Photographic challenges



There is never nothing to do in a museum. At Ashburton Museum, one of our goals is to make the collection as accessible as possible, and one of my projects concerns our extensive photographic holdings.
1. Rakaia Road.jpg
We are fortunate that one of our talented team members, Anita Badger, has spent many hours professionally photographing the framed image collection. This is a great advancement for access.
These large images, many of sports teams or family groups, are very hard for people to access.

Some access is made difficult due to identification as usually the information is only a basic description of what the photo looks like and a list of any names on the image.

2. school children.jpg
Physical access can also be a challenge, as many of the framed images are large.

We sometimes require two people to handle the item to show researchers what it looks like. And if a researcher needs to browse through a number of images, this can take a lot of time. Having a digital copy makes a huge difference.
In the past, we have struggled to provide a good, clear reproduction due to the size of these framed images, and the fact that most framed images are also covered with very reflective glass.
Due to Anita’s work, we now have such high quality digital copies that we can offer much better access and reduce the need to prise framed images from their homes in storage.

Glass plates

Another part of our image collection that poses problems are glass plate negatives or slides. If you think back to the old time photographers with tripods and black material over their heads that you see in movies, that is what they were working with.

3. picnic.jpg
They were around for quite a long time, from the 1850s until the 1930s. As the name implies, the negatives are made of glass and so are fragile.
They are also highly susceptible to damage as the emulsion (what the image is made of) sits on the glass, so any scratch, knock or change in temperature or humidity, and the image will literally fall off.
Their size makes copying or scanning difficult. However, done well, they make fantastically clear and deep images.
4. house and pram.jpg
Many positives give a good image but they often appear ‘flat’ or one dimensional. Most glass plates are so detailed that the people appear to be real 3D beings trapped in a moment of time.
As many of our glass plates were used by amateur photographers, they usually contain views we don’t have anywhere else in the collection and spending a little time working with them can uncover some real gems.
Before we had the technology onsite many of these images were only given basic catalogue statements, generalising them as ‘family photos’ or ‘rural view’. Now we have technology available that can scan glass negatives, we can see for the first time, what the image really is of.
This has been what I have been doing recently. It’s been a fun process as I feel as if I am uncovering some long lost image that hasn’t been seen for years. I have really enjoyed working with the images and I thought I would share some of them with you.
5. methven in flood.jpg

What do glass negatives look like?

In another museum I worked at I was told of a man who made a glasshouse out of these cool pieces of glass he had found! What made them so interesting was that they had designs painted on them, or so he thought!

6. group in harvest field.jpg

Glass plates are rectangular pieces of thick glass that have photographs on them. Being negatives, sometimes they may appear almost all black but holding them to the light you can see an image.

If you are lucky enough to find any, please handle them with care, at the edges, and contact us at Ashburton Museum, for advice on how to copy and preserve them.

7. Old st Andrews.jpg

By Kathleen Stringer


  1. From the Ashburton Guardian Collection, a view of the approach to the Rakaia Bridge.
  2. Another Ashburton Guardian negative, unidentified school children. Any familiar faces?
  3. Family groups and activities form a large section of this collection. Picnic groups especially are common.
  4. The perfect detail of a house with a pram out the front is marred by a scratch in the emulsion at the back.
  5. One of my favourites. Looking at it with my eye I saw the Methven hotel building, but on scanning it I discovered the main street in flood.
    Harvesters in the field.
  6. Its not just people we now have images of, this is a new view of Old St Andrews church.

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