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Polynesian bark cloth restoration saves scientists’ souvenirs

September’s artifact feature takes us back to the Cold War testing era.
August 28, 2020
Bradbury Collections Specialist Wendy Strohmeyer assists Kala Conservator Jennifer Parson with the tapa restoration.

Bradbury Collections Specialist Wendy Strohmeyer assists Kala conservator Jennifer Parson with the tapa restoration.

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The Museum galleries and warehouse are home to thousands of unique artifacts related to the Lab’s history and ongoing work at Los Alamos. These artifacts take many forms and were crafted from myriad materials, including a wide variety of man-made materials, various metals and of course, many natural woods and handmade textiles. Regardless of what these artifacts represent, or what they’re made of, they all have one very important thing in common — they each require some level of care to ensure they remain, or are restored to, the best possible condition.

To that end, the Bradbury’s Collections Specialist, Wendy Strohmeyer, is tasked with not only documenting and cataloguing the Museum’s artifacts, but also with determining the best possible care for those artifacts. She is not a conservator, however. The actual repair or restoration of a damaged artifact must fall to a trained professional with the skill, experience and knowledge to make the best decision about how to attend to a particular piece. For many of the Museum’s conservation questions, help is close at hand. With materials scientists, chemicals experts and historic property experts readily available at the Lab, most questions regarding care and preservation of these artifacts can be answered with a simple phone call.

However, some artifacts need expertise beyond what’s available nearby, especially if the piece is a delicate textile like bark cloth (called tapa).

Last fall, the Bradbury accessioned six tapa cloths into its collections. Once showcased in the Lab’s Tapa Conference Room, these were artifacts from the age of atmospheric testing. According to a 2007 LANL article, “Robert Brownlee of the former Field Testing (J) Division started the tradition of bringing back tapas, decorative bark cloths, from the testing locations. ... For decades, the former Field Testing Division was involved in nuclear weapons development. J Division conducted hundreds of nuclear weapons tests over nearly half a century at the Nevada Test site and in the Pacific.”

The tapas spent decades hanging in the J Division conference room. When broad renovations were planned for that conference room, Wendy was asked if the Bradbury might take them and she happily obliged.

“The name that keeps coming up for the source of these artifacts is Bob Brownlee, although there might have been more than one person who brought back these souvenirs and turned them over to the Lab for display,” Wendy says. “They arrived at different times through the ‘70s and ‘80s. Consensus is that they all came from Pacific Test trips.” 

Since a few smaller cloths were shortly headed for their new home and needed repair as well, Wendy contacted paper specialists at Kala Conservation to examine and restore them and, within a few short days, repairs were complete and the tapa cloths were safely en route to their new homes.

For more information about the Bradbury Science Museum’s artifact collections, please contact our Collections Specialist at wstrohmeyer@lanl.gov.