Conserving barkcloth and its meaning
Aloha mai kakou. ‘O wau o Hattie Keonaona Niolopa Matsuo Hapai, he keiki o Edward Halealoha Ayau laua o Noelle Maile Kaluhea Yayoi Kahanu.
My name is Hattie Hapai and I am the child of Edward Ayau and Noelle Kahanu. I am an alumna of PEM’s 2021 summer Native American Fellowship (NAF) program and a current long-term Fellow working in Collection Management through the NAF program, with a specific interest in conservation. I am working on a two-year project generously funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to rehouse PEM’s collection of barkcloth.
In Hawaiʻi and many other Pacific cultures, barkcloth holds a special place beyond its use as things like clothing or bedding. Traditionally, barkcloth was used to swaddle babies after they were born and was used to wrap the bones of the deceased. Hawaiians believe that anything you wear or that touches your skin for a long time becomes imbued with your mana (spiritual power) and, as such, holds great importance. In other words, barkcloth once was the first and last thing that someone was enfolded in.
Barkcloth was an important part of life before the introduction of Western fabrics, and even in 2021, it continues to be used for art, clothing and in reburials for iwi kūpuna (ancestral remains) that have been repatriated from museum or personal collections. It may no longer be a staple in every home, but it remains a stable connection to those who came before, and learning about Hawaiian life and values through analysis of the production process and design is important.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, our NAF summer program took place mostly online, with the exception of a weeklong trip to Salem in early August so that the Fellows could visit PEM and meet in person.
This has meant that with my current fellowship, I am living and working in Salem for the first time. Adjusting to the weather has definitely been a bit of a challenge, as in Hawaiʻi we like to say that the temperature “drops” into the 60s, but so far so good!
While I didn’t have to adjust to the weather over the summer, the short-term fellowship brought with it quite a few challenges, namely the time difference. With daylight savings time, Hawaiʻi was six hours behind Eastern Standard Time and midday meetings for one of my supervisors translated into early morning meetings for me. However, the early mornings were worth it, as we met with many PEM staff members, museum professionals and former NAF alumni. It was eye-opening to speak with and ask questions to the former NAF alumni, who often told us how the NAF program prepared them for their current careers and gave us advice for entering the museum field. My mentors over the summer also helped me to talk with a few different conservators to get an understanding of how they understood the field, and even possibly what conservation program I might want to attend in the future.
Working on my projects for the summer, I faced the challenge of building a relationship with a collection I had never seen in person and was only able to “know” through images and catalog cards. During the weeklong visit to Salem in early August, I had one brief chance to dive into the collection and see the barkcloth that I had researched and wrote about over the course of my summer fellowship. It was important for me to hold these pieces in my hands and see them with my eyes and not through the lenses of others. And the experience was everything I imagined it would be. The opportunity to truly connect with these mea makamae (precious things) over these past few weeks has been wonderful. Learning about these individual pieces has made me think about all the ways Hawaiʻi and Massachusetts are historically connected.
And yet these connections are not just historical. My first introduction to PEM was around 2007 through the Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations (ECHO) program, which used storytelling traditions to build connections and educate the public about cultural exchange, and culture and traditions of Alaska Natives, Kanaka ʻOiwi (Native Hawaiians) and Indigenous peoples of what is now Massachusetts and Mississippi.
In addition, in 2009, the Bishop Museum hosted an exhibit titled E Kū Ana Ka Paia: Unification, Responsibility, and the Kū Images, which reunited the three carved temple figures for the first time in 150 years. One Kū waited in Hawaiʻi as the others briefly returned home from PEM and the British Museum.
This made my meeting with Kū, a 200-year-old temple image from Hawaiʻi Island located in PEM’s light-filled new wing, a reunion after more than 10 years. You can read more about Kū on this blog in a post by Kamuela Werner (Kanaka ‘Ōiwi), a kind friend and alumnus of the Native American Fellowship program.
I spent five semesters at the University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa as a biochemistry major before suddenly deciding to switch to anthropology in my junior year. During those last three semesters, I took a few classes from Ty Kawika Tengan, an associate professor teaching anthropology and ethnic studies, and began to seriously consider working at museums. In my last semester, I interned in the ethnology department at Bishop Museum with mentors Kamalu du Preez and Marques Hanalei Marzan, where I worked on rehousing kapa (Hawaiian barkcloth) samples.
Through this internship, I found a deep joy in being able to provide care for objects that are so loved by both their home communities and the communities of people who are able to meet them away from home. It provides a chance for building relationships and learning about one another. Because my parents have both been closely involved in the repatriation of iwi kūpuna (ancestral remains), I also strongly believe that museums are not the final destination for culturally-significant objects, so for those people who are caring for cultural collections, part of our goal is to ensure that such objects are given the best care until it is time for their transition to the next stage.
One of my mentors at PEM has been conservator Mimi Leveque, who has been showing me various conservation techniques, like humidifying and removing creases and mending small tears.
Together, we sort through piles of barkcloth pieces and identify what treatments each piece will need. She is both a wonderful teacher and friend, and, in addition to everything else, has been helping me to build a portfolio for conservation school and providing me with advice about the different conservation programs. There are not many conservation programs and they’re all quite competitive, so I need all the advice she can give me. Additionally, there are no Kanaka ‘Ōiwi conservators and there are few Pacific Islander conservators, so I hope to change this in the future.
I am finding that another teacher in this project are the barkcloth pieces themselves, bearing the evidence of previous museum practices that were deemed safe, once upon a time. Today, museum professionals no longer deem it acceptable to use harmful inks to write on objects or cut up barkcloth. In the past, many institutions cut up large pieces of barkcloth into smaller “samples” and either gifted these samples to researchers or traded with other institutions. The result of this practice is that some institutions have large pieces with holes of varying sizes, while others have barkcloth samples of the oddest shapes. I have often imagined what an exhibit might look like if it featured a few large barkcloth pieces that had been cut up and matched them up with their corresponding samples to see just how many institutions one piece can connect.
The NEH project is focused first and foremost on the physical state of the collection. PEM’s additional goal is to augment our records with additional information such as patterns, dyes and provenance. Through working to increase the accuracy of the information we have available through research, consistent data entry and photography, we are better informed about our collections and are able to pass on that knowledge. The physical conservation of the barkcloth involves removing the pieces from their previous storage and providing the necessary conservation work so that they may ultimately be rehoused into custom-size flat drawers.
Since my arrival a few weeks ago, I’ve learned so much about PEM’s large and amazing barkcloth collection. We have drawn connections between different pieces and discovered interesting ones, like these patterns for pants! I am incredibly grateful for this experience and feel lucky every day that I am able to work here and to handle these precious things.
The Native American Fellowship Program at the Peabody Essex Museum is made possible by a generous grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Hattie Keonaona Niolopa Matsuo Hapai is Kanaka ʻŌiwi, the daughter of Edward Halealoha Ayau and Noelle M.K.Y Kahanu. She was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi and her lineages extend to the islands of Hawaiʻi, Maui and Molokai. Hattie has received her B.A. in anthropology, with a minor in Japanese, from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She is also a student of kapa maker Kumu Verna Takashima. Hattie has an interest in museum conservation and collections care, which developed through her many visits to museums throughout Europe and Aotearoa and she is learning to share in the family’s kuleana, or responsibility, of repatriation and reburial.
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