Te Papa has a collection of nearly 4,000 glass plate and film negatives taken by the Wellington photography studio Berry & Co. The studio was founded by William Berry in 1897, and operated in Cuba St until 1931. The negatives are mainly portraits – of families, children, men and women, soldiers in uniform, the occasional pet – and are a wonderful resource for those interested in our history, or in the history of fashion.
1,479 of our Berry negatives had been digitally imaged and put online over the past ten years, leaving us 2,397 more to photograph and upload to the web. We’re keen to make more of this great historical resource available online, so we have started a mass imaging project, to photograph them in batches of 100 per week. At this rate, it will take about six months to do them all.
From cold storage to the studio
The negatives are all kept in our cold storage vaults, as low temperatures and humidity slow their deterioration. They have to be brought up to room temperature slowly (acclimatised), otherwise there’s a risk that moisture will condense on the surface of the negatives, and damage or destroy the image.
We are using small chilly bins to acclimatise and transport the negatives. These are handled very carefully, but as additional protection against bumps which could crack the glass, the bins are padded out with foam and pillows.
The negatives are placed on their edges in the chilly bin, as this is the way they are designed to travel. The bin is then left closed for five days, so the plates can slowly acclimatise to room temperature.
In the studio
Once the plates have acclimatised, we move them to the photography studio and they are photographed on a light box by one of our imaging team.
When the photographs have been taken, the negatives are moved back to the cold storage vault. As one set of negatives acclimatises another is being photographed, so there are always three sets of chilly bins on the move.
So far we’ve photographed 500 of the negatives in the project, and they are being uploaded as we go. Here’s a small selection. I’ll be putting up more as the project continues, or you can keep an eye out for new additions on Collections Online.