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In search of tapa knowledge

Thursday March 01, 2018 Written by Published in Local
Smithsonian Museum conservator Michele Austin-Dennehy (left), curator for Pacific anthropology Adrienne Kaeppler (middle) and Cook Islands Library and Museum manager Jean Mason at Rarotonga airport before they departed for Atiu on Monday. 18022724 Smithsonian Museum conservator Michele Austin-Dennehy (left), curator for Pacific anthropology Adrienne Kaeppler (middle) and Cook Islands Library and Museum manager Jean Mason at Rarotonga airport before they departed for Atiu on Monday. 18022724

Cook Islands Library and Museum manager Jean Mason departed Rarotonga for Atiu on Monday morning with two members from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C, with the goal of finding out more about tapa.

 

Joining Mason is curator for Pacific anthropology Adrienne Kaeppler and conservator Michele Austin-Dennehy. They will spend one week on Atiu before heading over to Tahiti.

In 2013 Mason, alongside Mangaian Nancy Moeauri, travelled to the Smithsonian to do an internship alongside other Pacific islanders.

While there they got to look at the tapa in their collection, which was ‘substantial’.

Kaeppler said that the Smithsonian had a big project on the conservation of tapa, which is when Mason and Moeauri travelled to Washington to demonstrate how to conserve the cloth.

A goal of the museum is to find out, by looking at a piece of tapa, what plant it was made from.

“Usually the plants, in most of Polynesia, are made from paper mulberry. But there are some that are obviously not made out of that,” Kaeppler said.

“So one of our projects is to figure out what plants they are made out of. We’ve been doing various kinds of experiments, such as DNA, fibre analysis and so forth.” In Cook Islands history, tapa was typically made from breadfruit and paper mulberry, although the former is the focus of this trip.

“The tapa breadfruit produces are white and creamy, which was reserved for chiefs and gods in ancient times,” Mason explained.

“They were left undecorated and were changed frequently when they got mouldy, and there was a big ceremony of unwrapping and getting rid of and putting new one’s on.”

Kaeppler added that they know that was the case specifically for Tahiti, and although there is no documents for the Cook Islands of this practise, Mason knows that the practise was performed here.

Tapa making was now a rare practise in French Polynesia, and the only place that makes tapa in French Polynesia is the Marquesas Islands, which is a two-day journey by ship.

“We are hoping there are people in Tahiti that will be able to do a demonstration for us,” Mason said. For the breadfruit that they do find in Atiu, Kaeppler explained how they would make tapa from that.

When you have the plants for the bark, you strip the long plant and then you beat it. And the tapa is made by having a small piece, and you beat it, and it becomes wider and longer,” she explained.

“And that was how the tapa was made.”

            - Conor Leathley

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