Caring for Taonga – Marae photographs / Āta tiakina ngā whakaahua i ngā Marae
Most marae hold photographic portraits and images illustrating the whakapapa of their iwi and hapū. Display varies from marae to marae – some have large numbers of images hung along all walls of the whare, some only along the back wall and others are only brought out for tangihanga. Photographs are often removed from the wall and travel to other marae for significant events.
Photographs hanging in whare come in many sizes and formats. Large hand-coloured portraits in oak bevelled frames, oval images with convex bubble glass, black and white portraits, and small colour snaps in store-bought frames. Each photograph has its own story and whakapapa and each has its own preservation needs.
This guide is for kaitiaki, whānau, hapū and iwi who care for photographs on their marae.
Photographic history / Te Hītori ō Ngā Whakaahua
The earliest known Māori photographic portrait is of Caroline and Sarah Barrett taken ca. 1853. It is a daguerreotype with the photo-image produced on silver and mounted in a special case. Daguerreotype was one of the earliest photographic processes.
Silver gelatin prints
Silver gelatin printing developed at the end of the nineteenth century was the most common black and white photographic process of the twentieth century.
Hand-colouring of black and white photographs was popular before colour photography became more accessible. Hand colouring was done using watercolour, oil paints, crayon, coloured pencil and other media.
Albumen photography was the most popular printing process in the nineteenth century and the small carte-de-visite (visiting card) was a common form. Designed for albums rather than frames, carte-de-visite and other albumen prints nevertheless have been framed and displayed in whare.
Albumen paper is very thin and because of that albumen photographs are nearly always mounted onto a thicker cardboard very often printed with the information about the photographic studio. Albumen photographs often have a yellowish tone and the images can appear faded.
This type of photographic image is on an opaque glass – it is also known as milk glass. These works when framed “feel” heavier than the size of the photograph and frame might suggest.
Colour photography became popular from the 1960s and 1970s including studio photography. As cameras became more widely accessible whānau were able to take their own photographs.
The Frame / He Tāpare
One of the most effective ways to protect a photograph in the whare is to ensure it is well framed. A frame’s purpose is to enhance and protect the photographic work. A well framed photographic work will be buffered from the fluctuations in temperature and humidity in the whare.
Two photographs, one framed in the standard way and the other framed to conservation standards may look exactly alike – but the difference will become apparent in time.
In conservation framing all materials in direct contact with the photograph (such as mat board and adhesive) will be of conservation quality. Conservation quality materials have been analysed and tested and have been found to be physically and chemically stable. Also, the methods used to mount the photograph are non-invasive, reversible and cause no harm or stress to the photograph.
Conservation framing is more expensive than standard framing because the materials used are of higher quality and the methods used for mounting may be more time-consuming. But for photographs which are well loved and treasured, and/or which are historically important, the expense is well worth it.
Depending on where you live in New Zealand it may be difficult to find a picture framer who offers a conservation framing service. A local museum may be able to recommend a framer with whom they are familiar.
Structure of the mount and frame
- As well as having an aesthetic function, the frame provides the overall structure and strength to support the photographic work
- Can be either glass or acrylic (such as Perspex)
- Protects the surface of the photograph from dust, dirt and handling
- Encloses the frame protecting the photograph against fluctuations in humidity and temperature
The outer backing board:
- Protects the back of the mount and closes the back of the frame
- Is held in the frame with non-corroding staples or fasteners
- Is sealed with framer’s tape to prevent dust, dirt and insects from entering through the back of the frame
- Can be archival board. On marae where hanging on exterior walls cannot be avoided the backing board should be made from a moisture-impermeable material such as corrugated polyethylene
The window mount:
- Prevents the photograph coming into contact with the glazing
- Visually enhances the appearance of the photograph and provides an air-space between the surface of the photo and the inside of the glazing
- Is the protective housing for the photograph which fits into the frame and is made up of 2 pieces of mat board: window mat and backing board. The backing board provides a support layer to which the photograph can be attached
Where there is no window mat, a spacer in the rebate of the frame ensures the photograph does not come into contact with the glazing.
- Hanging fixtures and fittings should be strong and securely attached to both the frame and the wall
- They need to be in proportion to the size and weight of the framed picture. There are a range of different sizes and types of fixtures and fittings available
- Synthetic hanging cord should be used rather than natural fibres or cord
While the frame will provide some protection from the environment, the framed photographs are still vulnerable to deterioration caused by environmental factors. Heat, moisture and light will all promote and accelerate the deterioration process.
