Tapa: Unwrapping Polynesian Barkcloth is a student-curated installation and web module utilizing the rich Pacific collections of the Indiana University Art Museum. In this collection are several exceptional pieces of tapa that had not been studied previously, giving students an opportunity to conduct original research on objects in a museum collection. Students’ research on tapa for this installation was greatly enriched when Adrienne Kaeppler, one of the leading scholars in the field, visited Indiana University specifically to speak with the students on barkcloth of the South Pacific.
The islands of the South Pacific can be broadly divided into the regions of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. Tapa has been produced throughout Polynesia for hundreds of years. Different areas of Polynesia have their own local names for what we refer to generally as tapa. In Samoa it is called siapo, in Tahiti it is called ‘ahu, in Fiji it is called masi, in Tonga it is called ngati, and in Hawaii it is called kapa.
Tapa is most often made from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree, which is stripped, beaten, and then either pasted or felted together to form sheets of barkcloth. While its production is not as prolific as it once was, tapa continues to hold a place of prominence in cultures across the Pacific, especially in Polynesia, where it is used for occasions ranging from weddings to funerals, as presentation gifts, in dances, as bedding, and for clothing.
The spring 2013 course, On Exhibit: Art of the Pacific Islands, offered students at Indiana University Bloomington significant insights into the inner workings of a university art museum. Sixteen undergraduate and graduate students from a range of majors, but with an interest in the museum profession, formed departments and became “a museum within a museum.” Through the course, students have created this permanent online web module.