When you visit the Museum and see objects in cases, it's easy to gloss over the vast amounts of work that goes into making our displays look effortless. In this blog Sarndra Lees, Collection Manager, History, takes you step-by-step through the elaborate, sometimes tedious, always crucial processes required to ensure that the priceless objects in the Museum's care are looked after for generations to come.

Being faced with many hundreds of objects for processing into a museum collection can be quite daunting! The most important thing is to plan any project out long in advance of commencing, from the resources required to complete the task through to placement of the objects into their permanent storage. The steps I use to process acquisitions for the History collection were, for the most part, used as the framework for the 21st Battalion Association collection.

Applying for, and successfully securing, financial support through the Lottery Environment and Heritage Fund supplemented the purchase of resources required for packing and storage of the objects, as well as the time of two collection technicians, Elle Keen and Callan Bird, to make sure we could process the objects within a six-month timeframe. As Collection Manager in our History department, I project-managed the team and oversaw the process from start to finish.

Gathering the collection together

Gathering the collection together

A huge amount of preparation work was completed by our History Curators Gail Romano and Lucy Macintosh prior to moving the objects to our off-site collection centre. They checked through all the items, making sure everything was accounted for against the lists drawn up when we first received the collection. They developed a spreadsheet to record the new objects and split off any objects that would be going to a different Museum department (like, for example, our colleagues in Documentary Heritage).

Image: Some of the boxes of 21st Battalion Association collection being checked against documentation.

Pest management

Pest management

Freeze treatment

Museum collections are faced with many risks that can cause physical damage and degradation. Pests such as silverfish, borer, dermestid beetles and rodents are some of the ‘10 agents of deterioration’.  

A few years ago I sorted out all of the objects in this collection that could be frozen onsite and placed them in the Museum's blast freezer, which reaches temperatures as low as -30 Celsius, for two weeks in order to exterminate any pests that may have been hitched a ride on the incoming objects. Some items, however, cannot be frozen, as the freezing process itself can cause damage. For example, enamel will likely shatter, or breakage can occur in items made of mixed materials where shrinkage differs at varying degrees. In these cases, the items are visually checked, bagged and observed over time for any evidence of pests.

Image: A bespoke box for a large vinyl decal.

Anoxic treatment

In June 2019, the collection was moved to our offsite facility Manu Tāiko1 in Otāhuhu, and into our anoxic treatment room. This treatment is another precaution against pests prior to moving objects further into the building where, if infested, they could contaminate a very large quantity of our artefacts.  

Anoxic treatment involves objects being placed inside a specially made enclosure which is filled with nitrogen in order to force out the oxygen. Objects remain in here for a full four weeks.  

From the perspective of a collection manager, this is the least time-consuming, most cost-effective and safest option of pest control, one where everything can be treated in one hit and requiring very little preparation. Freezing, on the other hand, requires tissue to be added to objects to absorb any possible moisture that might cause water damage, then items must be sealed in plastic bags to prevent any moisture ingress from the air during that freezing process.

Image: Door to the anoxic treatment room at Manu Tāiko. Monitoring equipment for the anoxic treatment process is on the left.

The grand unveiling of the pest-treated 21st Battalion objects took place on 1 October 2019, which marked the beginning of the involvement of our new technicians, Callan and Elle.  

The majority of the Battalion's objects were moved to the laboratory area for the next stage of detailed work, but some larger items, which were packed on pallets, went straight to our collection storage area. Our relocations team, trained in the use of the specialist equipment, helped with the movement of these.

Image: Pallets of larger objects placed in storage.



With boxes of items now sorted, Callan and Elle prepared the objects for labelling. Each has its own unique accession number that identifies it within the whole acquisition itself.

The object dictates the type of accession number labelling it requires.

Image: Applying labels to paper items, such as this map, is a particularly complicated process.

For example, a souvenired German regimental cloth badge like this one will have a cotton label sealed with Paraloid B-72 – a clear acrylic resin that is applied wet to the label, sealing the ink used to write the accession number. The label is dried before sewing on to the object. New holes are not made when applying labels, the normal practice is to use holes left by past stitching or under-stitch on the reverse, if we can.

Image: German regimental cloth badge with cotton label.

Preventive conservation

Preventive conservation

Preventive conservation in a museum context can be defined as “any measure that prevents damage or reduces the potential for it”.2 This rule is one we embrace when we work with the objects we are entrusted with.

