A close-up look at archival collections with the National Library of New Zealand and Te Papa

The National Library of New Zealand has always seemed especially good at presenting its collections digitally (which is handy for remote researchers/enthusiasts like myself). Their online catalogue gives pretty easy access to items with a digital holding, including photographs, paintings, letters and – of course – newspapers as part of Papers Past.

Through their blog, I have found countless stories of items in their collection – and, in turn, of Aotearoa New Zealand – which are so often richly presented and well-told.

Most recently I found myself fascinated by a post written by Lissa Mitchell, the Curator of Historical Documentary Photography at Te Papa, NZ’s national museum in Wellington. In the post, Lissa writes about two stereoscopes (3D photographs) taken in remote Milford Sound in early 1882. Early NZ photography has also been a cause of fascination to me for the way in which the landscape and its people are depicted. Sometimes it’s the sight of a newly-constructed town or city springing up, or the landscape shown at a time not terribly long after European colonisation begun.

Most of the time, these shots of early European NZ are ‘serious’ – a straight, no-nonsense photograph showing a scene for what it is, whether as an artistic object or a piece of documentary evidence. There’s often a subtext or some wider context which needs to be understood. But sometimes there’s humour and a twinkle in the eye which transcends the image – and in this post about two stereoscopes – one held at Te Papa, the other at the National Library of New Zealand, Lissa explains: “This pair of stereographs were not conventional colonial landscapes — empty of human presence and focused on the view — here was a representation of life being lived with hardship and humour.”

One of these stereoscopic images is below – and Lissa invites readers to zoom even closer in to the products assembled on the table to see if readers can identify the goods that the subjects of the image have just taken delivery of.

I love the detail these images contain. Seeing the faces of the two men in the picture one can’t help but read a little into who they were and what they were like.

As Lissa writes, “I imagine the fun they had recreating the two scenes after Burton had arrived — a novel way of spending their time in this isolated place.”

Indeed. It’s this level of detail that online archives can give: from the vast collection and the metadata in the catalogue, right down to a digital copy of the document itself and the smirk on the face or the label on the bottle. It’s just wonderful.