200-year-old Māori drawings undergoing conservation

Publish Date : 26 Jul 2018
Photo Credit Sir George Grey Special Collections. Auckland Libraries. GNZ MMS147.
Photo Credit: Sir George Grey Special Collections. Auckland Libraries. GNZ MMS147 drawings.

Some of the first materials sharing Māori culture and language overseas are undergoing extensive conservation work for an international exhibition.

Auckland Libraries’ Preservation team is currently working on preserving five ink drawings dating back to 1818, in preparation for the drawings being loaned to the Royal Academy in London. The documents will be displayed from September in the Academy’s Oceania exhibition, marking 250 years since James Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific.

The drawings of Māori waka were, were originally sketched by Tuai a member of the Ngāre Raumati tribe from Pāroa, while he was in Shropshire, England. Tuai travelled to England to assist linguist Samuel Lee from the University of Cambridge document Māori grammar and language.

The drawings were later brought to New Zealand by William Greenwood when he immigrated to New Zealand in 1840 and donated to Auckland Libraries by his descendants.

In a touching parallel, the Royal Academy is flying one of Tuai's descendants over to London to attend the opening of the Oceania exhibition.

Auckland Libraries’ team spent six months testing and trialling different conservation techniques before commencing the work.

Tūī Drawings 4_Sir George Grey Special Collections Auckland.jpg
Photo Credit: Sir George Grey Special Collections. Auckland Libraries. GNZ MMS147 Drawings.

Repairing the drawings

The drawings were originally bound together in a book, but the paper was brittle after over 200 years and the original ink – known as iron gall ink, used between the 5th and 19th centuries – was causing corrosive damage to the document. 

David Ashman, Auckland Libraries’ Preservation Manager dismantled the binding and treated the four ‘leaves’ as individual items. Traditional paper repair techniques using a water bath proved too dangerous and risked spreading the corrosive products in the ink further into the paper.

Instead, David hand-made re-moistenable tissue and applied it the paper to repair the corrosive damage caused. He’s now custom-building boxes and casing to protect the drawings for their trip to England.

“It’s been a fascinating project,” David says. “The drawings are such rare pieces of history and an early exchange of culture. It’s been challenging but incredible.”

The drawings will be flown to London in September, after a karakia from the Ngāre Raumati iwi, blessing the drawings on their travels.

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