While the world grappled with COVID-19, the last thing on anyone's mind was how best to preserve the pandemic’s objects. But for Collection Manager History, Sarndra Lees, preserving the cultural artefacts of the COVID-19 pandemic was a top priority.

In this blog, Sarndra offers a rare glimpse behind the scenes as she worked to preserve the story of the pandemic in objects.

Business not-as-usual

In my world as an Auckland Museum Collection Manager, I like to prepare for any major project. It is essential for ensuring the processing of objects is a stress-free, smooth-running operation.

Under normal circumstances, this operation includes: ensuring that items arrive safely at the Museum, if they are not already here; documenting items physically to ensure optimal care (labelling, measuring, material identification and packing); data entry (having a full and correct record in the database); and digital recording (formal photography, like the beautiful images that appear on Collections Online). Having these roles completed to best-practice standard is imperative for the objects’ life within the Museum.

I had rather a full-on surprise coming, didn’t I!

When COVID-19 hit our shores in early 2020, time to plan for this collection project was a luxury I did not have. In April and May, we made a call-out to the public that resulted in dozens of lockdown art efforts being offered to us. The curators of History (Lucy Mackintosh), Manuscripts (Nina Finigan) and Pictorial (Shaun Higgins) then had the difficult job of selecting which objects the Museum would acquire. 

Selections complete, it was over to me. Here, I'll take you through the collection management process from start to finish.


Background image: A pair of gloves worn as part of personal Protective Equipment (PPE) provided to Auckland Hospital staff by the Auckland District Health Board for screening and assessing patients for COVID-19 at initial presentation; 2020.43.2 © Auckland Museum CC BY

What it looks like behind-the-scenes when newly acquired COVID-19 collection items are being prepared to be stored.

Process and pests

In the History collection alone we received 32 donations, totalling 108 objects.

Documentation and data
Prior to receiving the donations, I had to prepare the legal documentation for each item. All packs included a Deed of Gift, copyright forms and a form for the donor to list contacts if in the future we cannot locate them for any reason. In September 2020, these packs were given to each donor during a public donation drop-off day. Two itemised delivery receipts were signed by myself and the donor at this time - one to keep each, or popped in with the paperwork if being mailed out after any objects arrived by post/courier. This documentation is a crucial step with any acquisition we acquire and it's only once we receive these back that I can issue the individual acquisition numbers that identify each donation for its life in the Museum. Finally, every donor received a thank you letter from David Gaimster, our Chief Executive, along with their own copies of the paperwork relevant to their donation.

When there are this many objects, it is not efficient to upload a record of each object, one at a time. Instead, the core details already known about each object are placed onto a spreadsheet that is then uploaded into our collection management system, Vernon. This process was time-consuming with so many detailed fields to fill, but luckily our fabulous spreadsheet guru, Collections Data Analyst Phil Hinton was a brilliant help throughout the process!

Data entry becomes an ongoing task during processing, as you gather more information about the objects.


Pest control
Once donations arrive at the Museum, the critical first step is to ensure that no pests have hitched a ride in on the objects. As a Collection Manager, I’m ever-vigilant of my collection and protecting the objects is at the forefront of my mind. Insects are the scourge of any museum, along with the other agents of deterioration. We do not want to introduce pests in to our storerooms and spaces that could then infest other objects.

Mainly organic and many fragile, all the objects received on the public drop-off day in September were boxed or supported, wrapped in plastic, sealed and placed in a separate storage area until all the other donations were received. As the remaining objects trickled in to the Museum, they too were packed safely, wrapped and sealed. Everything then went to our offsite facility ‘Manu Taiko’ where they were placed in anoxic treatment by our relocations team. Anoxic treatment involves objects being placed inside a specially made enclosure that is filled with nitrogen. This environment forces out the oxygen, thus killing pests. Objects remain in here for a full four weeks.

Pest control complete, donations were then moved up to the lab area. Bespoke solutions were required for each because everything was so unique; each donation itself dictated how it should be labelled and packed for storage.

As I completed each donation, Museum photographer Jennifer Carroll photographed each item. I then attached the images to the database records for each object. These records appear on our Collections Online webpages, which you can explore here.

Image: Jenn preparing another donation for photography. Here she is shooting the super hero outfit ‘The Distancer’ (2020.42.1), donated by Andrea Jacobson.


The final touches
And there you have it! The time came for all the objects to be tucked safely away in their storage spaces. This is always such a satisfying part of the job.

Then it is back to the desk for a final check-through of the object database records, ensuring image attachments are complete. I scan and attach each Deed of Gift and a copy of the acquisition proposal to all records, all measurements and materials noted, object parts included, donor details, credit lines, database record status etc. I cross refererence this information with each working folder for each donation.

Image: Checking database records.

Image: Working folders with notes and stickers added during each processing stage.


Working folders are then dismantled. I had a bit of fun during this part, making an ‘artwork’ by peeling the stickers off the folders and popping them onto Post-it notes. I called it ‘Collection Virus’!

