As the Collection Technician at the National Army Museum Te Mata Toa my job is to support the Assistant Curators who each individually manage the collection departments at the museum. These departments include textiles, heraldry, vehicles and technology, armoury, archives, accoutrements and social history.
Assistant Curators suggest projects to my manager, Windsor, who decides which are appropriate for me to complete. Once the scope of a project is determined, Windsor assigns me to the task and off I wade into the project. The parameters of projects are always similar; I research the objects, ensure the digital records on Vernon match the original paper records, and that the records accurately and correctly describe the object and how its condition has changed over time. Often the objects need to be re-housed to ensure their longevity and sometimes objects need to have some basic preventative conservation carried out on them.
One of my initial projects involved working with Liz in the Heraldry Department on the collection of identification tags from World War One and World War Two- often called dog tags. These tags are typically small fibre tags with a soldier’s regimental number, name, rank, and religious denomination. This was a great project to work on soon after starting as it involved accessing military records on Archives New Zealand and referring to the Auckland War Memorial Museum’s online cenotaph.
I found it difficult at times to analyse the personal military records as I was constantly reading files of young men who died overseas or were badly wounded. It was however a great exercise in learning military short hand and helped me to get a sense of what happened to a typical solider or nurse once they enlisted. That project is also a good example of how each project gives me a better understanding of the military history that accompanies the objects.
My latest project involved working on entrenching tools with Megan in the Accoutrements Department. This project required me to photograph, re-house and update the records of the museum’s entrenching tools (also known as e tools). This collection spans from British, Turkish, Swiss and German World War One patterns, to what North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) soldiers are currently issued today. Correctly identifying objects requires me to be adept in research, so having a Combined Honours degree in History and Politics helped me to carry out methodical research. To correctly identify e tool patterns, I spent a lot of time scouring military re-enactment forums and following their enthusiastic debates about the detailed accuracy of military specs. I checked this information against trusted sources such as published books which detail various military patterns of entrenching tools. These books are available at our very own Kippenberger Library here at the National Army Museum Te Mata Toa. During the project I found possible borer activity in an e tool helve, so we freezer treated the object in order to kill any possible active borer- an example of using preventative conservation methods in my job.
My role is considered to be an entry level job for starting a career in Collections Management. Collections Management is a field of work in museums which focuses on ensuring the longevity of objects through appropriate handling, housing and accurate record keeping of the objects. Record keeping can include more than the physical details of an object, as the history and particular story of each object needs preserving as well.
The aim of collections management is to maintain the state the object was in when it is accessioned into the collection. This is otherwise known as stabilising an object’s current condition. For example, if we accepted a broken camera we would not typically replace the parts to get it back to working order; the aim is to preserve the object in its current state for as long as possible. For many who are not from a museum background this can sound confusing and even contradictory; why would you take a camera in the first place that is no longer functional if you are attempting to preserve it? Surely a camera that is in perfect working condition would be a much better choice to accession into the collection?
There are many reasons why we do this and I would like to expand on these reasons so that we can understand why I and other museum professionals have odd tendencies in how we treat objects, such as handling objects with gloves, carefully packing them in acid free materials and drool over things in climate controlled storage rooms.
What has happened to objects over time or who used them are part of what makes an object important, this is called provenance. If we alter the object, we are altering that object’s story, which may result in losing the essence of the importance of that object. For example, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s shirt, still occasionally displayed today, is covered in blood from when he was assassinated in Sarajevo 28th June 1914. To remove that dried blood would remove the powerful story that the shirt tells; that the Archduke’s violent assassination was a trigger point for the beginning of World War One.
To prevent further deterioration of an object we often handle items with gloves as the oil on our hands can contribute to the deterioration of objects, particularly metal items. We also store objects using acid free materials as acid can cause damage to items, especially textiles and paper objects. Museum storage buildings should stabilise temperature and humidity to prevent condensation or mould growing on objects. By using these methods we can help prevent the decay of our objects. In addition, museum collections can become excellent examples of how materials change over time. We have only recently learnt how rubber decays, as it is a relatively new substance in terms of material history. As museums have stored rubber objects in a controlled environment this means we have taken away any other variables that may contribute to the disintegration of rubber. This is a very useful reference point for those interested in using such materials on a long term basis.
Collections can also be great places for further research as new technologies develop, such as the ability to now conduct DNA testing. Reinterpretation of collections, why such objects were collected and how they were described can shed a great deal of light on the society’s world view at the time. How British colonialists interpreted and presented objects is a good example of this. That Victorian explorers displayed stuffed animals from other countries tells us that they wanted to catalogue the world they lived in and bring it home to display.
Stabilising an object’s condition, preventing further deterioration for future research and maintaining what makes that object special are a few reasons why we might accept that broken camera and why we spend time researching, recording, photographing and housing it in the best conditions possible, a process of which I am a part of in the collections department.
One of the biggest challenges in Collections Management here at the National Army Museum Te Mata Toa I believe is that many of our objects were made to a standard pattern. This often makes the object much more easily identifiable compared to “one of a kind items”, but because they are all made to a similar pattern it can sometimes be difficult to work out which accession number relates to what object if a label is missing or the record has a vague, generic description. This became particularly apparent with the entrenching tool project when I found several e tools in a box with no labels on them, yet they were all the same standard British 1908 e tool pattern.
As a result I sometimes find myself pretending to be a museum sort of Sherlock Holmes, hunting through the paper records up at the museum and attempting to make logical deductions in order to figure out which object belongs to which record. Housing the e tools required me to get out the glue gun and craft knife to build shelves for the boxes to make efficient use of space and also to create foam nests to support some of our more fragile e tools. Fitting the e tools in the boxes that ensured the objects were well supported, remained immobile but was also an efficient use of space was another challenge of the e tool project. Needless to say I was very pleased with myself once I had managed to fit them snugly into their boxes using acid free materials and placed the boxes back in the accoutrement store for permanent storage.
To conclude, in a nut shell my job as Collection Technician means I’m a researcher and writer, a record investigator, an aspiring museum nerd, a packer stacker, a creative thinker, an arts and crafts dabbler and a problem solver. I love my job and feel very privileged to be a part of preserving New Zealand’s military history for future generations to come, especially so when we are in the midst of the World War One centenary.