In honour of Sir Edmund Hillary, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, Auckland Museum Collection Technicians Ella Johnson and Erna Tidy reflect on their work with the Museum’s Edmund Hillary Archive.

The Sir Edmund Hillary photography collection spans Sir Edmund Hillary’s lifetime. It contains thousands of photographs of his expeditions, including his record-breaking ascent of Mt. Everest with Tenzing Norgay and their team. The images follow further climbs in the Himalayas and high-profile expeditions such as the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, as well as personal trips closer to home. 

As pictorial staff at Auckland Museum, part of our job is to ensure our collections are well looked after and accessible. As such, we are responsible for creating a searchable database or inventory of the Sir Edmund Hillary photo archive. This means sorting through all the material from the collection which is currently stored in about 20 boxes. We look at each object one-by-one and assess how we can store it more effectively and efficiently. Our intention is to keep the objects as stable and accessible for as long as possible. 

Whilst doing this, we have seen the breadth and depth of Sir Edmund Hillary’s photo archive and have learned much about his life and projects. 

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Image credit (right): Tenzing Norgay, John Hunt and Edmund Hillary, 1953. Collection of Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira.


Mountaineering Expedition 1960 – 1961. Collection of Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, PH-2010-4-S15-F10-011.

As well as painting a picture of Sir Edmund Hillary as an expert mountaineer and explorer, these images tell the lesser known stories of his role as an ambassador, humanitarian and family man. 

Many of the photographs we have been working with were taken during the period of the mid-to-late 1960s. These show Hillary turning his attention towards providing aid and support to the mountain communities of Nepal. The images capture Hillary and his team involved with activities such as building schools and hospitals with the Himalayan Trust and providing infrastructure in these isolated areas. Hillary was supported by a team which included many volunteers from New Zealand who worked alongside local Nepali people. These photographs show the enormous effort put in by the existing communities and visiting volunteers to build these schools and hospitals in such remote parts of the Himalayas.

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Image credit (left): Sir Edmund Hillary poses with a group of five students outside Junbesi School, 1968. Collection of Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, PH-2010-4-P4-F7-46.

The images provide an insight into the environment and mountain landscapes of the Himalayas in the 1950s and 1960s, which appear starkly different to images of the same area today. At the time of Hillary and his team’s 1953 expedition, the Nepalese Government only allowed one or two Everest expeditions per year. Since this record-breaking climb to the summit, the routes have been opened-up considerably. At present, hundreds of climbers attempt to scale Everest every year. Increased tourism and population growth along with the effects of climate change have left a mark on the mountain – the mountain’s shape has changed with the melting of the ice, in contrast to the pristine-looking mountain of the 1960s.

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Image credit (right): Construction work, Nepal. Collection of Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, PH-2010-4-P9-F1-5.

Students outside the new extension to Junbesi school, 1967. Collection of Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, PH-2010-4-P8-F10.

Rehousing and labelling is an important part of collection management, as it helps us to keep track of objects, assess the size of the collection and ensure the objects and the stories they tell us can last another 100 years or more. This process can take some time, and photographic materials require specific care.

-  Each box in the collection holds a variety of photographic formats. Materials that we work with include both colour and black and white prints, negative strips and medium format negatives, colour transparencies, as well as ephemera.

-  When rehousing and storing any object, it is most important to protect it from light, humidity, fluctuating temperatures and pests. Black and white prints are usually relatively stable in terms of how they react to the environment around them, however it is still important to keep them secure, stable and to reduce handling the object directly.

-  To keep these objects safe and stable, we enclose the them in a polypropylene sleeve or buffered envelope and place them in appropriate storage. Black and white prints are kept in cool storage – at about 12 degrees Celsius.

-  Negatives, black and white transparencies and colour prints tend to be more sensitive to environmental fluctuations. Colour prints, for example, can lose and bleed colour over time, while the cellulose used in negatives can absorb water, or warp in fluctuating temperatures. To avoid this these formats are kept in cold storage – at about 4 degrees Celsius. 

Image credit (right): Mount Everest, photographed by Mike Gill.​ Collection of Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira,  PH-2010-4-S4-F5-19.

Another important part of the process is naming each object. We handle each photograph, look at the subject matter in the image, and decide what name best represents it. This is done so future researchers can easily find the object they need with keywords and names. 

Identifying people and places can sometimes be a challenge, particularly considering the age of some of the images. As a part of this project we have been privileged to be able to call on the wealth of information held by our Museum colleagues and fortunate to meet with Sir Ed’s daughter Sarah Hillary who helped us to identify several people in the photographs. 

Image credit (left): Collection technicians Erna Tidy and Ella Johnson with Sarah Hillary.​

This has been a very memorable project. Not only have we been a part of ensuring an important part of New Zealand’s history is kept forever, we have seen new aspects of these defining events. Through these images we have seen the Hillary family grow up and journey all over the world. It has been very moving to observe the relationships formed because of Sir Ed and his teams’ expeditions. Smiling school children, teams working together to build bridges, schools and hospitals, and various community events, performances and shared mealtimes shows us compassion and friendship is an important part of the Kiwi spirit, with Sir Ed’s Archive a glowing example of this.

Image credit (right): Children writing at desks, 1968.​ Collection of Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, PH-2010-4-P4-F8-117.