When all is done, my final task is to file each of the completed Deeds of Gift away into fireproof safes at the Museum. This is a joy as it heralds the real end. Done and dusted!


At the beginning of 2020, I had no idea that my work life would be thrown into so much chaos, nor that I would end up with a very large, unplanned-for project to cater for on top of my already very busy work schedule! It has been a challenge, but also a pleasure to have tended to the tangible items that arose from the experiences of each donor’s first lockdown – a fraught part of our modern-day pandemic history.

Continue scrolling to view the fascinating methods Sarndra used to catalogue the COVID donations.


Background image: Handcraft art face mask comprising of coconut shell with fabric ties; 2020.30.1 © Auckland Museum CC BY


Dive into detail

The following objects are some of the dozens that came into my care in the History department. Every object was also condition-checked by our conservator Val Tomlinson at the time of processing.


Community Signs - Piha Posters
Donor: Pam Jolly
Accession numbers: 2020.43.1 & .2

I decided to start with the largest, most fragile objects. These happened to be two posters made from polythene and poster paint (only one poster is shown in the images below). Extreme care had to be used as the paint flakes off very easily.

First, I labelled each object carefully with its unique accession number on the underneath of a corner using specialist paper, permanent ink and a clear acrylic resin called Paraloid B-72. Next, I made bespoke shallow boxes, ensuring they had reinforcing cardboard strips glued to the interior for strength. Each had tray inserts so that once they are in their boxes, the posters could be lifted out without being touched.

Image: Label in foreground ready to adhere to the rear.

Image: Box parts in process.


The lids fitted each poster comfortably. Not too tight that any vacuum caused by upward air movement when removing would disturb the flaking paint, but at the same time ensuring there would not be a lot of air movement within the box.

The posters could not be secured 100% into their boxes due to paint fragility. To resolve this, I cut Ethafoam to fit each poster close to the corners where there was no paint, thus preventing these from moving about on their trays. Ethafoam was also used as supports inside the box to prevent the lid sinking down on to the poster.

Image: Poster in box – nearly completed.


Background image: A community sign from around Piha Beach; 2020.43.2; © Auckland Museum CC BY

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield Dolls with Podiums
Donor: Kathy O’Keefe
Accession number: 2020.49.1 to .4

These two need no explanation! Kathy did such a clever job with these. The detail on all parts is just gorgeous.

Left image: Stars of the 1pm daily televised report that became addictive to watch during lockdown.
Right image: Jacinda getting her label.

The dolls required cotton tape labels and the podiums easy peasy with pencil. The doll support stands had specialist paper labels attached. It is such a treat when some objects take very little effort to process safely. They were packed tidily with tissue supports into the box shown behind me in the image on the left.


Left image: Selfie time! Jacinda and Ashley in the process of being laid to rest behind me.
Right image: Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield crochet dolls with podiums; 2020.49.1; © Auckland Museum CC BY

“Stay Home/Be Kind” Bunting Banner and Two Lockdown Soft Toys (Cat and Rabbit)
Donor: Linda Low
Accession numbers: 2020.46.1 to .3

Linda made these to decorate her home. A lot of work!

Collection managers must stop and think creatively about how we are to prepare things for storage. Often space is limited, and we do try to store like-with-like or keep donations together where possible.

The bunting banner was carefully rolled up for storage. After labelling the banner with a cotton tape label prepared prior, (the same process as the ones shown for the fencepost people further down), I double-tissued the binding at the top of the triangles so that when rolled it would alleviate the pressure against the material. This padded out the roll very nicely for protection and kept them all straight and smooth. The roll then fitted snuggly into the storage box.

The cute soft toys had their cotton labels sewn onto discreet areas so that if going on display, these would not be obvious – this is the usual practice. Sewing labels also involves not making extra holes in objects by using holes caused at the time of manufacture or behind threads already present.

Image: Laying out to label, straighten and smooth.

Image: Tissuing and rolling.

Image: Rolling completed.

Image: These guys waiting their turn for labelling.

Image: The bunting banner and toys tucked away in their packing unit.


Background image: Soft toy cat made by the donor to decorate her house during the first COVID-19 lockdown; 2020.46.2; © Auckland Museum CC BY

Community Banner
Donor: Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Temple New Zealand
Accession number: 2020.39.1 to .5

This giant banner was made from the reverse sides of five repurposed PVC banners, each nearly four metres long. Its aim was to encourage and cheer up the local community in Flat Bush and encourage kindness, as taught by the principles of 3G4G.


Image: Attaching the mylar to each banner through the metal eyelets using cotton tape.
Above image: All 5 parts of the banner assembled; 2020.39.1; © Auckland Museum CC BY

The individual pieces posed some issues, as I discovered when I commenced processing it. The brown paint and some of the red remained tacky, even though it had been on a fence for weeks during lockdown; however, I had no option but to roll the banner for storage.

