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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.