Digitising Theo Schoon’s photographs of Māori rock art

Digitising Theo Schoon’s photographs of Māori rock art

Intern Tim Fortescue-Willis has spent the last six weeks cataloguing and digitising Theo Schoon’s photographs of Māori rock art. Tim describes his journey working with these negatives and reflects on what he’s learnt about Theo Schoon during his time at Te Papa. 

Dutch-New Zealand artist Theo Schoon was employed by the Department of Internal Affairs to paint and photograph Māori rock art in the South Island.

Taken from 1946 to 1949, these pictures record a beautiful array of drawings and represent a period in Schoon’s life where he was developing a fascination with Māori art.

Māori rock drawing, 1946-1949, South Island, by Theo Schoon. Purchased 2001 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (CA000855/001/0003/0030)

Most Māori rock art is located in the South Island. Drawn with red, black, yellow and white pigments the drawings depict a variety of subjects including people, waka, and symbols [1]. I think those of animals stand out the most.

Some depict birds….

Māori rock drawing, 1946-1949, Canterbury, by Theo Schoon. Purchased 2001 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (CA000855/001/0003/0016)

…or intriguing stylisations of dogs…

Māori rock drawing, 1946-1949, Pleasant Point, by Theo Schoon. Purchased 2001 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (CA000855/001/0002/0005)

…and perhaps a taniwha?

Māori rock drawing, 1946-1949, South Island, by Theo Schoon. Purchased 2001 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (CA000855/001/0002/0001)

The digitisation process

My personal journey with rock art began by cataloguing Schoon’s negatives in Te Papa’s Collections Management System.

Holding over 600,000 records, this Collections Management System is an intimidatingly large database that keeps track of Te Papa’s collections.

Unsurprisingly, entering all the data for Schoon’s negatives was a repetitive task – however this process helps the images become more discoverable and prepares them for digitisation.

I’ve been using two machines to digitise Schoon’s negatives: one for each of the two negative formats he produced. The first is a high powered camera with a special lens designed to minimise distortion. The other is a tall machine, a kind of scanner that sucks the negatives inside it after they’re placed in a flexible metal tray. Both are pretty cool, but also capable of making some disconcerting noises.

The high-resolution Phase One iXG Camera, 2019. Photo by Melissa Irving. Te Papa

The scanner and camera are cranked up to their maximum settings. The idea is that if the image is detailed enough, people can view the digital versions instead of handling the originals – a process that might cause damage.

The digital files are big: each picture is about 400 megabytes. Compare this to my phone: which takes much smaller photos of only 3.5 megabytes!

Zoom into the images on Collections Online to experience the high definition.

Theo Schoon – friend or foe?

Theo’s legacy is pretty polarising. Aside from being a bit of an egomaniac, Schoon’s been repeatedly criticized for his disturbing disregard for proper preservation practices[2, 3].

In one blog, Te Papa’s archivist and my supervisor Jennifer Twist recalls how Schoon pored detergent into Rotorua’s mud pools to augment their appearance for his camera. Now regarded as harmful, it is (unsurprisingly and thankfully) illegal to do this.

While digitising Schoon’s negatives I had my own run-in with his questionable practices: in this case the ‘retouching’ of Māori rock art with grease crayons.

I came across a few examples of this. At the Kaingaroa carvings Schoon even took a before and after picture: one picture depicting the art as he found it, and the other clearly showing his outlines.

Possibly taken at the Kaingaroa rock carvings, near Murupara. This image depicts a carving of several waka before Theo Schoon drew over it. Purchased 2001 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (CA000855/001/0003/0012)
Depicting the same rock art as CA000855/001/0003/0012, this image probably shows Theo Schoon’s additions. Purchased 2001 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (CA000855/001/0003/0015)

New Zealand artist Tony Fomison criticized the retouching; giving the following scalding account:

‘…[Schoon’s] use of the crayon was inaccurate. It did not attempt to cover mark for mark, such as our polythene tracings now try to do. And because he did not recognise the relevance of superimpositions for identifying a style sequence, his retouching, along with his copies, often amalgamated a sequence of drawings over-lying one another into one incomprehensible image.’ [2]

Despite his shortcomings, Theo Schoon undoubtedly had a sense of dedication to painting and photographing rock art. While taking these photographs he endured sickness, working in the cold wind, and sleeping in the rain [3].

Schoon’s name often finds its way into discussions about rock art – it’s interesting how we have a tendency to acknowledge someone’s appreciation for rock art, perhaps at the expense of those that created the art he photographed.

If you’re interested in learning more, Split Level View Finder: Theo Schoon and New Zealand Art is on at City Gallery, Wellington 27 Jul–3 Nov 2019.


  1. Allingham, Brian. Story: Ngā toi ana.” In Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Accessed July 8, 2019
  2. Fomison, Tony. Theo Schoon and the retouching of rock art. Archaeology in New Zealand30 (1987): 158-160. Accessed June 28, 2019
  3. Skinner, Damian. Theo Schoon: a biography. Auckland, New Zealand: Massey University Press, 2018


  1. Hi, I’m trying to get in touch with Tim. Can you please pass my details onto him? Thank you

  2. “Soaping” of geysers was a standard practice up to the time when Schoon did it.

  3. Hi Tim, Can you forward me your email and or phone contacts? Luit Bieringa

  4. Would have liked to know the location of all of the drawings. Assume that Pleasant Point is actually Raincliff and others are in the Waitaki Valley which I looked at in the 1950’s when writing a thesis on South Canterbury. .

    Thanks for the info. Great to see the paintings being preserved for the future.

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