Just being allowed through the locked doors into the back corridors of Te Papa was worth the price of admission. I felt privileged to gain insight to this powerhouse of research, where so many of our taonga are cared for.

Leon Perrie, a botany curator at Te Papa, is our guide for a tour of the botany catalogues. After checking we have no plant material that could contaminate or carry destructive pests, we enter the biggest of the collection rooms. These rooms are kept dry and cool to minimise insect activity. Previously, chemicals were applied to the samples to protect against attack.

There are around 300,000 specimens in the collection. The actual number isn’t really known, but we are within a year or so of cataloguing the entire New Zealand collection and making it available online too.

Image provided by Angela Gilbert

Te Papa collects multiple examples of each specimen because, like us, plants all have natural variations. These collected specimens are kept as data and used as archetypes for reference books. The museum loans up to 1% at any time to experts for research or special exhibits.

Leon shows us some of the superstars of the botany catalogue. One specimen from 1883 is in great condition, albeit faded. The amazing thing is that the pigmentation largely broke down when it was first dried – not as it aged.

But the most incredible touchpoint must be a ponga from the Endeavour voyage – a special plant for many that live in Aotearoa. Te Papa has 500 specimens from the voyage – these plants, collected and preserved by Banks and Solander were stored in the cabin with Tupaia and Cook. When Thomas Kirk wrote the first reference book about New Zealand plants by a New Zealander (1889), he asked the London museum where they were held to send specimens. Incredibly, they sent all the spares and duplicates they had. Leon showed us several of these carefully preserved plants.

English based artists drew from the specimens collected on the voyage and created metal plates. But these languished until the 1980s when they were finally printed. New Zealand got sent an entire set of the stunning results and Leon showed us a couple with exquisite detail.

Keep your eye on the Friends of Te Papa events for more chances like this to get a glimpse behind the scenes at Te Papa.

Angela Gilbert
Member, Friends of Te Papa

Feature image: Detail from: Cyperaceae – Oreobolus Strictus, 02 January 1970, by Nancy Adams. Purchased 2007. © Te Papa. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (CA000888/001/0071)