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Preserving the documents

Conservators Around Tiriti.

Image: The team of conservators from Archives New Zealand and the National Library around Te Tiriti in the whakapapa kōrero. L to R: Anna Whitehead, Vicki-Anne Heikell, Peter Whitehead and David Adams.

Find out how our fragile and priceless documentary history is being preserved for future generations. What are the challenges for conservators and what technology is being used to protect the documents?

Challenges for conservators

The documents that are being preserved in the He Tohu exhibition are:

  • 1835 He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni — Declaration of Independence of the United Tribes of New Zealand
  • 1840 Te Tiriti o Waitangi — Treaty of Waitangi
  • 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition —Te Petihana Whakamana Pōti Wahine.

Crumbling seals, mouse-nibbled parchment and flaking ink are some of the challenges that conservators faced in preparing the He Tohu documents for the exhibition.

The document cases in the document room.
Image: The document cases inside the whakapapa kōrero — document room.

Extensive assessments made of the documents

The conservators made extensive condition assessments of the documents. They where working out what had happened to the documents in the past and what could be done, if anything, in the future.

The conservators used techniques to  map damage on the documents. They looked at the inks, the holes, and the tears. They studied these details under a digital microscope. While doing this work the conservators where guided by conservation principles that encourage as little physical intervention as possible. This helps preserve documents. 

The extensive assessment all contributes to understanding the documents and helps us to preserve them for the next 500 years at least.

Light exposure

There’s a fine balance between making the documents more accessible while not damaging them any further. Light exposure is a big challenge, because the red, green and pink aniline inks on the petition are very light sensitive, as are the iron-gall inks on the other documents, after their decades on display.

When you view the documents, you need to press a button that lights the case for a set time of 2 minutes. After all, there is no point in lighting the documents if there is no-one there looking. This reduces the amount of light the documents are exposed to, which in turn helps to preserve them.

Every document has a different amount of time that it can tolerate being lit. The biggest of Te Tiriti’s sheets has the best tolerance, so it can be lit the longest without damage.

Learn about the extraordinary curved room that holds the documents.

How the cases preserve the documents

The special display cases are made by a German company. The company was asked by the conservation team to design cases that would:

  • control the humidity inside the cases
  • the team specified the lighting systems, which provide the low light levels in the exhibition, and that
  • the accumulated time that the documents are lit is recorded.

The temperature in the cases is governed by the temperature in the whakapapa kōrero room. The whakapapa kōrero room temperature is set at a constant 19°C. This is cooler than other spaces in the He Tohu exhibition.

The cases display the documents and preserve them from handling. Handling fragile documents can often be the cause of further deterioration.

Day-to-day monitoring and backup power system

The conservation team from Archives New Zealand look after all the day-to-day monitoring of the documents to make sure they survive long into the future

In case of any problems, such as a natural disaster, the cases will keep the documents safe within them — they even include a backup power system. If the power couldn’t be restored the cases can maintain themselves for several weeks.

Chief Archivist has statutory care of documents

The documents in the He Tohu exhibition are under the statutory care of the Chief Archivist. This means that the Chief Archivist and the conservators at Archives New Zealand are responsible for their care and preservation.

Read more about the work that the Archives New Zealand conservators do and think about to keep this taonga safe.

Conservation of the He Tohu documents

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