Help reconnect taonga with their communities and history

Help reconnect taonga with their communities and history

We’re searching for ‘volunpeers’ to transcribe and digitise the business records of W O Oldman, a British collector and dealer in ethnographic art. 

In collaboration with the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), we want this information publically available, enabling institutions throughout the world to trace where taonga have travelled, and potentially reconnect them with their communities and history.

Rights Manager Victoria Leachman explains how you can help.

Who was Oldman and why does Te Papa have his business records?

William Ockleford Oldman was a British dealer of ethnographic material, arms, and armour.

His business, W.O. Oldman, Ethnographic Specimens, London traded between the 1890s and 1910s.

He sourced stock for his business from auctions and house sales as well as other traders and collectors.

He held auctions, produced sales catalogues, and had extensive correspondence and trading relationships with collectors, curators, and scholars worldwide.

In addition to the stock of the business, Oldman also gathered a significant private collection of ethnographic material from the Oceanic region.

This collection was displayed in his house, every wall and surface packed with objects.

Image shows room filled with various masks and headresses of African and Pacific origin.
W.O. Oldman with masks and headdresses, about 1920, by Pacific and Atlantic Photos Ltd. Te Papa (O.027326)

After his retirement, Oldman continued to trade and add to his collection until in 1948 when he sold it to the New Zealand Government.

As he was no longer trading and the New Zealand Government was interested in having as much provenance information about their new acquisition, Oldman included his business records as part of the purchase.

Most of the Oldman collection and business records were stored at the Dominion Museum but parts of the collection were distributed to other New Zealand museums.

In 1992 legal title to the collection and records was passed from the Government to Te Papa.

Room filled with Māori carvings, feather cloaks and paddles.
Oldman collection, England, by Hobbs, Offen & Co Ltd. Te Papa (O.027325)

Why is NMAI interested?

In April 2016 Maria Galban, Collections Documentation Manager at the NMAI, contacted Jennifer Twist, Archivist at Te Papa, seeking information from the W O Oldman business records relating to objects purchased from Oldman by George Heye, which are now in the NMAI collection.

As the ‘Heye’ objects were either sourced from W.O. Oldman, Ethnographic Specimens, London, or from collectors who purchased from that business, Maria was looking to track the provenance of those objects.

Jennifer researched the stock book that listed those objects and scanned the pages relating to transactions between Oldman to Heye.

The scans were then forwarded to Maria, who was able to track the provenance of the Heye objects prior to their accession into the NMNA collection.

On the back of that success a discussion began about the need to have these stock books digitised.

Since those discussions in 2017, Maria has led the work to get the Oldman archives digitised, as the teams both institutions are very aware that others may benefit from this work.

Navigating copyright

NMAI worked within the Smithsonian to advocate for the project to be accepted by the Smithsonian Transcription Centre while I started some detective work to sort any required copyright permissions.

Oldman died on 30 June 1949. Copyright in any of his literary and artistic works expired in New Zealand at the end of the calendar year 50 years after his death – after 31 December 1999.

However, in order to get the images up online for transcription at the Smithsonian, I also had to consider copyright duration for America.

For unpublished works copyright duration in America generally expires at the end of the calendar year, 70 years after death, so the records are still in copyright until after 31 December 2019.

Even though copyright expires in a year, I didn’t want this to delay the project, so I needed to get permission from the copyright holder.

This involved obtaining the wills of both Oldman and his widow, Dorothy K Oldman, from The National Archives in the UK.

I found out the inheriting body was the charity The British Home. I contacted the Chief Executive and explained the situation and he very kindly granted Te Papa a copyright licence allowing Te Papa and the NMAI to pursue this project.

We very much appreciate The British Home’s generosity and support.

Digitising the works

After this groundwork was completed Te Papa’s Collection Imaging Team set about digitising the works.

Seven stock books were identified as containing important information with a total of 2,000 pages, these ranged in size from 40 pages right up to 900 pages in one volume.

Worn leather bound book, with gold letters spelling out 'Ledger' on the spine.
Sales and Stock Ledger, 1902-1906, by William Ockleford Oldman. Te Papa (CA000231/001/0001)

Whilst we initially thought that we would be able to digitise all the books as two-page spreads, after conservation assessment it was decided that only one was suitable so single page capture was used. In the end it took two imaging technicians two weeks to digitise the 2,000 pages creating over 730 gigabytes of data.

Imaging technician setting up a large book for photographing in a photography studio.
Dionne Ward digitising the Oldman Ledger, 2018. Photo by Melissa Irving. Te Papa

Become a volunpeer and help us transcribe!

Volunpeers (no that isn’t a typo!) at the Smithsonian Transcription Centre are transcribing these records right now and you can join them.

The images will be available both in the Smithsonian Collections Search Centre and also in Te Papa’s Collections Online.

Longer term we’ll also be adding the information transcribed to the individual records for each of the registers.

Get transcribing

Here are the instructions if you’re interested in helping transcribe.

And here is a link to the digitised Oldman business records and their transcribe status.

We’re really excited to see what collaborative project will discover!

Ledger page with itemised list.
Page from Sales and Stock Ledger, 1902-1906, by William Ockleford Oldman. Te Papa (CA000231/001/0001)


  1. the only link i can find says that the 1902/03 records are already transcribed and i can’t find any others to do!

    1. ooops! all sorted I found the link and have signed up now. cheers Sherry

  2. What an interesting project. What program is used for transcription? Word? Can you please post (or email me) a page that shows what a completed transcription looks like?

  3. Where is the link to sign up as a volunpeer please?

    1. hit the link above to digitalised records under Get Transcribing. there is a signup link on the top righthand side of the screen (tho you only need to do that if you want to be a reviewer i believe). cheers sherry

  4. I couldn’t find anywhere to sign up to be a volunpeer. Please give me a link.

  5. Nice one Victoria. As the transcription reveals which taonga were generated by which communities, who will be initiating contact with their communities to reconnect them?

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