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From obscurity to the spotlight

What do a quilt made during the New Zealand wars, fern type specimens from the Philippines and a collection of thousands of photographs by a single photographer have in common? Each of these items were brought to light during a recent and unprecedented project at Auckland Museum to help open up, digitise and make more accessible its vast collections.  

It is a bolt of euphoria, a surge of delight, when a collection technician discovers a special gem that has been waiting to be uncovered for so long. And many of these moments have happened over the past three and a half years as a result of the Collections Cataloguing Project (CCP). Read on below for the stories of some of these exciting discoveries. 


 

Background to the Collections Cataloguing Project

At any given time about three percent of our total collection is on display in the Museum. So, what of the other 97 percent? 

The vast majority of our Human History, Natural Sciences and Documentary Heritage collections are held within the Museum’s extensive storage facilities. They contain precious objects and taonga which hold histories of people and knowledge of flora and fauna of Aotearoa New Zealand and beyond. 

With limited exhibition space, how does the Museum make these items visible? In years gone by, if someone wanted to access an item in our collection not on display, they would have to make an appointment and physically visit the Museum.

In 2016, Auckland Museum embarked on an ambitious and inspiring project to transform our Museum. Part of this is the major building works currently taking place, and within this, to enable collections for new galleries, public programmes and Collections Online, is a programme called the Collections Cataloguing Project. This programme aims to make as much of our collections available online as possible, so people can access them anytime, anywhere.

Prior to this project, there were many items that had yet to be digitized.. These objects and specimens had been acquired at some date between the earliest days of the Museum in the 1860s and an arbitrary more recent date, such as 31 December 2012. If resources, time and expertise were available at the time of acquisition, objects were registered and processed but this was not always possible. So, a great many objects had been safely tucked away awaiting the moment that they can receive this attention. For some, this has been many years in waiting, but with the CCP, their time to shine has come!

Here we look at an item from each of our collections which has been made accessible online as part of the CCP. 

Robin Morrison (1944-1993) is one of New Zealand’s most celebrated photographers.

As a photojournalist, Robin Morrison captured many socio-political events happening in New Zealand during the 1970s and 1980s, such as the 1981 Springbok Tour and the Bastion Point protests. He documented the people, communities, and places that he believed represented New Zealand, creating a more diverse image of society for future generations to appreciate and be inspired by.

In 1993, Robin Morrison’s photography collection was bequeathed to Auckland Museum. Comprised of thousands of colour and black and white photographs, it is one of our largest photographic collections.

Recently a rehousing project was undertaken by the Documentary Heritage technicians to improve the accessibility and storage of the collection. The project involved individually numbering 30,000 colour transparencies and transferring them from their original enclosures into custom archival storage. Subjects ranged from Morrison’s time spent in Australia and India, to New Zealand architecture and people, both well known and unknown.

See more of the collection here.

A quilt made from soldiers' uniforms during the New Zealand Wars

In the Collections Cataloguing Project we were able to identify the historical objects we have in relation to the New Zealand Wars. This quilt is very evocative. According to our records, it was made by an unknown soldier of the 58th Regiment whilst imprisoned. The quilt is made up of one-inch squares of fabric from soldier’s uniforms.

The 58th regiment was deployed to New Zealand in 1845 and saw action in the Whanganui campaign. In 1858 the regiment helped fight a major fire in Auckland which destroyed an entire city block.

Although some men from the regiment chose to settle in New Zealand, most of them returned to England in 1859.

The quilt which measures almost two sqm was passed to the museum in 1965. It had previously been held in the Old Colonists Museum in Auckland which opened in 1916 and occupied the same building as the Auckland Art Gallery. It closed in 1956.

It was timely for us to catalogue and image these collection objects as interest in the history of Aotearoa and the New Zealand Wars continue to gain momentum.

To see more of the quilt click here.

Four unique botanical fern types discovered in our Natural Sciences collection

During the CCP, we found that some of our foreign fern specimens are types, to date 4 have been discovered. The collection technician was alerted when particular data on the records caught her eye. Notable was that the collector was the same person as the naming authority (i.e. the collector was the same person who first described that species). Her suspicions were confirmed through checking against collection location, date and collecting numbers with online records from other institutions. What a discovery!

It turns out that these fern types were sent to Auckland Museum's herbarium as duplicates from the Philippines back when that was the common way of distributing new material. Some had been sent decades ago from The Philippines Herbarium, which was thereafter heavily bombed and destroyed in WW2. Hence, some of the material from this herbarium now only exists at other institutions, such as ours, as duplicates.

We previously had no idea we had such scientific treasures sitting on our shelves. But they are now catalogued, imaged and available online for anyone around the world to see. 

Blog From Obscurity to the Spotlight by Monique Howitt, Senior Collection Technician Documentary Heritage; Heidi Schlumpf, Senior Collection Technician Natural Sciences; and Louise Weston, Senior Collection Technician Human History. Published January 2020