After the small incident today, the museum has reopened. Thank you for your cooperation.

Preserving Cultural Heritage

Hand working on tapa restoration

Faitau itulau ile gagana Samoa

Perhaps more significant to us in diasporic communities, tapa and woven mats presented at weddings were not newly made or acquired but were older pieces that have stayed in the family. Parting with them demonstrates their significance, the cultural value of sharing wealth, and that a sign of ‘wealth’ is being able to give away/distribute what you have.

—Katrina Talei Igglesden (Fijian)

To many Pacific Island cultures, the conservation and preservation of tapa and woven mats begins with folding the cloth and using it on special occasions, or gifting the cloth to create kinship ties. Most tapa are meant to be worn, gifted, regifted, repurposed, and eventually returned to the earth. This cycle of reuse and repurposing reflects the importance of these fabrics in creating community ties. Within museum collections, the focus of conservation efforts is to preserve the cloths as representations of cultural heritage. At the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, our goal is to maintain the condition of the tapa and finely woven mats in our collection in order to share them with their communities and to continue to learn from these unique pieces. 

Cataloguing, Documenting, and Digitizing

Taking care of a museum collection is a labor of love. Often this is a job for the collections manager, who is tasked with addressing how the materials should be stored and housed; recording how often they have been on display and for how long; and simply finding the time (and space) to check the objects for signs of insect or environmental damage. On top of this, a collections manager maintains the collections records and compiles any research—all with the goal of keeping objects available for researchers, community members, and exhibition departments.

Large scale photography of tapa and woven mats

© Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

During the 2020/2021 pandemic, the museum was closed to the public, leaving some of our gallery spaces empty. We used these empty spaces to conduct large scale photography on all the tapa and woven mats in the collection. By extending a camera on a boom and using remote shooting, we were able to capture even the collection’s largest tapa, which is 75 feet x 15 feet, though we had to do it in sections!

Laptop screen showing tapa photograph

© Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

The space we had allowed us to photograph and document any damage to the tapa and woven mats at the same time, reducing the amount we needed to handle the objects. The collection manager and conservator also shared the same workspace, so they could communicate and make decisions about which objects to conserve in-house and which to send to a specialized paper conservator.

Photography and video set up

© Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

With our physical exhibitions closed, we had the space to take a lot of photos and videos of the entire process, including a timelapse video of one of our conservators preserving one tapa!

Tapa displayed side by side on tables

© Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

It is difficult to provide physical access to the tapa due to their size, but with this project we were able to display some of the tapa side by side for viewing by members of local Pacific Island communities.

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During the 2020/2021 pandemic, the museum was closed to the public, leaving some of our gallery spaces empty. We used these empty spaces to conduct large scale photography on all the tapa and woven mats in the collection. By extending a camera on a boom and using remote shooting, we were able to capture even the collection’s largest tapa, which is 75 feet x 15 feet, though we had to do it in sections!

© Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

The space we had allowed us to photograph and document any damage to the tapa and woven mats at the same time, reducing the amount we needed to handle the objects. The collection manager and conservator also shared the same workspace, so they could communicate and make decisions about which objects to conserve in-house and which to send to a specialized paper conservator.

© Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

With our physical exhibitions closed, we had the space to take a lot of photos and videos of the entire process, including a timelapse video of one of our conservators preserving one tapa!

© Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

It is difficult to provide physical access to the tapa due to their size, but with this project we were able to display some of the tapa side by side for viewing by members of local Pacific Island communities.

© Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

The Conservation Process

As we evaluated and documented the collection of tapa and finely woven mats, our collections manager, curator, and conservators decided which items to conserve in house. Preservation and repair of cultural material can be a slow process. Our conservators take the utmost care when working on any material, but particularly material as fragile as the paper-like plant fibers used to create these fabrics. Take a peek at the videos below, which show timelapse versions of an 18-hour conservation process, as well as detailed explanations of the conservation techniques used by our conservator.

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS 

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.