyle T. Somerville, who served on HMS Dart, which carried out a survey of Vanuatu in 1890 and 1891.

Detail of feather fringe - 1893.27.4

The next piece has some characteristics of barkcloth from Niue, which lies in an expanse of sea between the Samoan Islands to the North, the Cook Islands to the East, and the Tonga Group to the west.  Called hiapo on Niue, this barkcloth has notched edges, and an openwork pattern highlighted with orange pigment.

1887.1.564 Detail of openwork design

Also with striking surface decoration is 1895.22.121, a barkcloth from New Georgia in the Solomon Islands.  The decoration is of a deep blue colour, and analysis shows it is a type of indigo, but it is not certain how this dye was obtained (See 'Not Quite Extinct - Melanesian Barkcloth ('tapa') from Western Solomon Islands', Rhys Richards and Kenneth Roga, Wellington, 2005)

1895.22.121 Detail

This large yellow barkcloth is decorated with motifs made by dipping fern leaves in dye and pressing them onto the surface.  Decoration of this type is characteristic of Tahiti.  These striking barkcloths are not described in any of the Cook-voyage journals, but it is thought that this style of decoration came into use soon after that period.

1886.1.1237 Detail of fern print