Blog

The Opera House Barkcloth

By: Colin Macgregor, Category: Science, Date: 28 Mar 2013

One of the Museum's biggest objects is so big that we have never seen all of it at once.

cleaning barkcloth

carl bento © Australian Museum

One of the largest objects in the Australian Museum collections is a huge barkcloth or tapa that was used during the opening ceremonies of the Sydney Opera House in 1973. It was presented to the Sydney Opera House Trust by the government of Tonga and used during a religious service on the steps of the Opera House. When it was donated to the Australian Museum it had been bundled up and no-one knew exactly how big it was.

The Materials Conservation Department discovered signs of insect activity on the great tapa in 1996 and shipped it out to a large industrial freezer near the meat markets for a week. The next step in its conservation was to clean and roll it onto a storage mount to prevent creasing.

The only space big enough was the loading dock driveway at the back of the museum, so on our Museum Open Day it was unwrapped and spread out for vacuum cleaning. After this it was carefully rolled onto a 16 metre long padded roller. It now lives on custom made doleys that to allow it to be moved around relatively easily.

In 2006 due to building works, it had to be relocated to an off-site storage facility at Castle Hill belonging to the Powerhouse Museum. For this an extendable flat-bed semi trailer was needed to cope with the length.

There are still no plans to display this vast object as we have no spaces big enough. Although we know it is 16 metres along one edge, we are not sure of the length of the other edge, as it hasn’t been fully spread out since 1973.  Is this the biggest tapa cloth in the world?