The only island holiday we’re getting this year – spending time in the rare books collection

The only island holiday we’re getting this year – spending time in the rare books collection

Amanda Sykes and Alice Hinton, Master of Museum and Heritage Practice program students at Wellington’s Victoria University, spent three weeks working on a placement at Te Papa’s Research library. Here they describe their work and adventures while here.

Over three weeks in August we completed an internship within the Knowledge and Information team at Te Papa. Despite an uncertain start (cheers Covid-19!), we were able to begin cataloguing the plates from books belonging to the Charles Rooking Carter Collection. A few years before his death in 1895, Carter presented the Colonial Museum with a collection of works, with much of it pertaining to Aotearoa New Zealand. This is where the interns come in.

To make specific plates more accessible to researchers and easier to publish on Collections Online when they become digitised, we have been cataloguing and describing the plates within some of these volumes. So far we have catalogued 591 plates, from the first edition of A History of the Birds of New Zealand, 1873 (Buller’s Birds), The Art Album of New Zealand Flora, 1889 (Sarah Featon), Georg Rumph’s Illustrated Treasury of Marine Life, 1739, George Anderson’s Cook’s Voyages, 1784, and two volumes of Voyage de la corvette l’Astrolabe, 1833. Working on these plates has been super interesting, particularly when reading the accompanying text.

A painting of a penguin with yellow crested eyebrows and a white front.
Eudyptes chrysocomus, detail from Plate 34. From the book A history of the birds of New Zealand, Johannes Keulemans, by Sir Walter Buller, Taylor and Francis, London, 1873. Te Papa (RB001176/033a)
A page from a book with two penguins painted in the centre. One has yellow-crested eyebrows
Eudyptes chrysocomus and Eudyptula minor. Plate 34. From the book A history of the birds of New Zealand, Johannes Keulemans, by Sir Walter Buller, Taylor and Francis, London, 1873. Te Papa (RB001176/033a)

The plates in Buller’s Birds were beautiful, they had their own life and shimmer that you just don’t see in the later reproductions. Comparing them to current photographs of these birds show just how much detail is included in Keuleman’s illustrations. Favourites included the depictions of tūī, takahē, and tawaki. Describing these plates desperately made me wish I had any artistic talent. However, reading the descriptions of these birds and realising that many of them went extinct within 10 years of the book’s publication due to hunting and habitat destruction was a bummer.

It was also interesting seeing how the taxonomic names changed over time. The Māori names became part of my primary search as these often only changed from phonetic spelling, by adding macrons.

A page from an old book with three images of a seal, an opossum and a white bear
A Young Sea Otter found off the North West Coast of America; An Opossum, a Quadruped of Van Diemen’s Land; A White Bear found in the Pacific Ocean near Icy Cape. Plate 71. From the book New, authentic, and complete collection of voyages round the world., 1784, London, by George Anderson, Issac Taylor. Te Papa (RB000015/071a)

Another set of plates we completed was the Complete Voyages of Captain Cook (with Captains Wallis, Byron, and Drake making appearances). This volume follows Cook through all three of his voyages throughout the Pacific, and boy, what a ride. The language and description of Pacific peoples induced a huge internal cringe, but it was fascinating seeing how much of the original place names were retained (albeit with some very odd spellings).

Cataloguing the plates from Cook’s voyages involved some extensive Googling, most often for the modern spellings of Pacific Island names. Many were simply spelled phonetically, but even still we must have looked a bit odd muttering the names of the various islands of Tonga and Hawai‘i at our computers. Every now and then a correction was made in pencil – a favourite is the description of Māori eating their conquered dead, with the inscription next to it simply saying ‘posh!’. (Past staff of the museum often left their thoughts in the library books, I suspect this to be one of Elsdon Best’s – he often disagreed with other authors texts and wasn’t shy to write in the margin or cross the text out entirely. ‘Posh’ and ‘bosh’ (nonsense; rubbish) were something he used when he really disagreed with the text! Martin Lewis aka  rarebookguy)

The detective work needed when finding the name of artists and engravers led me down a few rabbit holes and educated guesses being made. It was interesting comparing the very Grecian depictions of Māori and Pacific people against the later Astrolabe voyage, in which they appear more caricatured – they show evolution of artistic perceptions of the Pacific and attitudes towards the Pacific in European thought.

