Newspaper Article 2019 – Archives contain rich history

Archives contain rich history

Cathy Dunn

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.

Nelson worked for the Lands and Survey Department, as did his father William Thomas Nelson, and was involved in surveying the Napier-Taupo Rd.

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 William (known as Pat) was killed in action in France on April 18, 1918.

David Nelson survived and resumed surveying when he returned to Napier in 1919. He married Alice Maud Marrett [Marett] and the couple lived at 33 Fitzroy Rd, a house they would own until the 1950s. Their children Mason and Elizabeth were born there.

In 1928 the family moved to Singapore, where Nelson 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 II, 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 [www]

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 in individual acid-free envelopes and stored away from damaging light. Temperature and humidity are kept constant.

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.

Photo caption – Pat and David Nelson, 1910, gifted by Dinah Okeby, Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tä-ü-rangi, 20749.

Original digital file


Date published

20 July 2019

Format of the original

Newspaper article

Creator / Author

  • Cathy Dunn


Hawke's Bay Today


Published with permission of Hawke's Bay Today


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