photo: Jane Whitehead

On February 21, Professor Ivan Gaskell and students in his spring semester seminar, “Oceania: Art and Material Culture,” visited the storage and conservation areas at the Brooklyn Museum. This was the last of three sessions at the museum, where the host was Curatorial Assistant for the Arts of Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands, and the Islamic World Meghan Bill.

This session was dedicated to the study of Pacific barkcloth. In the photo, Meghan Bill is partially unfolding an example of Samoan siapo, while student Dylan Brekka talks about it to the group. Each student in the seminar had prepared a short presentation on barkcloth items in the collection—kapa, ngatu, siapo, tapa —from places including Hawai’i, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, and Tonga. “I asked the students to begin by describing what they could perceive about their chosen piece from the thing itself that they could not perceive from the image on the museum database,” said Professor Gaskell. The missing data included not only the undersides of the textiles, but the scents of some of the dyes, such as turmeric, or, in some instances, of perfumes incorporated by the makers for their olfactory qualities alone. At one point, all the students gathered around an example with their noses close to the surface, a form of examination not available from any illustration. According to Professor Gaskell, “Collaboration with our museum partners gives students intimate access to things in the collections, and to the knowledge of curators and conservators, which immeasurably enriches their learning experience. In no instance is this more vital than when they encounter unfamiliar products of societies in the Pacific.”

—Jane Whitehead