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An epic cataloguing project by the New Zealand Police Museum is causing a few headaches – both inside and outside the organisation. Ellen Brook reports.

Museum director Rowan Carroll, above, among some of the welcome new storage shelves.

It’s not quite on the scale of the warehouse in the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the New Zealand Police Museum is still facing an archival task of grand proportions.

While much of the 100,000-artefact collection is housed at the museum, the majority of it remains off site, waiting to be correctly processed. The actual figure is unknown, and will remain so until it is all catalogued.

With only one staff member dedicated to the job, and little more than one carton a month able to be completed, it’s no exaggeration to say it could be a career for life.

The pace of the work is, of necessity, slow. It’s a meticulous process, which includes each box of material spending a week in a deep freeze at -22C to kill bugs and bacteria before the contents can be sorted and catalogued in acid-free boxes.

At the current rate, it could take up to 50 years for all the items to be correctly archived, not to mention all the additional material that arrives at the museum each year.

The job was always a task in waiting – an accumulation of material, some of it dating back to the early 19th century – but it wasn’t until 2014, when the collections were taken off site while the museum’s storage areas were redeveloped, that the challenges of updating the archive using modern storage techniques became fully apparent.

Some of the archives are still on the Police College grounds and the rest are at another location in Porirua.

Museum director Rowan Carroll who took over the role in 2011, says that if the museum had had professional museum staff dealing with the collection from the beginning “we would never have been in this situation”.

However, as with any small museum, adequate resourcing is an inevitable issue. Rowan operates with 3.4 fulltime staff, only one of whom is dedicated to the cataloguing. The others work front of house and on developing visitor programmes for the museum, which is open seven days a week. Up to 20,000 people visit annually and 10,000 of those are schoolchildren taking part in organised activities.

The museum also deals with up to 600 inquiries each year. About half are from Police and many others are personal, relating to family histories. Rowan says the team members do their best to respond within two days.

Last year, former police officer Bob Silk contacted the museum to request a copy of the 1976 Police inquiry report, “To the policing of the Immigration Act at Auckland, Operation Overstayer”, which he had prepared with Chief Superintendent W R Fleming. The original report is apparently no longer in existence and Bob had given his copy to the museum several years ago. He wanted to refer to it for a writing project, but, alas, it had not been catalogued and could not easily be found in the off-site boxes.

Although Rowan was able to provide him with other, related material, Bob was extremely disappointed. “For decades, serving and former members and their families have donated items of historical significance to the museum, believing they would be stored in the manner and climatic conditions necessary for their long-term preservation,” he said.

”What will be the condition of the exhibits now in limbo and inaccessible in 20 years’ time?”

Bob wrote to the Police Commissioner. The response from Jane Archibald, the acting deputy chief executive public affairs, touched on the issue of the return and cataloguing of off-site items, describing it as a “long-term” and “comprehensive” job.

While apologising to Bob for not being able to find his documents, Ms Archibald said: “We could always do more with more, but… there are many priorities within New Zealand Police and we must balance those priorities in line with community expectations.”

It wasn’t the response Bob had hoped for – he feels the archives in the museum should have a much higher priority with Police – but it does highlight the slightly unusual position the museum holds within the organisation.

As Rowan explains, there are very few police museums in the world that are 100 per cent funded by a police body, as is the case in New Zealand. Many rely instead on trusts or volunteer support because, as important as the preservation of policing history is, it is not a core business for Police and will always rank lower in any budget considerations.

On that basis alone, Rowan says, “we are very lucky to have the museum we have”.

She also feels terrible that she wasn’t able to meet Bob’s request, but, as it stands, she says, there is simply nothing more she can do.

Unfortunately, getting in volunteers to help with the cataloguing project is not an option – it’s definitely a job for experts, and Rowan gets involved too, working on all the high-risk forensic cases with sensitive content.

The labels on the boxes that have made it through the intricacies of the cataloguing process are tantalising – “Goldie Fraud”, “Peter Plumley Walker”, “Porn” ,“McFadgen and Burdett Homicides”, to name a few.

Objects inside the boxes are secured in an inert foam nest. One wall of the storage room features a line-up of weapons (excluding firearms, which are stored separately) used to kill and maim, every one with a story, from a utilitarian shovel to swords and a homemade “taser”, complete with a three-pronged plug.

Unlike other museums, where objects might be “cleaned up” for display, at the Police Museum, everything remains – bloodstains and all.

This isn’t just police history, Rowan says, this is New Zealand’s history. “It’s significant for the whole country.”

While she acknowledges that the museum is unlikely to achieve all its goals under the current model – “the magnitude of the job is huge and at the core is the issue of capacity” – there is cause for optimism and celebration.

All “collections of significance” have been sorted and are safely stored. That includes the firearms collection (in purpose-built armoury cabinets), the criminal evidence collection and medals. Paper documents and other items come next, including the technology collection (eg, radios and other police equipment) and uniforms.

By far the most important work done by the museum in recent years has been the repatriation of its collection of human remains (used to help train investigators) for return and burial, where possible, to families.

The New Zealand Police Museum was the first in the world to undertake that process (over two years from 2016 to 2018), and in December, Rowan attended an International Police Museum conference in Brisbane where she gave the keynote speech on the topic. She is also advising Archives NZ and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage on the subject.

The human remains collection dated back to the museum’s origins in 1908, when it was set up as a teaching museum, and had been in storage since the 1990s.

The Police Museum staff have been busy researching and preparing material for an exhibition this year marking the 40th anniversary of the Erebus disaster. Also coming up will be an exhibition related to the work of the Police adult sexual assault and family harm teams, and a display examining the relationship between Police and Tuhoe.

It’s all part of honouring New Zealand’s policing history – one box at a time.

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