The first page from an old book with text and a small image in the centre
Voyage de la corvette l’Astrolabe execute pendant les annees 1826-1827-1828-1829. Atlas Zoologique, Tome II, 1833, France, by Jules Dumont d’Urville, J. Tastu, Jean-Gabriel Prêtre. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (RB001201)
A painting of a grey bird with an orange and blue wattle, standing on a branch. There are pencil drawings below it.
Glaucope cendre male (Novelle-Zelande). Oiseaux Plate 15. From the book: Voyage de la corvette l’Astrolabe execute pendant les annees 1826-1827-1828-1829. Zoologique Atlas, Tome II, 1833, France, by Jean-Gabriel Prêtre. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. Te Papa (RB001201/015a)

We met some lovely staff from around the museum which gave us a small insight into the dedication, detail, and passion that goes into the work here. So, while we could have told you about the cataloguing of the Carters collection which was the task at hand – we feel we’ve taken away just as much knowledge in our sessions with key figures around Te Papa.

Catriona McPherson talked to us about her role as the Rights Manager and the process and management of intellectual property including trademarks, cultural rights, and reuse of images. Catriona also works to proactively assess and clear the rights or ‘license’ for objects in Te Papa’s collection. This discussion gave me a new appreciation for the work involved in obtaining permissions for imagery and media that you just don’t see as an outsider.

Andrea Hearfield kindly took us into the works on paper store where she showed us some of Sarah Featon’s watercolour botanical illustrations. The vibrancy and detail in this art is beautiful and unique. The first book I (Alice) catalogued during this placement was Sarah Featon’s Art Album of New Zealand Flora so it was interesting to see this comparison.

We asked Andrea to show us her favourite item or piece of art in the collection, she showed us Edward Burne-Jones’ sketchbook from 1871 during a trip to Italy which is filled with intriguing sketches of architecture and people. He had written a disclaimer at the beginning asking you to not read his notes, which just made you want to decipher the handwriting even more.

We really enjoy seeing personal small stories that at times are lost through time or overshadowed by the bigger picture. The sketchbook is available to look at through Collections Online.

A page from a book with a painting of yellow flowers and green leaves and a seedpod
From the book The Art Album of New Zealand Flora, Yellow Kowhai, 1888, New Zealand, by Sarah Featon. Purchased 1919. Te Papa (1992-0035-2277/72)

Dr Rebecca Rice, Curator New Zealand Historical Art spoke with us about the printing process of the plates in the books we’ve been working with. The plates were created by an engraver incising the image into a metal plate… I guess you would just hope to not make a mistake. The image is then printed and painted – which gave me a new appreciation for the patience and meticulous detail involved in creating them (1–2 years to print and colour each book!). This process often meant that several different engravers, artists and printers were involved in creating the illustrations.

She took us through a day in the life of being a curator and told us about her recent art acquisitions, and the stories behind them.

An open book with an engraving of a man in a science room on the left and text in red and black on the right-hand page
Thesaurus imaginum piscium testaceorum; quales sunt cancri, echini, echinometra, stellae marinae, &c. ut et cochlearum … quibus accedunt conchylia, ut nautilus, cornu Ammonis, & conch univalvi et bivalviae … denique mineralia …, 1739, Hague, The, by Georg Rumpf. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (RB001235)

We would like to thank everyone who gave their time and shared their knowledge, it’s been a really valuable experience to see the behind the scenes of an internationally ranked museum. We would also like to thank Martin Lewis for taking us on, showing us the ropes, and for enthusing us about book marbling.


  1. Great blog! I catalogued the Carter Collection many years ago, and it’s so nice to know that those lovely illustrations will be getting better exposure. Christine K.

    1. Thanks Christine, little steps but we hope to have more images coming through Collections Online in the future as well. Watch this space!

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