Barkcloth and the Baining: Masks in New Britain

Post written by Inna Yaneva-Toraman, University of Edinburgh
Baining masks are one of the most famous artefacts of Papua New Guinean cultures. A tourist cannot visit the country without encountering these masks in one form or another. They are printed on tourism brochures and post stamps, used in various advertisements, and displayed at museums and art galleries. Made from white bark cloth, and painted with natural black and red dyes, these masks have become a symbol for Baining culture and society.

As a PhD student working on Baining masks, I am grateful to Chantal Knowles and Eve Haddow for inviting me to join them on their review of the collection of masks and headdresses from Papua New Guinea at the National Museum of Scotland stores.

Eve excitedly unpacking the mask so we can study it's construction and style

Eve excitedly unpacking the mask so we can study it’s construction and style


During this visit we had a brief discussion on the use of new materials in the composition of masks made after European contact. The Baining mask at the museum stores, for instance, contained a layer of printed paper (probably pages from an old book) underneath the bark cloth, which seemed to stabilize the structure while at the same time keeping the mask as light as possible. When we compared the Baining mask with other Papua New Guinean masks made from bark cloth, we saw that there was a considerable difference in their weight. This led us into a discussion about the use of these masks and the characteristics of the dances for which they are made.

The Baining are a non-Austronesian speaking people, who live on the Gazelle Peninsula in northern portion of East New Britain. They are best known for their spectacular masked dances performed at night. The name “Baining” means “inland people” – bai as “to go inland” and nig or nig-nig as “wild, uncultivated area” (Corbin 1976). Therefore, it is assumed that the name originated among the Tolai people, who live along the Northeastern coasts of the peninsula.

Mask from the Baining people, early 20th century (A.1968.736)

Mask from the Baining people, early 20th century (A.1968.736)


The mask at the museum is an example of the smaller Baining masks called Kavat, which are used in the Baining Fire dance. In the anthropological literature this dance is also known as the Baining Snake dance because it used to include snake handling (Bateson 1931/1932). The Kavat dances are the most vigorous and ecstatic performances at the Baining night dances. The dancers jump in and over a large bonfire, wave burning sticks in the air, and kick the embers to create waves of sparkles around themselves. A good Kavat performance is said to be the one that draws attention with its energetic moves, thus accounting for the need of lighter masks.
A view inside the mask showing the construction of barkcloth stretched over a cane frame

A view inside the mask showing the construction of barkcloth stretched over a cane frame


This particular Kavat mask had been made of a single layer of fine white bark cloth and thin flexible branches. In order to keep the mask light, it is possible that the Baining man who made it chose to use printed paper rather than an additional layer of bark cloth. This example shows that the characteristics of the dances for which these artefacts were/are made, can also tell us about why particular ‘innovations’ in mask making were incorporated into the mask designs. Similarly, by looking at the composition of specific artefacts, we can understand how they were used. In many Melanesian dance contexts, features such as light/heavy, bright/dark, shiny/matte, and high/low, play a significant role in the composition, display, and reproduction of social relationships (A. Strathern & M. Strathern 1971). Thus, by examining the structure and design of artefacts such as masks, we can also learn something about the people who have made them, and the meaning of particular qualities like lightness and heaviness.

Works Cited:
Bateson, G. (1931/1932). ‘Further Notes on a Snake Dance of the Baining’, Oceania, Vol.2, pp.334-341.
Corbin, G. (1976). ‘The Art of the Baining of New Britain’. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, (doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, 1976).
Strathern, A. & M. Strathern (1971). Self-decoration in Mount Hagen. London: Duckworth.

Feather headdress from the Austral Islands

At the end of last year, Mark Hall, History Officer at Perth Museum & Art Gallery hosted the Perth leg of the project review for two weeks, with visits from Eve, Chantal and also Christofili Kefalas (Researcher of Maori material and British Museum Future Curators trainee). One of the most exciting discoveries has been the full recognition of the importance of a spectacular head-dress from the Austral Islands in the Perth collection.

Headdress from Tubuai, Austral Islands. The original Perth Museum register records this as ‘Cap worn by Tomatoa, Principle Chief of the Island of Tuhuca in the Australia group of the South Sea Islands’.

