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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Will Digital Data be Around as Long as Fragile Bark Cloth Collected in 1838?

Archives are no longer passive receivers of materials.  In this “born digital” world, archives can be collaborators in creating digital documentation that almost immediately becomes of archival concern because without an intentional effort to maintain the material over the long-term, it will be lost.

Currently, the Collections and Archives Program, Department of Anthropology, is engaged in a Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation funded project to stabilize and make accessible fragile and damaged bark cloths (tapas) from the South Pacific collected by the 1838 U.S. ExploringExpedition under Charles Wilkes.  As part of this conservation project two Hawaiian community scholars, both contemporary bark cloth makers, have joined the conservation team to share their indigenous knowledge of what the bark cloth designs mean, the techniques by which they were produced and the meaning/value of museum objects to contemporary communities.  This, in addition to the techniques used to conserve these one-of a kind artifacts from Hawaii, Fiji, Tahiti and Samoa, is being documented with digital video.

Moana K.M. Eisele, a Hawaiian community scholar, is using a traditional tool,
i'e kuku, to beat bast fiber from the inner bark of the māmaki, a small Hawaiian tree,
as research into long forgotten techniques to create Hawaiian capa (bark cloth)

Because, really, we do not yet know the full meaning of archiving “born digital” over the long-term (and here I mean just 10 years rather than the 100 years of long-term care for film) we are striving to organize the materials as much as possible through metadata created at the time of recording and, then, metadata that will be associated with the digital moving images when they are ingested into the Smithsonian DAMS (data asset management system).  To this end, we are drafting best practices for moving image and audio data collection, tagging and archiving.  Of course, other museum researchers who are creating digital content are tackling the same issues and may have already established their own protocols—and learned some valuable lessons--for minimal and ideal metadata for digital scientific and museum moving image and audio data.  Certainly, this is the time to share our efforts and engage in a community discussion so that we are not all re-inventing the wheel, as it were.  Please feel free to post a comment or contact us at

For those of you who are now curious to know more about bark cloth 
and the Wilkes expedition please continue to read:

Bark cloth was traditionally made and used for a variety of purposes in many Pacific cultures,
most notably in ceremonies and rituals.  Both the material available (various plants such as the paper mulberry, breadfruit, and banyan) and the mode of production varied from region to region.  The Smithsonian’s collection of bark cloth is large, with important and unique pieces from the United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842), the U.S.’s first international scientific survey.  The squadron of ships, under Captain Charles Wilkes, circumnavigated the globe, surveyed and charted nearly 300 islands of the Pacific, mapped 800 miles of the coast of Oregon, and confirmed the existence of Antarctica as a continent. The thousands of ethnological objects and botanical and zoological specimens were brought back to the U.S. by the Expedition’s team of scientists and are among the founding collections of the Smithsonian.

Existing archival records are also data that can support object collections. In the case of bark cloth, the Human Studies Film Archives has a 1985 film, Visiting Samoa, made by ethnomusicologist Laura Boulton that includes a ceremonial presentation of bark cloth and a demonstration of how bark cloth is made and decorated.

Pamela Wintle
Human Studies Film Archives

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