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Te Papa’s Shaw Tapa Sampler reaches out

Rebecca Rice & Martin Lewis, Alexander Shaw’s Tapa Sampler at Te Papa, Te Papa Blog, 16 May 2024

In 2019, Rachel Yates (Vaisala, Savaii), then Curator Pacific Cultures, lead the acquisition of one of Alexander Shaw’s tapa samplers into Te Papa’s collection, supported by Curator History Katie Cooper, Curator Historical Art Rebecca Rice, and Senior Librarian Martin Lewis. The sampler was presented as a gift by the Te Papa Foundation and was purchased with Charles Disney Art Trust funds. In the second blog in this series, Rebecca and Martin talk about the sampler, how it got here, and what it means for communities now.

Aside from having one of the longest titles in the history of book publishing, which begins A catalogue of the different specimens of cloth collected in the three voyages of Captain Cook…(you can read the full title here) Shaw’s tapa sampler is an intriguing publication.

Aside from having one of the longest titles in the history of book publishing, which begins A catalogue of the different specimens of cloth collected in the three voyages of Captain Cook…(you can read the full title here) Shaw’s tapa sampler is an intriguing publication.

The book in its box. Photo by Katie Wood and Caroline Whitely. Te Papa (234611)

What is the ‘tapa sampler’?

It’s not a big book, measuring only 220 x 186mm. But within its marbled covers are samples of samples of tapa or bark cloth from various islands, including Hawai’i, Tahiti and Tonga, that were gifted, traded, tricked, and stolen from indigenous communities across the Pacific, by Captain Cook and his crew during their expeditions from 1768–1779.

Shaw’s tapa sampler, open to sample of Tongan ngatu. Photo by Maarten Holl. Te Papa (RB001400).

Cook and his crew used the cloth they collected across the Pacific as trade goods; white ‘ahu from Tahiti was, for example, very popular in Aotearoa. But they still had large quantities when they arrived ‘home’ in England.

There was great demand for Pacific curiosities on their return, and many fine pieces of tapa were cut into pieces to satisfy the insatiable curiosity of European collectors.

Shaw, a London bookseller, was one of those collectors. He saw marketing potential in divvying up these pieces into even smaller ‘snippets’ and publishing them with a brief catalogue and introduction. (Unfortunately lost to our version but you can find it online in other copies.)

Shaw’s tapa sampler, open to ‘snippets’ of cloth, including Hawaiian kapa (middle). Photo by Maarten Holl. Te Papa (RB001400)

Te Papa’s copy contains 38 pieces of tapa. It is one of only about 60 versions of the publication, which is extremely rare. And while no two copies of this book are identical –they’re closely related when you start to look at repeating patterns and colours.

Putting Cook on the backburner

Shaw’s sampler has been a source of ‘fascination, frustration, and mystery for more than two hundred years’.1 But most research and engagement has been undertaken by or in the museum or the academy. It has tended to focus on the European stories – ignoring the indigenous knowledge and worldviews that are intimately entangled in the sampler and its history.

We know that taonga associated with encounters/collisions and Cook’s voyages represent histories of loss, that they register the impact of colonisation across the Pacific region. We wanted to contextualise this taonga in new ways at Te Papa, to push Cook to the backburner and focus on the people the taonga connect to and their descendants today.

Connecting with communities

Our intention is to shift the power dynamic, to empower and enable Pacific communities to reconnect with the contents of the tapa sampler. Having access to taonga can be a source of information for artists, activists, communities and researchers seeking to understand, study and be inspired by the barkcloth made by their ancestors.

To date we have used the taonga like this, sharing it with visiting artists, tapa makers and community groups, with overwhelming responses. Importantly, every time we do this, we learn more and more about the cloth within.

It turns out that it’s not just a book of samples of tapa: it’s a book with ‘ahu from Tahiti (two types, one of ‘royal’ and one more day to day), uru made from breadfruit, cloth made from the banyan tree, ngatu from Tonga, and of course the colourful kapa from Hawai‘i. It’s a book of cloth that has been coloured with natural dyes, painted, smoked, stencilled and stamped and patterned in ways that are unique and endlessly innovative.

Each of these encounters also reminds us that the book does not just contain ‘samples’ but is the living embodiment of the amazing talents of the people of these islands – which can now reach out across time and place to inform and inspire the practise of their descendants today.

***

In upcoming blogs we will dive further into one of the programs we delivered in 2023, and the amazing way the taonga become a touchstone to a group of artists and art school in Tahiti.

  1. Maryanne Larkin, Tales and textiles from Cook’s Pacific voyage, Bulletin Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand 28, no. 4, 2004, p. 31