Some objects require immediate care prior to storage such as the battalion nail and string artwork here, which showed loose dust and dirt. This was brush vacuumed using a special conservation vacuum with netting placed over the suction pipe end. The netting catches any parts or fragments that may come loose during the process and prevent them being sucked into the dust bag. 

Brush vacuuming not only helps preserve objects by removing organic matter that can attract pests and absorb moisture, but we are also able to notice if new active pests are present by any frass appearing - this is an indication of a new attack. 'Frass' is a term used for insect larvae excrement or a by-product of insect infestation, such as the wood dust left from borer attack.   

Any treatment we apply is noted on the individual database record so that we have a clear history of the object’s care cycle within the Museum.

Image: 21st Battalion nail and string artwork.

Condition checks

Condition checks

Every object in the 21st Battalion collection was assessed by our Museum Conservator Val Tomlinson, who documented its condition at the time of the project and noted any immediate concerns or conservation treatments that would be required now or in the future. Again, this information is entered in every object’s database record, to form part of a kind of individual biography that every object in the collection has.

Image: A cloth badge packing unit.



Now it's every object's turn to get photographed. This imaging captures the current state of the objects as well as documenting any damage prior to being received by the Museum. As there were so many objects to photograph, the collection technicians were supported by Richard Ng, the Museum’s contract photographer. Some objects were too big for our processing lab’s photography setup, and these needed a specialist set-up.

Each image is then matched up with the object's database record. This complete record is what you see when you access our Collections Online page (you can even search by colour!).

Image: Elle and Richard work together in the large photography suite.

Database entry

Database entry

Our database records are completed to what we call a ‘core standard’. This means that the essential fields for identifying the object are completed which sounds simple, but it is actually a lot of work to capture every detail that is required. Core status includes measurements, the materials the object is comprised of, a description of the object, and photographs. For this collection, in total, 646 records were added to our database.  

In some instances, one ‘object’ may contain many other parts. These parts are all recorded within the object’s individual database record. This makes sure we always know what belongs together. 

Image: Callan works with the boxes of poppies – in this case there is one record for each box, but this record includes the hundreds of poppies it holds, plus the base and lid of the box itself because this is how the poppies came to us.

Storage of objects

Storage of objects

Where possible, the 21st Battalion collection has been placed into boxes, each identified in our collection management system database as a ‘packing unit’ with its own unique number. Each object is then connected back to its packing unit so we can always locate it.  

Image: This banner (which reads "Abandon rank all who enter here") has been rolled up for many years. It is safer to store rolled in a large box to help relax the rolls.

Again, the objects dictated what storage they required, and having many different-sized objects, from maps to banners to grenades, means a lot of different-sized boxes. Protective dividers, supports and individual boxes were often required inside the packing units, some boxes were bespoke, and other objects, such as flags, had support trays styled so that they could slip into our drawer storage or rolled. 

Finally, the packing units were placed into our main store downstairs at Manu Tāiko. This extremely labour-intensive process ensures both safe archival-quality storage of the objects and ease of locating in the future. 

Image: Elle and Relocations Technician Val Noiret-Leblanc place flags in drawers.

Expecting the unexpected

Expecting the unexpected

Towards the end of the project, the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted the final aspects and we completed a few weeks later, in mid-May 2020. As a Collection Manager, it's moments like those that make you grateful for the forward-planning I outlined at the beginning of this blog.

Many people within our Museum have taken part in their own specific professional roles to ensure the 21st Battalion Association collection can tell its story by making these artefacts fully accessible to communities both onsite and online.  

Image: Relocations team member Andrew Shaw is dwarfed by the compactor that holds most of the packing units containing the 21st Battalion artefacts.

1 Manu Tāiko is a bird that was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered on the Chatham Islands in 1978, and is now part of a successful breeding programme. It is a sentry bird that watches over the forest, sending signals if anyone approaches. This Māori whakatauki and proverb explains it well:

E rere taku manu, taku manu tāiko – hokahoka ake, topatopa atu – e rere, e rere  
Fly my friendly guardian bird, your eagle eye over the land, bringing peace to all

The name acknowledges the Museum's responsibility to be a good kaitiaki for the people who work at and visit the centre, and most importantly, it acknowledges the care and respect that will be given to the objects residing there.

2 The Getty Institute; "Preventive Conservation"; Newsletter 7.1 Winter 1992; accessed 27 May 2020


Photographs by Collection Manager, History – Sarndra Lees