Despite its inherent fragility, paper and the marks we make on it carry some of the most important messages of our time. From artworks to conscription registers and especially personal correspondence, life-altering words are often dependent on the flimsiest of materials to stand the tests of time. 

In this blog, we speak to Paper Conservator Erin Walker about the ethics of conservation and how she ensured some of the letters in Love & Loss were ready for their time in the spotlight.

Love & Loss is dedicated to the power of the written word. It is also the first exhibition in the Museum’s history to focus solely on our Documentary Heritage collection. In putting this show together, Curator Manuscripts Nina Finigan and Interpretive Planner Kavi Chetty sifted through this vast collection – which numbers in the millions – to bring some of the most emotive, most moving letters into the light. To these were added public submissions and loans, the result of a public call-out for treasured letters, emails, text messages, even DMs. 


Erin preparing a wheat starch paste adhesive to be used in conservation treatments.

© Auckland War Memorial Museum.

But as anyone who has retrieved a rained-on birthday card from the letterbox will know, paper is vulnerable. It can be damaged by moisture and even light, meaning every minute that it’s on display does a tiny bit of damage to the object. Curators work with our Collection Care team to make sure the Museum is keeping the right balance of making the collection available for visitors to admire and making sure visitors will be able to see them for many more years to come. 

Preparing the materials for a treatment.

© Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Paper Conservator Erin Walker has worked on many of the Museum’s paper objects. Each treatment is unique to the object, with some taking ten minutes to work on, others taking days. Every object is made of different materials and has lived a different life which requires different care. The treatment she applies depends on what the object is and what it will be used for: “If we had a newspaper that was missing some corners, I’d fill in the corner so you could handle the document properly. But I wouldn’t necessarily be toning the fill so that it looks exactly like the original paper because the actual value of the object lies in the information printed on the pages. The newspaper exists to hold that information.”  

Not all objects exist purely to convey information, though. “In an artwork, for example, aesthetics play a huge part – you can't just leave a hole [called a ‘loss’]. So, we would integrate that loss back into the image and there are many ways to do that – it comes down to the skill of the Conservator and what they're comfortable doing. But you still want to be able to distinguish your bit [the fill] from the original. It can't completely look like the original, that’s not the intention. We're intending to just integrate it [the loss] so your eye flows over it, undistracted.”  


Applying repairs to the letter from Jane Bogle about the death of her husband. MS-2021-2.

© Auckland War Memorial Museum.

While the content of the letter Erin is working on in these photos is very moving – Jane Bogle writing about the death of her husband William – it is still an object created for communication rather than visual, artistic purposes. As a result, integrating the losses to preserve the visual qualities becomes less of a priority for the Conservator. Instead, the priority for this object was making sure the information was readable and the paper was structurally sound enough to be handled and exhibited.  

The tears were mended using strips of very thin 5gsm tengucho Japanese tissue paper with wheat starch paste as the adhesive. The reversibility and chemical stability of these materials make them essential for all Paper Conservators' toolkits. Japanese papers have very long fibres, which allows for the production of extremely thin yet strong papers. Conservators source Japanese papers that have been made with conservation specifications: no harsh chemical bleaches or other additives that modern paper tends to have. Starch paste (wheat or rice) is made from purified starch powder cooked in water. It dries nearly clear and is a strong adhesive that does not break down or discolour over time. Starch pastes have been used for centuries in Asian scroll-mounting and alongside Japanese paper, so Conservators know these repairs will last the test of time.


Erin repairing 'Letter to Janet Bogle, 27 March 1942' MS-2021-2.

© Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Another part of Erin's job is to anticipate how an object might be handled in order to devise how best to protect it. One letter she worked on for Love & Loss was made from heavyweight, high-quality paper, but it had been damaged by pests. The little vermin had eaten away at the edges creating losses, which means when the object was handled, the edges could catch and potentially tear. Erin added repairs to reinforce the sides, preventing this tearing from happening. 

Auckland Museum’s Conservators are all members of Pū manaaki kahurangi The New Zealand Conservators of Cultural Materials (NZCCM), a professional association for Conservators of cultural property in Aotearoa. NZCCM members are committed to following the Code of Ethics that outlines ethical principles and professional conduct.  

Conservation is not about restoring an object to what it once looked like – it is much more than this. Conservators aim to preserve the history and integrity of every object that they work on, and often restoring back to the original is not culturally appropriate or ethical. The careful work that Erin and the Museum's entire Collection Care team do to care for not just paper but every object in the collection ensures that these pieces will last to continue telling the stories of the people who made them.

Erin flattens creases and folds prior to repairing the letter from Jane Bogle about the death of her husband William. MS-2021-2. © Auckland War Memorial Museum.

You can explore the stories of Love & Loss online here.