To limit damage:
- Close curtains or blinds when the whare is not in use will help reduce light damage – particularly from the most damaging form of light – external natural light
- Apply small bumpers to the reverse corners of the frame to hold it slightly away from the wall to help minimise the chance of a microclimate forming behind the frame and reducing the likelihood of mould
- Regularly check cordage and hanging fixtures and replace when necessary. Old cordage should be replaced with synthetic hanging cord or metal wire in preference to natural fibres
- Clean the glazing carefully – spray cleaner on a cleaning cloth and wipe the glass. Avoid spraying cleaner directly onto glass as it may run down into the rebate and stain the mount or the photograph
Common damage to marae photographs / Ko Ngā Pūtake Matua o te Kinonga o Ngā Whakaahua i Ngā Marae
Heat, moisture and light promote and accelerate the deterioration process. Fluctuating environmental factors provide the conditions that allow insects and mould to thrive.
Photographs are attractive to insects as a source of food and as a place to live.
Silverfish enjoy grazing on gelatin, starches, glues, gums and paper present in photographs. Silverfish are nocturnal and enjoy warm, dark, moist environments. They will take up residence where there is an attractive climate, good shelter and food.
Controlling silverfish should concentrate on changing the environment so that they no longer feel at home. This includes keeping the whare and the frames clean of the dust and dirt that attract them. Ensuring good air circulation around the frame and in the whare will help keep the temperature and humidity constant.
Borer prefer moist untreated timber and will lay their eggs on timber surfaces or in cracks or holes. The larvae bore into the timber. As adults they bore their way back to the surface. Fresh holes and dust will appear between November-March indicating the borer infestation is still active.
If there are signs of active borer the frame may require treatment, however it would be wise to look more widely in the building itself for active borer. Any plan to deal with a borer infestation in the whare should also include the framed works.
Avoid kerosene to treat borer frames. It is highly flammable and the vapour can cause irritation. Rags used to apply the kerosene may spontaneously ignite. In order to work the kerosene needs to penetrate the timber and this can have the effect of drying out the timber.
Borer bombs or sprays are only effective at killing the adults on the wing between November-March but will not stop the larvae from continuing to eat the timber.
Inferior quality materials
Another common source of damage is from inferior materials used to frame works. Inferior quality mat board is chemically unstable and will deteriorate. As it deteriorates the board becomes brittle, discoloured and increasingly acidic. This in turn promotes the deterioration of the photograph. Inferior materials include wood pulp cardboards, wooden backings, animal glues and ‘sticky’ tapes and most spray adhesives.
When the frame does not have a window mat or a spacer the photographic image risks direct contact and sticking to the glazing. This can be seen as ‘shiny’ patches where the photo and glazing have contacted. Unfortunately it is almost impossible to remove the image without causing permanent damage to the photograph.
Photographs in contact with glazing can cause moisture build-up which in turn can cause mould on the surface of the photograph.
A framed photograph falling from the wall can usually be attributed to either old cord perishing and breaking or the work being too heavy for the fixtures and pulling away from the wall.
This simple checklist can be carried out as part of regular marae maintenance. Record any changes made to the framed photograph and actions taken in an exercise book or computer spreadsheet.
Even if photographs have tears do not try to repair with ’sticky’ tapes such as Sellotape or masking tapes – even those marketed as acid-free tapes and glues can cause lasting damage and staining. Do not apply any coatings or sprays to the photographs. It is better to take a copy of a damaged photograph than attempt a repair and to seek advice from a conservator who is a professional member of the New Zealand Conservators of Cultural Materials Pū Manaaki Kahurangi.
Displaying photographs / Āta Whakaatu i Ngā Whakaahua
Along with the tikanga and whakapapa aspects of hanging a photograph, choices should also take account of whakairō and tukutuku and wall surfaces. Selecting the right tools and the right hanging hardware will minimise potential damage.
Explaining to a commercial framer about where you intend to hang your framed photograph will help them to advise you on frames and hanging systems appropriate to your situation.
Installing discrete picture rails or battens might be possible in some whare. This will allow for safe hanging of framed works. For example it might be possible to locate a rail above the kaho paetara (upper battens) between poupou.
