Not only does koloa (cultural materials used to fulfill customs and traditions) hold important symbols that tell our stories, but there are ever evolving relationships and koloa allows us to honor one another outside of the cash economy with our treasured pieces. Like many Moana Nui nations and our moana, it is our pathway to and from one another.
—Asena Taione-Filihia (Tongan) and Lolofi Soakai (Tongan)
There are over 450 tapa and woven mats at the Museum, and a major goal of The Fabric of Community is to make them accessible. We have a responsibility to continually learn from our Pacific Islander partners, as well as to provide a platform for community members to share their knowledge and rich cultural traditions. We would like our collection to encourage discussion, connection, and ingenuity, and to allow us to create reciprocal relationships with the communities we serve. This slideshow shows a selection of tapa and finely woven mats from each Pacific Island region represented in the collection. You can access the full database here.
Kapa, Hawai'i, collected before 1926. 52.0 x 11.8 in. NHM A.5916.49-7
This beautiful Hawaiian kapa with a variety of stamped patterns was donated by Frederick Beckley Malulani Kahea (1882–1949), caretaker of Mauna 'Ala, Hawai'i’s Royal Mausoleum from 1915 to 1947. The position of caretaker was a cherished family heritage—his mother was first appointed to the position by King Kalākaua and Queen Kapi'olani, and his father took on the responsibility after her death.
Tapa, Marquesas Islands, collected in 1904. 83.1 x 72.1 in. NHM A.5997.50-11 B
Made of breadfruit bast (inner bark), this Marquesan tapa is so thin that when held upright light shines through to reveal a pattern of fine parallel lines left behind by a textured mallet. Paper mulberry was not widely available in the Marquesas Islands, so breadfruit trees (Artocarpus altilis) were commonly used to create tapa.
Woven mat, Aotearoa (New Zealand), collected around 1924. 94.1 x 55.6 in. NHM A.2954.38-26
The poutama (step-like) pattern on this Māori whāriki (floor mat) is said to symbolize community and advancement in knowledge. The more finely woven whāriki, known as takapau, are reserved for important events; for example, they are used as birthing mats, or placed on coffins to honor the deceased.
Siapo, Samoa, collected around 1910. 45.3 x 45.3 in. NHM A.8371.64-296
This mesmerizing Samoan siapo has two main colors, dark brown and black. The brown dye, called ‘o'a, comes from the bark of the bishop wood (Bishofia javanicaI) tree, also called the o'a or blood tree. To make the black dye, called lama, ‘o'a is mixed with the soot of a burnt candlenut seed.
Woven mat, Tahiti, collected around 1930. 70.9 x 43.7 in. NHM A.8715.66-118
The finely woven Tahitian mat seen here was either used as a ceremonial piece or as a wall hanging. Though the word tapa comes from Tahiti, there is only one Tahitian tapa at NHM. Its condition is so fragile it has yet to be unrolled.
Ngatu, Tonga, collected around 1954. 150.0 x 141.7 in. NHM F.A.2725.87-2
Look closely for the numbers along the sides of this Tongan ngatu. These langanga (units of measure) are used during the design phase to help join multiple sheets of ngatu. Their presence indicates that this is a section of a larger ngatu.
Ngatu, 'Uvea (Wallis Island), collected around 1908. 66.1 x 55.9 in. NHM A.8371.64-213
As in Tonga, 'Uvean barkcloth is called ngatu and is often decorated with kupesi (rubbing boards). 'Uvea (Wallis Island), Futuna, and Alofi make up the modern nation state of Wallis and Futuna. On Futuna and Alofi, where the language and culture more closely resemble that of Samoa, barkcloth is called siapo.
Woven mat, Chuuk Atoll, Federated States of Micronesia, collected early 1900s. 62.4 x 27.2 in. NHM A.5486.91-694
Woven using banana and hibiscus fibers, this extremely fine mat is from the Chuuk Atoll, part of the larger Caroline Islands group.
Woven mat, Kiribati, collected around 1943. 57.9 x 23.6 in. NHM A.7028.56-3 C
This finely woven mat originated from one of the low-lying islands or atolls in the Republic of Kiribati. The elevation of Kiribati makes it one of the most vulnerable nations to the effects of sea level rise. Because of this, the I-Kiribati have taken action against climate change, as well as to preserve their cultural heritage. Past efforts to pass on this knowledge include a 2019 weaving competition that was open to all I-Kiribati weavers.
Woven mat, Marshall Islands, collected before 1936. 32.4 x 35.9 in. NHM A.5486.91-843
Mats from the Marshall Islands usually feature elaborately decorated borders. Hibiscus was used to create the reddish color in this Marshallese mat’s design. Called jaki-ed or nieded, these mats were commonly worn in sets of two and held together by a belt.
Woven mat, Nauru, collected around 1920. 76.0 x 74.0 in. NHM A.5772.47-3
This woven mat from Nauru was made in two sections and joined in the middle. When traveling, a mat like this could be used as a sleeping bag by folding one half over the body.
