Early Rakaia history digitised

Between 1899 and 1922, a professional photographer by the name of Harry Alexander Palmer took a variety of interesting photos around Rakaia and the surrounding area. The Ashburton Museum acquired a number of these photographic negatives several years ago, in the form of glass plates.

This image shows an ornate mantle with the background scratched away, and a reflection of Palmer and his camera in the middle. (Photo reference 06.2015.0788).

Palmer’s photographs were recognised as historically significant and were sent up to Christchurch for professional digitisation. These digital images have since become a valuable resource for telling the story of early 20th century Rakaia, while the original glass plates are kept safe in the Ashburton Museum’s photo store.

A large group surrounding a locomotive involved in the 1899 Rakaia train accident. (Photo reference 06.2015.0770).

Glass plate negatives are vulnerable to cracks and scratches, and therefore must be handled and digitised with extreme care. When Palmer’s plates were selected for digitisation, the Museum was not able to responsibly scan these glass plates, whereas we now have the scanning equipment required to do this safely.

Some of you may wonder, why do we keep the original plates once they have been scanned? My answer would be to consider this scenario: if an electronic failure occurred and we lost all of our digital data, including scanned photos, what would we do then? Digital files unfortunately have their own preservation risks and can quite easily be lost. They are often just as difficult to care for as the original prints or negatives, and in some cases are more vulnerable to damage. Photographs from over a hundred years ago may still be easily viewed, yet a digital file may corrupt and become unreadable within a few years.

Opening of the Rakaia Post Office, 1910. (Photo reference 06.2015.0789).

By retaining our original prints and negatives, Ashburton Museum staff of the future may even be able to create new digital copies using equipment and software that will be significantly better than anything used today. When a photo is scanned, the present day technology is essentially ‘locked in,’ but new technology may be able to scan and extract even more quality and detail from our photos. Keeping and preserving physical photographs while also maintaining a collection of digital copies is therefore the most responsible practice.

A woman feeding a horse and foal, wearing clothing representative of the 1910s. (Photo reference 06.2015.0721).

Palmer’s photographs offer a unique perspective on early twentieth century life in Rakaia and also give us an idea of his own creative skills. The images on this page are only a small selection of the glass plate negatives that Palmer produced and include the aftermath of the infamous 1899 Rakaia train accident.

By Connor Lysaght

Unless otherwise stated, photographs and research materials on this page are owned by the Ashburton Museum & Historical Society Inc. This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 5 March 2022.


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