History can be cool, ask an archivist

Archives manager Megan Ross goes through the massive collection at the Marlborough Museum.
DAVID JAMES/STUFF

Archives manager Megan Ross goes through the massive collection at the Marlborough Museum.

Ten years ago, the archives room at the Marlborough Museum was full of banana boxes stuffed with negatives and other memorabilia. Archives manager Megan Ross tells David James staff and volunteers will get through it all eventually, although maybe not in her time. 

"It's 13.4 degrees in here," says Marlborough Museum archives manager Megan Ross.

She is pointing at a thermometer in one of the climate-controlled store rooms in the museum at Blenheim's Brayshaw Park.

Shelves and shelves, boxes and boxes, of Marlborough's history.
DAVID JAMES/STUFF

Shelves and shelves, boxes and boxes, of Marlborough's history.

The larger store room where she is standing, surrounded by boxes of old records, books, maps, photographs and other Marlborough artefacts, imposes a kind of enormous quiet.

READ MORE: Check out these old Marlborough Express photos 

"The museum store room has to be kept a certain climate. Cold and dry is ideal," Ross says, acknowledging the critical attention undertaken by the Marlborough Historical Society to preserve its most important memories.

The history of Marlborough bound in beautiful books at the Marlborough Museum.
DAVID JAMES/STUFF

The history of Marlborough bound in beautiful books at the Marlborough Museum.

The society was set up for the Marlborough centennial in 1959, and the late historian Norm Brayshaw started collecting for the archives soon after.

Then the archives were then officially set up in the mid 1960s. The project started off as a shed outside Brayshaw's house.

Ross started working at the archives in 2006, but she began her career working in libraries, specialising in rare books and special collections. When she moved to Marlborough the archives were in need of someone with her expertise and thus a job was created for her.

The archives are full of old photographs waiting to be digitally scanned.
DAVID JAMES/STUFF

The archives are full of old photographs waiting to be digitally scanned.

"Things have changed since I got here," Ross remembers. "There was a lot of stuff in banana boxes, and the volunteer base does age and move on. Now we have around seven or eight volunteers here. I couldn't manage things without them. They are so valuable for the archives and museum."

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Ross says the work will always be ongoing and they haven't even started to tackle the vast number of items collected in the store rooms.

"We have thousands of photos unnamed," Ross says waving her hand over the shelves of boxes full of negatives and glass plates.

Archives manager Megan Ross in her busy office at the Marlborough Museum.
DAVID JAMES/STUFF

Archives manager Megan Ross in her busy office at the Marlborough Museum.

"We are trying to get through all of them but there are just so many, and we are very under-staffed. Once we get around to cataloguing the Marlborough Express photos, we will no doubt get onto all the other photos."

Ross is talking about the society's recent project of scanning all of the photographic archives for digital storage. There is one person in charge of that massive task - it will take the archivist a year to scan three years of photographic records.

"This will never be sorted while I'm here," she laughs. "We just don't have the time or the staff. Once we get to the 1990s things will get faster. But it will still take us about 30 years to get through all of them."

Of course, the newspapers didn't contain photographs until the mid-20th century, and it's hard to fathom any news source without images since we are so saturated in the visual resources nowadays.

"The paper employed a local photographer in 1957, I think it was. And so we have photos for the Express from that time on. We are scanning the Marlborough Express photos - all the negatives - and we are only up to the early 1960s. So we've only done around the first three to four years."

New Zealand newspapers did try to outsource the job of scanning their negatives to a company in the United States, but the company went bankrupt and many of those negatives were lost. But Ross says Marlborough was lucky. 

"Our negatives were never shipped so we were really very lucky in that regards. Marlborough was one of the only centres to retain their entire collection."

Apart from the photographic archives there is a vast array of various collections from a number of families who have resided in the Marlborough region. Often these collections consist of books, paintings, maps, deeds, letters and even diaries of those early settlers. 

"My favourite collection is the Dobson collection," Ross says. "It is the most complete collection. There are original diaries going back to the 1860s, photographs, paintings, and a huge amount of letters."

The family first arrived in Lyttelton in the 1860s and then moved up to Marlborough where the patriarch, Alfred Dobson, became one of the first surveyors in the region.

Donated by Alfred Dobson's granddaughter, the collection got split up when it arrived in 1993, and wasn't discovered until three years later. With the efforts of the archivists, it has been brought back together.

"And we are still finding bits that we are adding to this ... It's all about doing some detective work. Digging deep and finding connections. It's so special because it is a complete collection."

One of the staff members is currently cataloguing the daughter Lucy Dobson's diary, who kept a daily record of her life since coming out on the boats. Indeed, her story begins during her travel from England.

"She wrote in her diary every day," Ross says. "We have a diary of hers when she came out on the ship, up until 1918 when she died. A lot of the writings are pretty routine and day-to-day but it's interesting to see how they treated various illnesses back then, and how she and her friend went out to sign the Suffragette petition.

"That's one of the really fun parts of the job," Ross says smiling. "There are so many stories in Marlborough, and you get to have access to their lives through the things they left behind."

The Marlborough Historical Society archives are kept in the Marlborough Museum at Blenheim's Brayshaw Park, Arthur Baker Pl. The research room is open to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10am to 4pm, other hours by appointment.

Volunteers are available to help with any enquiries to request materials for research. Telephone: 03 578 1712.

 - Stuff

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