Today’s article is intended to be the first in a series of three which will hopefully provide a little bit of an idea of the kind of work that goes on behind the scenes at the museum in caring for and recording the history and stories behind the thousands of artefacts in the museum’s collection. In particular, I will talk about the different stages and aspects of a project which I have recently completed dealing with a collection of wooden carvings and souvenirs made by Japanese Prisoners of War (POWs) at Featherston POW Camp in New Zealand during World War II.
Creating wooden carvings, sculptures and Mah Jong sets was a common activity amongst the Japanese prisoners of the camp, both as a way of fighting boredom and also as a way of obtaining items they wanted which were otherwise unavailable.The majority of the items were carved from the discarded pieces of wood that had been left over from the construction of the camp buildings which were still being built long after the first prisoners arrived. The Japanese prisoners would commonly trade these items with the camp guards for cigarettes, food and any other items they may have wanted in what would today be considered a type of black market. These items ranged from basic crude engravings, to extremely intricate and highly finished pieces of art. Often the guards would ask the prisoners to make them something specific, such as a carving of their regimental cap badge or a Mah Jong set which they could give to their children. Many of the early prisoners in the camp were skilled civilian labourers who had been working as architects, draughtsmen and joiners before the war.
The Featherston POW carvings collection is unique in that it did not come to the museum as a group of items from a single source, but has been built up gradually over a period of 40 years by many individual donations by former camp guards and their families. The first step in the project was to physically identify how many items we actually had in the collection to gain a sense of scope for the project. The relevant items were identified using the museum’s collection database software, known as Vernon CMS, which holds individual records for every single object in the museum. After doing a search using the keywords “Featherston”, “POW” and “Japanese”, I was able to identify 54 individual records which matched these criteria. Each record on the Vernon database also lists where the item is located (either in offsite storage or on display in the museum) so I was then able to retrieve the items from storage and physically group them together for the first time. Since the items had all been donated at different times they had each been stored in a different box and in multiple different shelving locations across the storeroom.
Having now identified and located all of the items, the next step was to find the original paperwork for each item to ensure that all the information regarding who donated the item and who it belonged to was correctly recorded on the Vernon record. When a donation is first accepted by the museum, a receipt form is filled out which lists the donor’s name, address, what the items they are donating are and (if known), the item’s history and who it belonged to. With the paperwork at hand, I was then able to research and identify the provenance (history) behind each item. In many cases (particularly with the older donations) this information had not been recorded on the receipt and so I had to do some detective work to investigate the identity of the donor to see if they had served during the war or whether any of their relatives (i.e. their husband or parents) may have served at Featherston Camp during the war.Sadly, there was very little evidence or record of the names of the Japanese prisoners who actually made the items and in the few instances where names were provided, these were false names which the prisoners would had given to officials upon entering the camp so as to hide their identity and avoid bringing shame on their families for having been captured alive by the enemy.
Aside from ensuring that the provenance and history of each item was correctly recorded, I also ensured that the items were correctly described, measurements were taken, any inscriptions or marking on the items were recorded and that the condition of the item was recorded for future monitoring. Finally a photograph of each item was taken to assist remote identification which was then loaded up with all the other information onto the Vernon record.
Once the items were all up to date, fully described and photographed, the final stage of the project was to rehouse the items all together in new acid free cardboard boxes with foam padding supports. Aside from providing an increased level of protection for the items, rehousing the items in a single location was also beneficial from an accessibility perspective in that collections staff, researchers or family members who may want to view the items would no longer have to search dozens of different drawers and shelves to see all the items. Given the widely variety in shapes and weights of the carvings, much thought was required in regards to how and what items were stored together. The items range from flat panel carvings, to delicate 3D animal sculptures, to long skinny walking sticks, to heavy but fragile Mah Jong sets.
From start to finish this project took just over two months to complete and has greatly improved the status of these items both on an individual level and in identifying them as part of a larger collection for the first time. By physically storing the items together, ensuring that they are all fully and correctly described and including all possible information regarding the people that they belonged to, these items and their stories will be well cared for and made easily accessible for generations to come.