A world-renowned scholar and artist help us unroll history… and make an exciting discovery in the process!
The National Museums of World Culture, Sweden recently welcomed Professor Nicholas Thomas and Mark Adams from the Pacific Presences research project (based at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge) to the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm.
Focusing on Pacific collections held in European museums, the Pacific Presences project explores the cross-cultural histories and materiality of early Pacific collections, as well as museum policy and practice in Europe today.
Nick and Mark came to examine and photograph some of the museums earliest Pacific collections including objects acquired by Joseph Banks during the first Captain Cook expedition to the Pacific between 1768-1771, as well as those he acquired from expedition members following the second voyage (1772-1775). They also looked at objects collected by the Swedish naturalist Anders Sparrman during the second voyage. We have previously written a blog post about the expedition (in Swedish).
THE DAY BEGINS…
The day started with the slow process of unrolling a large piece of tapa cloth (measuring approx. 1447cm long by 261cm wide) that was accessioned into the collections of the Museum of Ethnography in 1848. We streamed the unrolling live on Facebook.
A previous scholar had attributed the tapa to Tahiti and believed it had been collected by Joseph Banks, noting that Banks had been formally presented with a large piece of tapa following the arrival of HMS Endeavour in Tahiti in April 1769. If the tapa proved to be Tahitian with a Cook voyage provenance, it would have made it one of the largest intact pieces of tapa from Tahiti still surviving.
WHAT IS TAPA?
Commonly made from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree, although a variety of other trees were also used, tapa, or barkcloth as it is also known, was made by women across Polynesia and some parts of Melanesia. Thin strips of inner bark were soaked in water and then beaten out with wooden mallets until it resembled a thin sheet. Several sheets were then beaten together to create larger pieces of cloth.
Once the desired size for the cloth had been reached it was finished in a variety of ways. It could be left in the sun to bleach to a white colour or be painted using freehand designs, stencils or tablets with decorative motifs. Our Tongan tapa, known as ngatu tāhina, was decorated by placing a design tablet called a kupesi underneath the cloth and rubbing over the top section with coloured pigments to transfer the motif.
A SACRED MATERIAL
Historically, tapa was used for clothing but it was also a highly important and sacred material. It was used to wrap sacred objects as well as the bodies of deceased rulers, to clothe high ranking individuals and importantly it was also a prestigious presentation item. Vast amounts of tapa could be presented to important visitors as part of welcoming ceremonies. Captain Cook and fellow expedition members were gifted considerable amounts of tapa at several places during their Pacific voyages, including at Tahiti and Tonga. In receiving gifts of tapa and other objects, Cook and others offered gifts in return to their hosts thereby creating exchange and friendship networks between hosts and visitors.
Due to its size, a large room with no obstacles was necessary to fully unwrap the tapa. Sparrman Hall was selected and plastic sheeting was laid down to protect the object. As the tapa is quite fragile, unrolling it was necessarily slow and staff from collections management and conservation carefully and skilfully unwrapped the tapa. During this time Mark took photos at each stage in the unrolling process. He used timed exposures that focus on the object but which blur the movements of people around it, creating what he describes as ghosts moving around the object.
AN EXCITING DISCOVERY
However, once the tapa began to be unwrapped it became clear that it was not Tahitian. The decoration and motifs indicate a Western Polynesian origin, and Professor Thomas believes it is most likely from Tonga. As Tonga was not visited during the first voyage it suggests that this was collected during Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific. Nicholas highlighted strong parallels between this tapa and one in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford that was collected by the scientists Johann Reinhold Forster and Georg Forster during the second voyage, as well as to other tapa pieces held in Göttingen collections. While Banks was not part of the second or third voyages he acquired objects from men that were, and at later stages he presented many of these objects to gentlemen scientists and collectors. In the late 1770s he gave objects to Johan Alströmer, a Swedish naturalist. By this stage Banks’ collection included objects from the first two voyages, including our Tongan tapa.
Unwrapping such a large piece of tapa is not something that happens frequently so new photography was taken, including the front and back, as well as more accurate measurements and physical descriptions of the object.
DIVING INTO THE MUSEUM COLLECTIONS
In the latter part of the day Nick and Mark looked at a selection of objects from the Pacific collected by Anders Sparrman during the second voyage. This included objects currently on display in the installation “The Disciples of Carl von Linnaeus,” as well objects in museum storage. In storage we examined a variety of objects including a rare Maori flax cloak which is decorated on one side with dog skin, head rests and seats from the Society Islands and a selection of finely carved clubs from Tonga.
This research visit was a wonderful opportunity to view a large tapa cloth that had not been unwrapped in over 50 years. We have been able to add new information about this object to our records including updated provenance, the history of its collection and how it came to the museum.
Although the tapa proved not to be Tahitian, Nick has said it is the largest piece of tapa with a Cook voyage provenance which remains extant. As such, it is a very important cultural and historic object. With tapa cloth production still thriving in Western Polynesia, our tapa may serve as a point of connection between our museum and people still making tapa today.
During the day we learned a great deal a new information about some of our important early Pacific collections, helping to place them in context with other European collections formed during the same period, and showing the connections that existed between collectors during the late eighteenth century.
Recent scientific research into tapa cloth production has included DNA testing of fibre which can pinpoint not only the species of tree used but also the island from which the tree came. We hope to be able to undertake similar research on our tapa and to be able to scientifically analyse the pigments used to decorate it.
About the author
Aoife O’Brien received her Ph.D. in Anthropology/Art History from the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the University of East Anglia in England in 2011. Her doctoral research focused on material culture from the Solomon Islands in the early colonial period. Her research interests include ethnography, visual anthropology, museum anthropology, Pacific Island studies, and cultural encounters. She has recently held appointments as Postdoctoral Fellow in Oceanic Art in a shared position between Washington University in St. Louis and the Saint Louis Art Museum, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She previously worked for the National Museum of Ireland. She began her post as Curator at The National Museums of World Culture begain in October 2017.