Headdress from Tubuai, Austral Islands. The original Perth Museum register records this as ‘Cap worn by Tomatoa, Principle Chief of the Island of Tuhuca in the Australia group of the South Sea Islands’.


This headdress of feathers affixed to a barkcloth structure was given to Perth Museum’s predecessor, The Perth Literary and Antiquarian Society, in 1843. It is shown on display in the Society’s Museum in one of only two photographs we have of the ethnography displays in the gallery in the rotunda.
The headdress can be seen just to the right of the central display of a Tahitian mourner’s costume. It is displayed with a number of hats and headgear.

The headdress can be seen just to the right of the central display of a Tahitian mourner’s costume. It is displayed with a number of hats and headgear.


In the 1930s the Director of the Bishop Museum in Hawaii Te Rangi Hiroa, also known as Peter Henry Buck, advised the then curator at Perth that Tamatoa was the name of a number of chiefs of the same ancestry on Tubuai in the Austral Islands.. The headdress has since then been attributed to Tubuai there does not seem to have been an island named ‘Tuhuca’. The headdress was published in Buck’s Art and Crafts of the Cook Islands (1944). There are two similar examples in the collection at the British Museum.

The headdress has for some time been recorded as being donated by Dr David Ramsay, a man who gave a significant collection of Maori material to the museum along with some outstanding Tahitian artefacts. However, the original register clearly states:
‘Presented by Gen Lindsay, Upper Craigie Perth,
No.1, Cape
[later corrected to ‘cap’] wore by Tomatoa Principle Chief of the Island of Tuhuca in the Australia Group of the South Sea Islands’
General Lindsay also donated a ceremonial staff of the Marquesas Islands at this time. A note below this entry states: ‘The above two articles from a Dr L MacLean’
Unfortunately we have not been able to find out any more about either of the men mentioned above but as always would welcome any information from readers.

Close up of the top of the headdress showing the plant fibre bindings which secure the feathers in place. The structure underneath the feathers is made of barkcloth and there is a barkcloth wrapping around the upper knot of the headdress.

Close up of the top of the headdress showing the plant fibre bindings which secure the feathers in place. The structure underneath the feathers is made of barkcloth and there is a barkcloth wrapping around the upper knot of the headdress.

– Eve

20 metres of Fijian barkcloth

Two weeks spent reviewing the collections in Aberdeen culminated with the unfolding of a 20 metre long piece of Fijian barkcloth, or masi in Fijian. This massive textile, made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree, is one of a number that it was claimed was ‘the worlds largest’ when it was made. The masi was presented to the Governor of Fiji, Sir William Allardyce, at Government house in Suva in 1902 to celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII and his new position as Tui biti – the supreme native chief of Fiji. At that time Fiji was a British Crown colony. The masi was laid on the ground and Allardyce with his staff walked in a procession along the length of it as part of the celebration.

Unfolding a large masi like this requires a lot of space and the team in Aberdeen decided the best place would be the Mitchell Hall in Marischal College. It seemed fitting to use Marischal College as a venue for the big reveal as it was Edward VII who opened the building in 1906.

The conservator at University of Aberdeen museums examining the folded 30ft Fijian masi

The conservator at University of Aberdeen museums examining the folded 30ft Fijian masi


We quickly realised there was only enough space in the Mitchell Hall to partially unfold the masi in a way that would not damage it.
Partially unfolded masi from Fiji in the Mitchell Hall, University of Aberdeen

Partially unfolded masi from Fiji in the Mitchell Hall, University of Aberdeen


This still allowed us to get a good sense of the style and pattern. Interestingly, the style was distinctly Samoan with the large hand painted spots on a red-brown rubbed ground.
Pattern on the 30ft long masi from Fiji

Pattern on the 30ft long masi from Fiji

Earlier in the day the team used the hall to unfold some of the smaller pieces of barkcloth from the Aberdeen University collection, two of which you can see below:

Piece of barkcloth collected in 19th century British New Guinea

Piece of barkcloth collected in 19th century British New Guinea

Late 19th century barkcloth from Fiji featuring rifle motif

Late 19th century barkcloth from Fiji featuring rifle motif

– Eve