Conservators carrying a painting

As New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa cares for many collections and thousands of taonga (treasures) that tell the stories of New Zealand’s cultural and natural heritage. Te Papa looks after these treasures for all New Zealanders and future generations.

The taonga are shown in Te Papa exhibitions and lent to others in New Zealand and overseas for exhibition and research. Te Papa has a team of conservators with specialist knowledge on how best to care for these collections, so they can be appreciated fully and for as long as possible.

Conservators’ expertise is based on their knowledge and understanding of the materials and composition of collection items. Te Papa’s Art, History, Māori, Pacific, and Natural History Collections include a huge variety of materials. These different collections and materials all bring various challenges to the conservators’ work. The conservation team covers a wide range of expertise, with each conservator specialising in particular areas.

Often the most effective and economical approach is preventive conservation. Te Papa’s exhibition spaces and collection stores are climate-controlled to reduce the damage caused by changes in relative humidity and to prevent mould growth. Storage systems are designed to physically protect collection items, but also to allow for items to be accessed safely with minimal handling risk. Storage materials are chosen for their long-term chemical stability. 

Insect and pest management programmes are operating and our quarantine facilities provide a range of ways to keep collections bug free. Conservators provide expert advice on developing exhibitions, assessing potential acquisitions, and caring for collections in transit.

In some cases, conservators need to work on a collection item. Conservators know how to treat these items in order to stabilise deterioration and repair damage. They are guided in this by ethical principles and an understanding of the cultural values, social history, and aesthetics associated with the items. If we are to fully appreciate our cultural treasures, conservation treatment must respect their lives, history, and the culture they come from - and not obscure or remove anything that can tell us more about their significance.

Whenever conservation treatment is carried out, it is thoroughly documented through analysis and condition reports, treatment proposals, treatment records, and photographs. Conservation analysis and treatment often adds to our knowledge and understanding of the collections.

Te Papa’s object support team works closely with conservators to support the safety of collection items in storage, in transit, and on display. Object support preparators also help us understand the collections by presenting them in appropriate ways.