The Asia Pacific Triennial, the Asia Pacific Design Library and other initiatives have opened up communications with many and varied cultures in our region.

However in the search for historical and anthropological information about art and design practices in the Pacific much archival material is still held in substantial collections in the United Kingdom.

Although Queensland is geographically much closer to the Pacific islands than the United Kingdom, it was the early colonial period that fed collectors’ appetites, and there was considerable traffic from the Pacific islands such as Fiji back into the United Kingdom, and among these, were the tapa – or barkcloths – which will be the focus for our series of articles.

One important collection is with the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge which houses a collection that started in the early 1870s, and from the illustrations we can see that these early pieces demonstrate surprisingly modern, dynamic designs, that often look like artwork created in the mid 20th century.


While there are many tapa cloths in the archives of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the University of East Anglia, also has a large collection of tapa and artifacts from the islands of the South Pacific. The University of Cambridge and the University of East Anglia are preparing a major exhibition called Fiji: Art and life in the Pacific opening on 15 October 2016.

They have undertaken to bring together little known collections side by side with their own artifacts, photographs and pictorial material. The aim is to encourage fresh perspectives on the art, design and histories of Fiji. Among the many and varied artifacts to be shown will, of course, be significant displays of the ubiquitous tapa cloths. What also will be of relevance, are the various ways in which the designs on the Tapa can be read and appreciated.

In Part Two, we ask the question: what exactly is Tapa, or barkcloth and what did tapa mean to the cultures of the Pacific?

Dr Charles Zuber

Photo credit:
Cover image: Painted & stencilled barkcloth, detail. Patterned barkcloth collected by Julius Lucius Brenchley during his voyage on HMS Curaçoa in 1865. Brenchley was a local Maidstone boy who bequeathed the majority of his collection the Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery in 1873. Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery.
Secondary image: Long decorated barkcloth sheet, masi bolabola (detail). Fiji. 1870s. Paper mulberry, pigment. L: 758 cm. Collected in the 1870s. Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge.
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