In the islands of the Pacific, cloth made from the inner bark of trees is a distinctive art tradition, most likely brought to the region at least 5,000 years ago by some of the first human settlers. This exhibition is dedicated to clothing and adornment made from barkcloth, showing a selection of garments, headdresses, masks and body ornaments. Spanning the region from New Guinea in the west to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the east, barkcloth is made in a myriad of styles and designs, reflecting the particular histories of each island group and the creativity of the makers.

This is the British Museum’s first exhibition focussing on barkcloth. It exhibits seventy-seven objects from the museum’s extensive Oceania collection of almost nine hundred items. Barkcloth must be carefully prepared for display, and many hours of conservation using the British Museum’s new World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre have been invested in the pieces exhibited. The exhibition includes works from the late 1700s collected during British voyages of exploration to the Pacific Ocean through to garments made in 2014. Two new acquisitions featured are a Hawaiian dance skirt made by artist Dalani Tanahy, and a barkcloth wedding dress by New Zealand-based Samoan designer Paula Chan Cheuk. The wedding dress was commissioned by the Museum with funds from the New Zealand Society U.K and contributions from private individuals.

Barkcloth and plaited leaf fabrics were the two principal textiles people produced in the tropical island environments of the Pacific, where there were few land animals to provide fur or wool. Barkcloth is made from particular trees – predominantly paper mulberry, which was introduced to the Pacific by the first settlers. The basic techniques of making barkcloth are the same right across the Pacific. Once removed from the tree, the bark is repeatedly soaked, scraped beaten to produce a cloth of the desired thickness and softness.

Barkcloth garments, wrappings and adornment can be worn as everyday items and on ceremonial occasions, including those linked to key life cycle events such as weddings and funerals. The Elema people of Gulf Province, Papua New Guinea wore barkcloth masks for male initiation ceremonies; while in Samoa, barkcloth is worn for the investiture of chiefs.

There is extraordinary diversity between barkcloth made in the different island groups of the Pacific. Some are plain, while others have textural or applied patterns. The patterns, which can be painted, dyed and stencilled onto the cloth, are specific to each community, and enhance the power of the cloth to mediate a person’s transition from one life stage to another. These patterns also relate to the individual and group identity of the wearer. Textural patterns are a particular feature of Hawaiian kapa (barkcloth), where ‘watermarks’ are impressed on the cloth while it is still damp. The many layers of a high-ranking Hawaiian woman’s skirt were each decorated with a different watermark.

The exhibition also explores the influences that altered the form and meaning of barkcloth clothing through time. From the early 19th century, Pacific Islanders adopted new forms of clothing as a mark of conversion to Christianity. This exhibition includes three, poncho-like garments known as tiputa, which were popularized by missionaries because they covered the upper body. This new development inspired an explosion of innovative decorative devices, in the form of painted motifs, elaborate fringes and cut-out designs. Another significant change was the introduction of machine made cloth into the Pacific which led to a decline in barkcloth-making in some places.

Elsewhere, the tradition has not only continued but new arenas for cultural expression have also emerged. Amongst diaspora communities in urban centres such as Auckland, New Zealand, Pacific Islander artists incorporate barkcloth into high fashion designs which take both western and indigenous clothing styles as inspiration.

There have also been new developments in Hawaii, where barkcloth was worn until the late 19th Century. In 2011, a leading hula group performed for the first time in dance costumes made from kapa. This challenged kapa makers to produce cloth that was flexible and durable enough for these vigorous performances.

The barkcloths displayed in this exhibition are rich in design and detail, with dazzling patterns that demonstrate the long history of barkcloth and its continued relevance today.