Rediscovering Te Papa’s film archives

Rediscovering Te Papa’s film archives

David Riley, who works in our Digital Collections and Access team, is digitising 190 film reels – the contents of which hasn’t been seen for 70 years. Find out what he’s found so far.

David Riley with the film reels in the cold room
David Riley with the collection of 16mm and 8mm films in the cold room, 2016. Te Papa

Discovering the film reels

Since joining Te Papa I have been curious about a collection of 16mm and 8mm films stored in our cold room.

They were collected in the 1950s, and the contents of the films probably hadn’t been viewed since then.

With the help of Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision, we have just commenced digitisation of parts of this collection.

Digitising the unknown

Often, I have no real idea of what the footage will be, as the details on the film cans themselves is pretty sparse.

An example of this, was when I digitised some footage that was labelled ‘iron ore’. I had hoped that it was filmed in New Zealand, as a television production company had enquired whether we held any footage of New Zealand iron ore mining.

As I viewed it, I quickly realised that it was not New Zealand at all, but 1920s footage of iron ore mining and production on a huge scale. The film featured the Mesabi Iron ore range in the USA and the transportation across the Great Lakes to iron ore plants.

After discussions with Ngā Taonga we came up with a plan to digitise some more material and have subsequently digitised nine more films.

What we’ve found

The subjects of the nine films we’ve had back aren’t just filmed in New Zealand but are from all over the world. The content ranges from Whaling in the Antarctic in the late 1940s, to a mysterious piece of footage of the Queen Elizabeth as a troop carrier arriving in Wellington during World War II, to footage of the ‘extinct’ takahē  being rediscovered in 1948.

Do let me know in the comments if you know anything about this footage or recognise anyone.

One of my favourite films is from the early 1950s of penguins in the Antarctic. It shows the struggles of these hardy animals against the extreme elements and skua (predatory seabird) as they tend their young.

I’ll be adding all these digitised films to the ‘Archives’ playlist on Te Papa’s YouTube channel.

I hope you enjoy them, and I’ll look forward to sharing more of our finds during the next few months.


  1. Well done …look forward to reading the blogs

  2. Hi, I am contacting you about a discovery I made recently, and wondering if it has any historic value? During some recent work on the fireplace in our 1875 home in Staveley, Ashburton, I discovered an Art Union ticket neatly folded and left in a small gap behind the mantle piece. It is in good order, and has a drawn date of 20th October, 1939. This is approximately one month after the commencement of World War Two. I can send you a scanned copy of it if you would like to send me an email address. The back of the ticket has an advertisement for ‘New Zealand Centennial Publications’ priced at one shilling per copy. The ticket would have been bought by Charles and Ellen Timpson. Charles was a Rabbiter, and they lived at Ross Cottage (our Catagory 2 Heritage home) from 1908 to 1964. I would appreciate your comments on my interesting find. Regards, Paul Eden.

    1. Hi Paul
      Thanks for getting in touch. Here is a link to our donation form:
      As well as this information, it would be very useful to see an image of each side of the ticket and maybe one of where you found it! The history team has fortnightly meetings about potential donations, so we will be in touch in the next two to three weeks.
      Kind regards
      Kirstie Ross, History curator

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