“Just shoot it in your phone, it can’t be that difficult!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone say that to me, and yet after years of immersing Auckland Museum in professional photography, those comments have gone silent. I’m happy we changed things and made a difference.

Looking back at the end of 2019 has allowed me to reflect on the completion of the Museum’s Collection Imaging Project. Coming under the umbrella of the Museum’s Collection Readiness Programme of work, the imaging work formed a major part for preparation of objects within museum care to have a new life, accessible online for future generations to come. With more than four million items in the Museum’s collections across its Natural Sciences, Human History and Documentary Heritage departments, this was no small task.

One by one, items from all corners of the collection were photographed within a controlled studio environment. The aim was simple: to increase access to the collections online, so more Museum objects were available to more people, more of the time.

The project started in late 2015 and ran for over three years. It delivered more than 275,000 new images of over 67,500 items, almost entirely of three-dimensional objects. At its peak the project created about 400GB of data per day, and then we had to back that up, which made even more!

The project employed a dedicated Rights Specialist, a key role to enable accurate and clear licensing of images online to allow users to know what they can and can’t do with the images. The project followed the OpenGLAM philosophy (GLAM is an acronym for Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) and as part of that, we developed the ‘open by default, closed by exception’ mantra for the Museum. This philosophy runs in partnership with our cultural permissions frameworks, which respects taonga and their significance and facilitates appropriate access to cultural collections online. To make information accessible to all is becoming an increasingly important area within digitisation, but doing so in respect of cultural and indigenous knowledge and appropriately sharing it with the correct audiences.

No matter how creative our team’s imagination was as to what object could be delivered next to be photographed, it was often surpassed.

It might be surprising to some but creating an image of a Museum object is in many ways a significantly different process to more traditional studio photography. Our photographers handled almost every object themselves, so there was a huge amount of handling training and special precautions that took place. For example we used blue nitrile gloves (we don’t like those cotton white ones everyone thinks Museum staff use as they tend to collect human sweat over time!)

The purpose of the photographs we created is also different – the project was tasked with delivering descriptive, archival, visual records of an object. Our team, being the creative geniuses they are, also developed ways to see the beauty of the objects too and although those two objectives were often at odds with one another,  we found a way to do both to really showcase the breadth of diversity and beauty of the collection. Combining both of those things sounded easy until we tried to do it – I’m really proud of that aspect of the work the team produced.

The preservation of the images was also a core element of the work we were creating. Digital files are often inherently fragile, who still accesses their old floppy disk drives or opens their early Microsoft Word documents without issue? The image files created for the project were done in such a way to ensure they last in perpetuity, they feature no post processing either in the camera or in software to try and ensure the files remain as original and ‘intact’ as possible. This placed a huge reliance on lighting skills and getting the images right in-camera at the time each photo was taken.

No matter how creative our team’s imagination was as to what object could be delivered next to be photographed, it was often surpassed.

Some of my personal favourite images are from the Natural Sciences collection. I never got tired of seeing yet another Moa bone come through the studio, it was a little surreal to see one right there in front of you as they’re such a rich piece of New Zealand’s natural history.

I have a number of favourite jobs that spring to mind. The first involved imaging holotype and paratype specimens of bats that had been held in the Museum’s storeroom in ethanol for decades. The bats had to be photographed underwater making it a tricky task which involved complicated refraction and colour changes, but also because their fur trapped tiny air bubbles, handling them underwater turned out to be quite a job! Read more here.

Another was when we held a public event to photograph our 3.2m tall Giant Moa inside the Museum’s galleries. The Giant Moa and her friends were a huge technical challenge largely because of their sheer size and fragility. They needed to be imaged within the gallery so we turned the photography and 3D scanning into a public event for the week so everyone could see us work, a sneaky glimpse of what happens behind the scenes every day.

The collection imaging project broke new ground in many areas. We ran a volunteer programme which taught photographers about collections photography and lighting, in exchange the volunteers worked for us and provided valuable resource. It’s unusual for an institution like Auckland Museum to be able to guide and teach imaging at all, let alone as part of such a project.  

Many of the technical aspects of the project pushed boundaries and have helped to evolve the sector. We received a lot of interest from our industry peers overseas. What helped make this project especially unique for our photographers was that no two days were the same and the fact that the images we created are for the greater social good and are going to be around forever.

At the beginning of this work we expected to learn a lot about lighting, however what we learned completely surpassed our expectations. Every photographer loves light, but this project has enabled our team to become true masters of it. As the manager of the team, this development has been really exciting and rewarding to see.

Finally, the smiles have made it all worth it. I was fortunate to show many people through the studio and talk them through the work we were doing. From politicians such as Prime Minister Ardern and MP Chlöe Swarbrick to students of all ages. Seeing everyone’s smiles when they see what we do was hugely rewarding.

Now the project has come to an end, we can look back on the significant change the images have made to the visibility of Auckland Museum. From our Collections Online to our marketing material, our images are constantly in use, they showcase the incredible collections of Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

What’s next you ask? We have a reduced team of photographers continuing on at the Museum, continuing to create amazing new photographs and make more collections available online. We now also have a broader reach and are beginning to make images specifically for different needs, from marketing to recording the Museum building transformation, capturing behind the scenes moments and much more.

Watch this space because we intend to make everything about museum life more visible and beautiful than ever before!