Technicians Errol Shaw, left, and Ian McGuire with the last negative they worked on in the seven-year long project. Photo: Jessie Johnston.

Museum completes glass plate project

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It’s taken seven years but Nelson Provincial Museum has finally completed its glass plate negative project, digitising and rehousing a total of 157,750 glass plates.

They were previously stored in plywood shelving units in the museum’s Isel Park Research Facility, however, this method wasn’t suitable for the continued preservation of the plates.

Once the decision was made to rehouse them, it made sense to digitise them at the same time, creating a complete online resource for use by the museum, as well as the public.

Two technicians worked together two days a week to complete the project, although earthquake strengthening of the building put a halt to their work for almost a year in 2013.

“At the moment around 55 per cent of the glass plates are actually searchable in our collections online,” says Darryl Gallagher, senior curator of photography for Nelson Provincial Museum. “Predominantly they’re studio portraits, so it’s actually a really great resource for genealogists. The plates date from the 1860s right through until the 1940s, basically the conclusion of the second world war. However, we’ve also got townscapes, landscapes, civic occasions and industry photos including gold mining, hop picking and orchard picking.”

The project was completed last Tuesday, with technicians Errol Shaw and Ian McGuire having worked on it since day one, although a number of other people have been involved over the years.

“There were four big compactor shelves, each side was full and we just looked at it and thought ‘wow, are we ever going to finish?’” says Ian.

“It was quite daunting, but it’s like all these big jobs, you’ve just got to work away one day at a time.”

The technicians averaged 220 glass plates a day, although sometimes they got caught up discussing the images they were looking at, including one of Errol’s grandmother in the early 1900s at Collingwood School.

“There were some good times, a lot of it was fairly hard going because it’s repetitive in its nature but it was an important thing to do and we got through it,” says Errol.

“It feels a little bit sad in that it’s over, but there’s also a sense of completion [at seeing the project through].”

The last glass plate negative was one of some hop pickers out in Motueka.

“We had our photograph taken with it and had a big morning tea to celebrate,” says Ian.
“We’ve learnt heaps about Nelson, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the project.”

The most important and substantial collection amongst the glass plates is called the Tyree Studio Collection and was started by William Tyree in 1878.

“This was a time when many other photographic studios were scraping off the emulsion and reusing their glass plates,” says Darryl.

“What William Tyree did was he bought other photographic studios’ catalogues, for commercial purposes, then he had the insight to build a strong room of brick and concrete to protect the glass plates.”

In 1886 he took on a young women apprentice, 21-year-old Rose Frank. She learnt the ropes before Tyree went overseas, making her manager.

Rose ended up purchasing the business and worked in it for a total of 61 years, maintaining the strong room and protecting the plates. When she died in 1954, she had the glass plates gifted to the Nelson Historical Society.

In 1974, the society gifted the plates to the Nelson Provincial Museum, transferring them from the strong room, which is now Hallensteins, to Isel Park Research facility the following year.

“A photographic collection so complete, dating from so early on that has survived intact, that’s almost unique in the southern hemisphere. What also places this collection in a unique position is that it started from the 1860s, which is not long after New Zealand became a nation,” says Darryl.

Those wishing to view the photos can visit the Nelson Provincial Museum website at www.nelsonmuseum.co.nz