Collection care: A glimpse behind the scenes

Sarah Robinson, Social History Curatorial Intern

This week we’re going behind the scenes of the Petone Settlers Museum Collection store.

At Petone Settlers Museum, we collect objects that tell the stories of our wonderful little city, objects that express its personality and that of the community. To care for these objects, we use a variety of processes and techniques.

There are many tricks to maintaining a happy and healthy collection: we use climate control to ensure objects remain at stable temperature and humidity levels; appropriate packing materials to ensure objects are supported and stored using materials that won’t damage their integrity; handling techniques to move objects around; condition reporting and paying close attention to the physical aspects of objects that may require some extra work in the future. This is but a small selection of tasks Collection Managers undertake regularly in their roles as kaitiaki; guardians and stewards of taonga and collections.

We have some images of work we’ve done in the past and some shots of the store itself; hopefully these give you an idea of what our little gem looks and feels like.

A safe home for every object

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Knitted baby’s shawl, early 20th century. Collection of Petone Settlers Museum – Te Whare Whakaaro o Pito-One

Housing, or storing, objects correctly is a big part of collection management. This is what keeps the objects safe, clean and away from gremlins that might damage them.

There are different methods and materials used to house different kinds of objects; this photo shows one way of housing textiles, in this case, a crocheted shawl. You can see a skinny white sausage form toward the top of the photo; this is acid-free tissue that’s been rolled into a sausage shape to keep the shawl from folding along that line. Tissue is also used to interleave between layers of fabric, preventing the layers from touching one another and sticking together.

Keeping an eye on the condition

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Small pewter book – Hymns Ancient and Modern, William Cloves and Sons Ltd., 1909. Collection of Petone Settlers Museum – Te Whare Whakaaro o Pito-One, gifted 1977

Condition reporting is another process integral to the art of collection care. The condition of an object as it enters a collection is important information; it helps to benchmark the physical properties and imperfections of the object and gives a point from which to work from in the future.

These photos show different aspects of a miniature book, which was in a tired and heavily used state when it entered our collection. You can see there are some quite deep gouges running down the front of the cover, a large chip at the bottom right corner and a small ding on the upper right corner. There has also been some damage to the pages at the upper right corner. Taking multiple, often close-up, photographs is one of the best ways of documenting an object’s condition – we keep an eye on these details, and do conservation work when needed.

Getting our photography right

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Stirling silver locket with a photograph of Mitchell Denby, a foreman of the Petone Woollen Mills, date unknown. Collection of Petone Settlers Museum – Te Whare Whakaaro o Pito-One, gifted 1979.

It’s also imperative the photos taken are of a good quality – without clear images it can be difficult to identify objects, difficult to track potential deterioration, and difficult to identify subjects. Above are two images of the same silver locket containing the photo of a man. You can probably tell one photo is significantly better quality than the other, making it easier to ‘read’ the object.

It is also easier to see the image of the man, making it more likely we can identify him if his name isn’t given with the object’s paperwork (in this case, his name was given, and we know he is Mitchell Denby, a foreman of the Petone Woollen Mills in the late 1800s). This photo also shows the colours of the object and small imperfections more clearly, giving a more accurate representation of the actual object.

Organise, categorise, itemise

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Box of Wills’ cigarette packets – no other information available, photo taken by me, 2020.

Another fun task Collection Managers get to do is document, photograph and record large groups of objects that come in a bit jumbled and objects that aren’t well taken care of. Works on paper, wallpaper and fragile textiles are common in social history collections like ours. Rolls of wallpaper are particularly tricky beasties; as wallpaper is not often stored flat, the natural contour of the paper makes it difficult to store – do you flatten it, and have the patterned side visible, but potentially damage the fibers by straightening them out? Or do you leave it rolled, and risk not being able to unroll it in the future, as the fibers will have become brittle over time? Often conservators specializing in the care of paper are called in to deal with these.

Large boxes of random objects are also often left to museums; in attempts to preserve history and the lives of loved ones, people donate objects they believe will cared for by a museum. And, if the objects fit within collection policy, we do love to receive them. Because Petone’s history is so linked to its industrial past, tobacco, Unilever, Gear Meat and Griffin’s objects frequently find their way to us. As is true of most collections, we have an overflow of fascinating objects like these cigarette packets. Unfortunately, these arrived somewhat unceremoniously and it took a bit of detecting to sort, document and enter the records into our collection management system.

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