What does a Humanities Technician do?

What does a Humanities Technician do?

Broadly speaking, Humanities at Te Papa covers art and photography, archives, history, taonga Māori, and Pacific cultures. Humanities Technicians Cassandra Bahr and Alexander Gordon share their behind-the-scenes work with negatives in the Spencer Digby/Ronald D Woolf collection: what research, registration, and rehousing negatives looks like, and how you can help out. 

The Collection

The Spencer Digby/Ronald D Woolf collection consists of approximately 250,000 negatives, taken by the Wellington-based studio. Most of these negatives were originally stored in glassine envelopes (or ‘job bags’) labelled with a file number, a date, and the name of the person who ordered the photo. There are exactly 16,726 job bags stored here at Te Papa.

The job of the two humanities technicians employed by the project is to sort and record information from this large number of negatives and envelopes to ensure that as many images as possible are searchable and findable both by Te Papa staff and visitors to Collections Online.

Before we can do that, though, we need to get them out of storage in the cool store where the acetate negatives are kept at 2° Celsius and then acclimatised. Watch this video of Cassandra and Alexander in the cool store by Ish Doney and Ashleigh James-McKenna:

You can read more about this process in this earlier blog.

Deciphering Handwriting

Closeups of names and notes written on job bags.
Selection of inscriptions on job bags. Composite image by Te Papa

Registration is the nuts and bolts of the Humanities Technician’s work. Registering collection items in EMu, our collection database, ensures that we can keep track of what is in the collection and where it is stored in order to find it again quickly. We transcribe the information from the negatives’ original enclosures and rehouse them into acid-free museum envelopes.

There’s quite a range of handwriting over the 50-year period this collection covers! Sometimes it looks like all the people must be named ‘Mrs Mmnu’. Often we can compare the name with the record in the photographer’s register, which helps give a different perspective on ambiguous letters. If we really can’t understand the name, we can record several alternatives to ensure the best possible accuracy.

Dating and locating the unlabeled

Occasionally the job bag won’t have a date on it. One way we can work out the date is by looking at details in the photograph, such as fashions or recognisable buildings.

A black and white split image of the same street scene of 1960s Wellington buildings and cars. There is a man walking in the foreground.
Corner of Wakefield and Cuba Sts, 1960-1970, Wellington, by Spencer Digby Studios. Spencer Digby / Ronald D Woolf Collection. Gift of Ronald Woolf, 1975. Te Papa (B.085168)

These negatives were undated and only labelled ‘AWA’, which we know is Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia). Luckily, they depict distinctive Wellington buildings and a trolley bus. The National Bank Commerce House building was built by 1961, and the Dental and Medical Supplies building next door was demolished in the 1970s, giving us a definite 1960s date.

What’s in a name?

Because the name recorded on a job bag is usually the person who paid for the photo to be taken, this doesn’t always mean that it’s the name of the person in the photo. This is especially noticeable in an image like the one below, where a small boy is labelled ‘Mrs G. MacArthur’ – almost certainly not his name!

A black and white photo displaying a split image with each image being the same boy wearing a kilt in two different positions.
Boy; inscribed ‘Mrs G. McArthur’, 1 October 1956, Wellington, by Spencer Digby Studios. Spencer Digby / Ronald D Woolf Collection. Gift of Ronald Woolf, 1975. Te Papa (B.084117)

Ideally, we’d know who everyone in the photos is. When we get a clue in addition to the name, we are able to identify people more accurately. For example, a job bag entitled ‘Mr M Latchem’ contained an image of a man playing a violin. This was enough additional information to identify the sitter as Malcolm Latchem, an English violinist who played chamber music in New Zealand in the late 1950s.

Malcolm Latchem, 16 May 1957, Wellington, by Spencer Digby Studios. Spencer Digby / Ronald D Woolf Collection. Gift of Ronald Woolf, 1975. Te Papa (B.086186)

Another example was a job bag inscribed ‘Miss A Nesbet (Miss New York)’. Using the National Library’s Papers Past, we found that an Arlene Nesbitt, who had been made Miss New York in 1959, had toured New Zealand that same year. However, it wasn’t until we found a photo of her visiting Palmerston North Hospital in the Manawatū Heritage collection that we were able to positively identify Arlene herself as the sitter in our photo. It turned out that Arlene also worked as a nurse.

Arlene Nesbitt (Miss New York), 8 October 1959, Wellington, by Spencer Digby Studios. Spencer Digby / Ronald D Woolf Collection. Gift of Ronald Woolf, 1975. Te Papa (B.085582)

You can help!

Now that so many more Spencer Digby/Ronald D Woolf images and catalogue records are now on Collections Online, we need your help to identify more people and put real names and stories behind all the images. You can search for specific names with ‘surname AND digby’ or browse through all the Spencer Digby Studio images.

Searching for ‘surname AND digby’ on Te Papa’s Collections Online.

With your help, we can make this collection as well-documented and significant as possible.

Read more

Read more about the Spencer Digby/Ronald D Woolf Lotteries project here.

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