Exhibition displaying the country's most important documents opens in Wellington

An artist's impression of the He Tohu exhibition, which opens to the public this weekend.
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An artist's impression of the He Tohu exhibition, which opens to the public this weekend.

Having been made more accessible, there is hope that all New Zealanders will visit the country's founding documents.

The 1835 Declaration of Independence of the United Tribes of New Zealand, 1840 Treaty of Waitangi and 1893 Women's Suffrage Petition are all displayed in He Tohu, a new permanent exhibition at the National Library of New Zealand.

After three years of planning and development, the exhibition opens this Saturday, making the documents more accessible to everyone.

The high-tech, high-security case for the Waitangi Sheet in the new He Tohu exhibition. The exhibition cases contain ...
TERENCE DAVIDSON

The high-tech, high-security case for the Waitangi Sheet in the new He Tohu exhibition. The exhibition cases contain sensors and monitor light, humidity and temperature.

The documents are housed in specially made display cases, made by German company Glasbau Hahn, which monitors light intensity, temperature and humidity levels to preserve them for generations to come.

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Project manager Rob Stevens says the documents have become fragile and both the paper or parchment and signatures have yellowed, making them difficult to read.

The exhibition features the Treaty of Waitangi. The nine pieces, including this large sheet, are housed in three cases.
SUPPLIED

The exhibition features the Treaty of Waitangi. The nine pieces, including this large sheet, are housed in three cases.

The cases use LED lighting, together with low lighting in the room, to make them easier to read.

Stevens says the cases themselves look simple, but they are fitted with security glass and contain sensors so they can monitor what is going on.

The document room is also set at a cooler temperature to help the preservation.

Closeup of the red wax seal on the Treaty of Waitangi.
ANNA WHITEHEAD

Closeup of the red wax seal on the Treaty of Waitangi.

Each document has 'lighting hours' that measure how long they can stand the light before becoming damaged, so visitors will turn the lights on for each when they want to read them.

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Stevens says that one of the biggest challenges was that all of the documents have different light limits.

"Some of the documents stand up to five times the light as other documents," he says.

"Fortunately the big Waitangi sheet … that actually has the best light tolerance, so that’s able to stay on display at the level we’ve got pretty much all the time."

Some more fragile pieces only have a tolerance of one or two hours a day.

Stevens says that with optimised controls, the documents will last another 500 years.

In the events of a power cut the National Library has a full backup power system but if this fails, the cases can maintain themselves and keep the documents safe for several weeks.

The documents were previously housed at Archives New Zealand in a display that was designed in 1989. 

He Tohu, which will open six days a week and have free entry, makes the documents more accessible to New Zealanders, Stevens says.

"When I go into that room it’s quite emotional. For some it’s quite a spiritual experience as well, so I think it’s really important for people to experience the documents."

The exhibition also includes in depth information and interactive spaces, such as biographies on those who signed each document, to create a learning experience.

"For many people, they don’t know much about the documents," Stevens says.

"I bet they don’t know that 25 per cent of women in New Zealand signed [the suffrage petition] at the time ... There’s a very big story in there and I think people can learn a great deal about some of our founding documents."

They also have education resources which fit within the New Zealand curriculum - both for mainstream schools and Kura Kaupapa Maori - and hope to make viewing the exhibition a part of every child's learning.

"Our vision is that we have all school children coming here to see it during their school years," Stevens says. "It’s ambitious but we’re prepared."

*He Tohu opens at the National Library of New Zealand, Molesworth St, Wellington on Saturday, May 20.

 - Stuff

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