Te Papa’s Chathams connection

Te Papa’s Chathams connection

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Nirmala with the tree preserving team at work

Nirmala Balram is the conservator of ethnographic objects and sculptures at Te Papa. Her talk provided a valuable opportunity for Friends to hear more about what Te Papa staff do. In this talk she outlined her role in helping with conservation of ‘rākau momori’ or the dendroglyphs on Rēkohu (Chatham Islands). It was clear from her photos that this was not white-coat laboratory work!  She makes do with what storage conditions and materials are available on the island; and she enjoys this challenge for improving the storage environment and enabling conservation treatment.

Although rākau momori are often called carvings, Nirmala explained that they are actually indentations or bruisings.  Today they are found only on Rēkohu (the main Chatham Island) and are becoming increasingly rare due to a range of environmental factors. They were once much more common – in the 1950s they numbered over 1,000. Today only a fraction remain in the forests.

In 2010, Otago University undertook a scanning project to record some of the images. In the next couple of years about 25 trees were removed to preserve the rākau momori. These were taken to Kōpinga marae and first put in a shed where conditions are not ideal for preservation. Nirmala has to adapt her techniques to what is available; for example, when ethanol wasn’t available she recommended rubbing alcohol. She has bought materials like luggage straps from Bunnings to wrap around tree trunks. Eventually some of the trunks were able to be moved into an insulated shipping container, where the environment can be better controlled. Until there is time to do proper conservation treatment on them, they are cleaned and wrapped in tulle netting kept together with the luggage straps. Bases have been made for the ones still in the shed to keep them off the damp floor. A dehumidifier is being used to slowly dry the logs out – slowly, because if it is done too quickly the bark will crack.

Efforts are also being made by local iwi and Department of Conservation to protect the living trees – Hapupu grove is currently closed to visitors and large fences have been erected to protect some of the kopi groves. There are plans for a museum to be built where the cut logs could be better preserved.

Nirmala showed how the time of a Te Papa conservator is not just spent in a laboratory; and how Te Papa staff contribute nationwide – she is working with many others on this project to conserve an important aspect of Moriori culture unique to Rēkohu / Chatham Islands. After her talk, geologist Hamish Campbell spoke briefly about the tours he takes to the Chatham Islands – more information about the two tours in October 2016 is available on our website here.

Vivienne Morrell

Feature Image:  Nirmala Balram with some of  the Friends who attended her talk (L-R) David Weston, Hamish Campbell, Charlotte McCreanor, Nirmala, Peter Buxton, Rhys Richards