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Archives contain rich history

20 July 2019 20749

In the words of poet Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980), “the universe is made of stories, not of atoms”. There are innumerable stories within the archives collection at MTG - some that have already been told; others yet to be discovered.

Each archival document can have multiple layers. Where a document came from, who it belonged to (including various owners over time), and events it may have been associated with, all add to the richness of the object. Any relationship a document has to other records in the collection increases its relevance. Research around documents such as personal diaries, letters, etc coupled with research around the context of the time, people and place enable these documents to embody whole stories.

Curators draw threads from these primary source materials to weave stories for exhibition themes. Historians research archives when writing articles and books describing aspects of our past. A compelling example is the recently published Dead Letters by Jared Davidson, looking at wartime censorship in New Zealand. Genealogists compile family histories using archival evidence, potentially uncovering stories that may have been buried for generations.

Photographic images are particularly powerful tools for telling stories. Donations of original photographs and negatives have enriched and strengthened the region’s collection over the years, and we’re working to make more of these accessible online. Last year we acquired a wonderful series of glass plate negatives taken by Napier surveyor David Nelson. David worked for the Lands and Survey Department, as did his father William Thomas Nelson, and was involved in surveying the Napier-Taupo road. In 1914 he enlisted with the NZ Expeditionary Force and served in Egypt and Gallipoli before being commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps. He flew in France with No 59 Squadron on the Western Front. Sadly, his younger brother Willia(known as Pat) was killed in action in France on the 18th April, 1918.

David survived and resumed surveying when he returned to Napier in 1919. He married Alice Maud Marrett and the couple lived at 33 Fitzroy Road, a house they would own until the 1950s. Their children Mason and Elizabeth were born there.
In 1928 the family moved to Singapore, where David was recruited to the Singapore Improvement Trust, a government organisation set up to resolve the country’s critical housing needs. He worked there for many years. After the outbreak of World War Two, he rose to second in command of the Singapore Royal Engineers and, when the city fell to the Japanese in 1941, he was taken prisoner and held in Changi Prison for the duration of the war. There he managed to keep detailed records of the movements of many civilian internees and prisoners of war, and these invaluable records are held in the Imperial War Museum in London. He also wrote a book, The Story of Changi Singapore, which was published shortly after his death in 1972.

The glass plates have been digitised and catalogued and can be viewed on our website As well as improving access, digitisation helps preserve original documents and photographs by reducing the need for physical handling - the most frequent cause of deterioration. The negatives are housed in individual acid free envelopes in an acid free archival box and stored away from damaging light sources. Temperature and humidity are kept constant in the store, and pest management prevents insect damage. Professional standards of care ensure the preservation of history for future generations.

It's a pleasure and a privilege to be part of the team looking after the archives and objects in our care for the people of Hawke’s Bay, on behalf of the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust.

Image credit: Pat and David Nelson, 1910, gifted by Dinah Okeby, Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 20749



  • Winter Art Deco Weekend – Walking Tour. Join a museum curator for a gentle stroll around some of Napier’s streets and learn about local iconic buildings designed by architect Louis Hay. Today - Saturday 20 July 11am–12pm and 2-3pm. Sunday 21 July 11am–12pm. Register on Eventfinda. Free event – koha appreciated.
  • Winter Art Deco Weekend – Public Talk. Marine Parade from 1928 to 1938 with historian Michael Fowler. MTG Century Theatre, today - Saturday 20 July, 3-4:30pm. Register through Eventfinda. Free event – koha appreciated.
  • NZ Mountain Film & Book Festival. Enjoy an amazing line-up of films. MTG Century Theatre, today - Saturday 20 July, 7:30pm. Tickets available at MTG front counter or online
  • Free Matariki Family Concert: Toru Whā, Ka Rewa a Matariki. NZ Trio with musician and composer Horomona Horo playing taonga pūoro. MTG Main Foyer, Sunday 21 July, 3:30-5pm. Free event – koha appreciated.  
  • IN focus – Vincent van Gogh. Panel discussion with international, national and local legends discussing Vincent’s life, work and the myths that surround him. MTG Century Theatre, Saturday 27 July, 4-5:30pm. Tickets available through Ticketek.
  • Vincent. Experience Leonard Nimoy’s celebrated play, based on hundreds of letters between Vincent and his brother Theo.  MTG Century Theatre, Saturday 27 July, 7:30-9:15pm. Tickets available through Ticketek.

Written by Cathy Dunn - Collection Assistant Archives
Published in the Hawke’s Bay Today 20 July 2019

21 July 2019

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