Connected \\ October 5, 2023
Behind the scenes of caring for PEM’s Pacific barkcloth collection
Some of the first objects brought back to Salem by the sea captains and traders who founded the East India Marine Society are beautiful examples of cloth from the Pacific Islands. Made from the beaten inner bark of trees (primarily the paper mulberry) and sometimes referred to as tapa, the fabrics have many names throughout the islands. Today, we call them barkcloth.
Barkcloth designs from across the Pacific. Photos by Mimi Leveque/PEM.
Following the return of British cartographer Captain James Cook from his first voyages in the mid-1700s, a great interest emerged among European and American collectors for items from the South Seas. The Salem captains returning from Hawai’i, Aotearoa (New Zealand), the Marquesas, Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, New Guinea and other islands brought many wonders with them, including barkcloth. Women on the islands made the cloths as garments and for household purposes such as bedding; they also made special cloths as diplomatic gifts for leaders or to mark important occasions, including building relationships with traders.
Over the last two centuries, PEM’s barkcloth collection has grown to more than 900 objects, ranging from elaborately decorated and dyed pieces to fine, translucent, gauze-like fabrics. These objects vary in size from a few inches square to 50 feet long.
The PEM collection is one of the oldest, largest, and most diverse collections of barkcloth in North America, and scholars and specialists frequently request access to it. But the collection has been nearly impossible to study or share based on how it was stored. Museum storage solutions may not seem exciting, but we were thrilled when we received an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities in the fall of 2020 that would enable us to rehouse the entire barkcloth collection. With the purchase of cabinetry, we launched a project that would finally balance conservation and accessibility for these extraordinary artworks.
The first step was gathering information. Collections staff members digitized all of the barkcloth accession cards to make the historic information on each object readily available. In summer 2021, Native American Fellow Hattie Hapai (Kanaka ʻŌiwi), spent her 10-week fellowship researching the barkcloth collection. Having made barkcloth herself, she contributed substantial knowledge about the processes. Her familiarity with museum collections in Hawai’i provided an invaluable cultural point of view to our staff.
After researching, it was time to examine the objects to assess how they could be safely stored. The barkcloth collection had been kept folded in small wooden drawers for decades, and some pieces were of unknown size. Our expert conservation team was on the case: Collection Steward Rebecca Barber, myself as objects conservator, Hattie Hapai ( who returned for a long-term Native American Fellowship) Senior Collections Manager Don McPhee, and Collections Stewards Ani Geragosian and Chris Stepler. Some of their hard work was captured on PEM’s Instagram.
Barkcloth conservation team: Hattie Hapai, Rebecca Barber, and Mimi Leveque Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Chris Stepler vacuuming Hawaiian bedding. Photo by Mimi Leveque/PEM..
The first step of examining barkcloth is to carefully humidify and unfold it. We use damp blotters to humidify the folds, then separate the barkcloth using pieces of soft Tyvek and gently flatten the creases with weights.
Then, the barkcloth pieces are cleaned by vacuuming them below screens to remove dust and soot. Some less fragile pieces were more thoroughly cleaned using soft cosmetic sponges to remove decades of grime.
Cleaning with cosmetic sponges. Photo by Mimi Leveque/PEM
We stabilized tears and holes using compatible mending papers made from mulberry paper fibers, the same material as the barkcloth. Although most of the barkcloth objects are flat, a few presented more three-dimensional challenges, like this rare 19th-century European-style waistcoat made from barkcloth over linen. The severe damage at the shoulder, inner collar and front placket required careful humidification and reconstruction.
Waistcoat before treatment after treatment. Photo by Mimi Leveque/PEM.
As we worked, we were amazed at how many objects were missing small cut-out pieces. In the heyday of the 19th-century craze for barkcloth, museums around the world cut and shared pieces of their objects with each other and with other collectors – like trading priceless baseball cards. In some cases, we have been able to find and rejoin these missing pieces to their original works. After we had completed the treatment on one object, a Hawaiian loincloth, we were able to repair it with missing pieces that were found pasted into a scrapbook in our Phillips Library collection. The case of this scrapbook sample has become part of the history of the object and of the history of barkcloth’s impact across the world.
Hawaiian barkcloth loincloth acquired in 1817. Scrapbook of Hawaiian tapa cloth samples. Gift of C. A. Coolidge, 1909. (GN432 .S267) Photo by Mimi Leveque/PEM.
While the conservation work was going on, Angela Segalla, Director of the Hawkes Collection Center and Collection Stewardship, was crunching the numbers to create our storage cabinets. She calculated the volume of the collection and worked with Stewart Marshall and Larry Bauer of Schwartz/Silver Architects to design new custom cabinetry. Barkcloth is best stored flat, but many objects can be rolled. The team planned a combination of tubes and cabinets so our large and small objects could be viewed with a minimum of handling.
Once the custom cabinets had been delivered and installed, Collection Specialists Kat Berg and Sanna Gu joined our barkcloth team to start the final phase: placing the conserved collection in its new home.
Ben Miller, host of the podcast Curious Objects, views the barkcloth cases with Angela Segalla. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Small object storage.
Short tube storage. Photos by Mimi Leveque/PEM.