Avoid writing directly on the photographs or applying ‘sticky’ labels directly on the front and/or back of the photograph. The adhesive can stain and damage the image. Writing with a pen or felt tip may cause staining through to the photograph.
Keeping known information about the photograph is useful:
- Tupuna name
- Where taken
- Photographer name
It is better to write this information on the backing board in a soft 2B pencil. If applying a label on the outer backing board print onto white rather than coloured paper and use black ink rather than coloured ink. Use a pH neutral self-adhesive tape and place labels in the same place. For example, on the backing board in the bottom right corner of every photograph.
Create an inventory of all the photographs hanging in the whare. Keep this and any additional information you consider important in an exercise book or computer spreadsheet. This might include contact details of who provided the photograph to the marae.
Consider taking an overall photograph of the interior of the whare as a key to where each of the photographs hang.
Before removing or replacing an old frame or mount there are a number of things which should be considered. An old frame has special value as the original frame. If the frame is structurally sound a framer can often modify it to ensure that the rebate is deep enough to accommodate the total thickness of the glazing, window mat, or spacer, backing board and outer backing board.
Old frames are sometimes glazed with old glass. This glass is usually brittle, typically wavy in appearance and may contain air bubbles and other imperfections. This glass is valuable and should be retained if possible.
Where possible photograph the front and back of the photograph before deframing.
Before removing an old mount or backing board, check for any information relating to the photograph. There may be framers stamp or handwritten inscriptions. Apparently irrelevant notations can be important for dating a work. Discuss the presence of any of this information with the framer. This information should be retained and kept with the work. Old labels can sometimes be removed and incorporated into the new mount or frame.
Unframing a photograph can be straightforward but the previous framer may have mounted or framed the work in an unusual way. Let your picture framer do the unframing because without the proper tools it is easy to cause damage to the photograph.
Once the work is unframed, things not previously evident may be uncovered. You may discover the window mat has been solidly glued to the photograph. The photograph might be glued to a brittle, discoloured cardboard backing. A brittle mount may have partially broken causing damage to the photograph. There may be mould or insect damage.
The photograph may need to be stabilised before reframing. In cases like these, it may be necessary to seek the advice of a paper or photograph conservator. Always use a conservator who is a professional member of the New Zealand Conservators of Cultural Materials Pū Manaaki Kahurangi.
Removing photographs from the whare
Increasingly hapū are responsible for large and growing collections of photographs and managing the twin demands of maintaining and caring for the photographs and the whare.
Some marae have taken the step of removing the photographs from whare and due consideration needs to be given to the longer term consequences of removal:
- How will you record the nature of the discussion and decision to remove the photographs?
- Where will the photographs be housed?
- How will you record what photographs were in the whare, how they were hung and now located?
- How will you determine who you will return the photograph to?
- How will you manage photographs that might be brought onto the marae during tangihanga, kawe-mate, huri-kohatu?
- Who will be responsible and how will you notify hapū and whānau members of a new ‘policy’?
Are there alternative ways to display the photographic memories of the hapū? For example, creating whānau photo albums with responsibility for maintaining and updating the album being the responsibility of the whānau? Can other types of photographs be displayed in alternative spaces – images that document social gatherings and events that occur at the marae?
Digitising an image might seem easy but getting a good quality digital image file from a print or negative requires time and planning. Digital image files are vulnerable to damage just like print photographs. Technology changes rapidly and computers and files quickly become obsolete.
Digitising the photograph is only one part of the digitisation process. Questions to consider prior to undertaking digitisation:
- Why are you doing it?
- Who will take the photograph?
- Who will look after the digital image file?
- Where will you keep ‘back up’ files?
- What storage capacity do you have?
- What storage space will you need? The more digital image files you have the more storage you will require.
- How will you keep a connection between the original photograph and the digital image file?
- How will you record information about the photograph and the history of the original?
Digitising a photograph is not a replacement for the original – always keep the original.
Hapū have taken many and varied approaches to managing their framed photographs. No matter what decision you make it is important to ensure the preservation of the original photograph.
Photographs in the whare form part of hapū history. The photographs are visual reminders of tupuna. What they are wearing, how they are sitting or standing provides an insight into their life and times. The photographs prompt the telling of stories.
For our tupuna sitting for a photographer was an investment in time and money: travelling to the photographer’s studio, setting up the shot, sitting still for the long exposures. The same investment in their care today will ensure their long-term preservation.