After giving a lot of consideration to the issue and liaising with our conservator on the project, Val Tomlinson, I decided to place mylar over the tacky areas of each part to prevent transference of the paint onto other areas until conservation treatments could be completed. A specialist paper label adhered with B72 on each identified the sections. This donation took quite considerable time to process.


Left image: Unwrapping the banner to discover that some parts had adhered to the tissue, luckily it was removed easily.
Right image: ‘X’ slits cut in the mylar and reinforced with mylar tape.

Off gassing is a concern so these are kept separate to other objects.

Image: The five banner parts rolled and wrapped in Tyvek outer, sitting with two other banners that were donated.

Fence Post People
Donor: Bo Hensley
Accession numbers: 2020.41.1 to .43

Every day during Level 3 and Level 4 lockdown, Bo knitted a character ‘person’ and added them to the picket fence outside her home. Each has a plastic bread tag with a day number attached to it. Her community enjoyed watching the group grow and provided some materials for her to use. “I often had children run up to see what the next day's design was and children put in their requests for the next day's character,” she said.

To store the puppets, I first prepared cotton tape labels. I used waterproof ink to write the accession numbers on a strip of labels. This strip was then sealed with Paraloid B-72 and left to dry. I then cut each label and sewed them onto the interior of these intriguing characters.

I placed tissue inside the puppets to help retain their shape and protect them. Any puppets with metal attachments had mylar polyester film barriers placed between the wool and metal to protect against any corrosion, should it occur. (Hopefully not! Our stores are temperature and relative humidity controlled). I made trays for several boxes and then packed the puppets inside with foam spacers (not shown here) so that they would not touch each other.

Image: Labels prepped.

Image: Preparing for packing.

Image: Spot the Covid-19 virus fence ‘person’!


Background image: One of 43 puppets made by the donor during Level 3 and Level 4 lockdown; 2020.41.43; © Auckland Museum CC BY

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Donor: Auckland District Health Board
Accession number: 2020.31.1 to .16

This donation was part of the kit provided to Auckland Hospital staff by the Auckland District Health Board for screening and assessing patients for COVID-19 at initial presentation. It consists of isolation gowns, surgical, full-face protection (FFP) and N95 masks and gloves.

I attached cloth labels where possible. The nitrile gloves could not be physically labelled. Some masks that were in sealed cellophane packing were placed in bags as labels did not adhere well and I wanted to maintain the integrity of the packaging. I popped swing tag labels inside these bags for object identification and left them open to avoid microclimates.


Image: Several of the masks in process of labelling or being bagged.

Normally for storage, we like to open out or roll textiles/clothing. This method prevents further creasing during long-term storage. However, in this case we wanted to retain one isolation gown folded to illustrate how it was received by the hospital staff. I unfolded it and placed some tissue where most of the folds were. I then refolded. This will help the gown in long-term storage, buffering the sharpness of the creases already in the textile, yet maintaining the way it was originally folded.

Once processed, the objects were packed into boxes for storage. Gowns laid out with tissue rolls in the folds (except one blue gown). Masks were supported and tissue protecting where required.


Left image: Gowns pre processing – one was to be left folded.
Right image: Yellow gowns being labelled.

Model of a COVID-19 Isolation House
Donor: Sharron Woodward
Accession number: 2020.58.1 & .2

I think this project is my favourite because I love miniatures! Sharron did a stellar job incorporating so many aspects of our isolation experience into this model. She told us that she made it from a wine box, with newspapers used for the roof. All other items that she used were found while she was out walking. It has poppies and silver fern in the garden and a teddy in the window. Air plants represent cabbage trees and a light can also be installed in the house. Sharron is an artist and said making art was a saviour during lockdown. This work took her a week to complete.

I labelled this object simply by writing on the paper on the parts in soft pencil, again where it is not obvious so that it doesn’t show if going on display. I also popped an archival card tag in with it. To make colleagues’ lives easier, we sometimes write in an object’s database record where it is labelled as it is not always obvious. It’s not always easy to find the accession number, especially on some older objects!

The isolation house had quite a weighty base and a lot of fragile attachments, so I made a sturdy mount to nest and support the base. Separate storage of the roof was essential, preventing any damage of the fragile house parts if it fell off, so it was nested with tissue inside the box. I had to make the box a bit taller due to the ‘cabbage tree’, but this was not an issue. I simply glued corner extensions to the box and the lid still fits snuggly and safe. I added a mylar window in the top to offer a glimpse inside so the lid does not always have to come off for those wanting to see. Warning labels added to the box base indicate the care required. Safe as houses!

Image: Marking out on ethafoam, the mount for nested storage.

Image: Ethafoam cut to fit.


Image: Mount completed and glued in box.

Image: Lid has a mylar window to allow observation.


Background image: Model of a COVID-19 isolation house made during the first Level 4 lockdown; 2020.58.1; © Auckland Museum CC BY

All images by Sarndra Lees unless copyright otherwise stated.