Masi, Fiji, collected around 1927. 153.5 x 51.2 in. NHM A.2209.30-8
The stenciled designs on this masi from Matuku Island, Fiji, are unique to Fijian barkcloth. The stencils were likely cut into banana or palm leaves, as use of X-ray film and acetate for stencils did not become popular until the 1940s.
Woven mat, Vanuatu, collected 1890s. 65.0 x 46.5 in. NHM A.5204.42-61
This finely woven sleeping mat is from Espiritu Santo, the largest island of Vanuatu. It has a similar twilled weave to the culturally significant bilims (string bags) made in Papua New Guinea. This type of weave is structurally and technically complex, as well as desirable—the resulting fabric is surprisingly stretchy, yet robust enough for daily use.
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Watch this video to find out more about the history of the collection.
There is more to any collection than the objects within it. Each item has its own history, which includes not just its creation but also who collected it, their background, and how it arrived at the museum. The more we understand and share this history, and the more we involve the communities whose cultural material is housed at NHMLAC, the more complex and complete everyone's knowledge becomes.
The majority of the tapa and woven mats at NHMLAC were bartered, bought, or gifted. They were collected during an era filled with US military activity and resource extraction, and most collectors were involved in these activities as doctors, nurses, educators, or company employees. Others were often wealthy individuals who could afford to travel to the region for pleasure. What follows is a list of those who contributed the bulk of the collection.
- William F. Alder, an early Hollywood film director who collected material while filming in Southeast Asia and New Guinea in the early 1900s
- Harvey Sutherland Bissell, a La Crescenta millionaire and sportsman who took multiple year-long sailing excursions with his family around the Pacific Islands
- Chizomana Black, was gifted tapa by friends John Petersen (Samoan-Danish) and his wife Melenaninu'u, who used tapa as sleeping mats after arriving in Oxnard in the 1950s
- E. Call Brown, a geologist and founder of Brown Drilling Co., which started in Los Angeles but expanded to Australia, Trinidad, and Saudi Arabia
- Arthur B. Cecil, a prominent Los Angeles surgeon and urologist who travelled to Hawai'i for medical conferences in the 1920s and '30s
- Dr. Laurence & Helen Clapp, medical professionals who worked for the Pacific Phosphate Mining Co. on Nauru
- Commander Louis Martin Fabian, awarded the Navy Cross for service as Senior Squadron Beachmaster during the capture and occupation of Bititu Island, Tarawa Atoll, Gilbert Islands, in 1943
- Commander Harold W. Grieve, Navy commander sent to relocate inhabitants of Bikini Atoll before atom bomb testing in the area, who also donated a collection of photographs related to the relocation
- William Preston Harrison, former editor and publisher of the Chicago Times and member of the board of governors of the Los Angeles Museum (which became NHM). Harrison travelled extensively throughout the Pacific Islands and toured the US with his collection.
- Frederick Beckley Malulani Kahea, caretaker and custodian of Mauna 'Ala, Hawai'i's Royal Mausoleum, 1915–1947
- Dr. John H. Kimball, a surgeon and American Civil War veteran who served as family physician to King Kalākaua and Queen Kapi'olani of Hawai'i in the 1870s
- Admiral R. M. MacKinnon, member of the Naval government in Samoa in 1935; commander of the USS Fanning DD 385 during WWII; and professor of Naval Science at USC
- Nan Malone, the principal of Kamehameha Preparatory School for boys in Honolulu, Hawai'i from 1889 through 1894
- Colonel Howard S. Nichols, officer of engineers during WWI and commander of troops on an army transport in WWII
- Arnold L. Olsen, American Red Cross volunteer in the south and southwest Pacific Islands during the 1940s
- Admiral Perceval S. Rossiter, 18th Surgeon General of the Navy and Chief of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery of the Navy. Rossiter served and worked in Cuba, the Philippines, Hawai'i, and Samoa. He donated the bulk of the tapa and woven mats housed at NHM.
- William H. Sallada, an American Civil War veteran who enlisted at 15, was blinded, and spent the rest of his life collecting items that other soldiers brought home from duty
- Dr. Frank H. Sanborn, medical officer during the Spanish American War
- Henry H. Sinclair, master mariner and owner, captain, and navigator of the Lurline who visited many island groups with his family during the early 1900s
- Frederick M. Turner, nephew of the US Consul to Samoa who resided in Samoa on two different occasions
- Beulah Tuthill, a Methodist missionary and daughter of missionaries, who lived for 20 years in Chuuck (formally Truk)
- A. Stephan and Etta Vavra, travelled the world in the early 1900s collecting rare plant specimens to create extensive botanical gardens, eventually donated to UCLA
- Robert M. Walker, an American Civil War veteran who served as Postmaster in Samoa in the early 1900s
- Elmer G. Zost, employee of Kentron Hawaii, Ltd., a subsidiary of the LTV Aerospace Corporation, located in the Marshall Islands
The Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County wish to thank the following community members for their support with this project: Audrey Alo, Cindi Alvitre, Juliann Anesi, Katrina Talei Igglesden, Fran Lujan, Kirisitina Sailiata, Tavae Samuelu, Kelani Silk, Lolofi Soakai, Asena Taione-Filihia, and Craig Torres. The Fabric of Community has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH): Democracy demands wisdom. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the NEH.