Four days at Te Papa

By Kathy Greensides, Collection Assistant and Photographer, Whanganui Regional Museum

In April I was invited to spend four days at Te Papa working in the photography department with the Imaging team. I am the photographer at Whanganui Regional Museum and we had just acquired a new camera, so I went armed with a wish list of skills I wanted to learn including:

  1. Photographing small objects such as coins and medals, as this is a large part of my job
  2. Photographing flat works such as photographs, prints and artwork
  3. Lighting objects from different angles and with different light sources for different effects
  4. Shooting remotely
  5. Editing in Photoshop
  6. Photographing large objects and getting the right angles
  7. Photographing people in groups and in dark lighting such as openings and events
  8. Taking photographs of exhibitions that were both exciting and inclusive for museum archival records


The first day was spent getting acquainted with the studio and the equipment. Michael Hall and I spent a morning photographing and editing a series of etchings and tweaking them in Photoshop. In the afternoon, Kate Whitley took me over to the offsite storage building on Tory Street and we toured the conservation and restoration area, where they were restoring two beautiful huge gilt frames and a taxidermied lion that was about to go out on a loan (he was looking a little worse for wear). The textiles storage area was next, and then on to another large studio where oversized objects can be photographed using backdrops a long as 200 ft. Overhead gantries meant cameras could be mounted so objects such as whales, large tapa cloths, carvings or quilts could be shot.

The rest of the afternoon was spent with John-Claude Stahl who photographs natural history specimens, among other things. He showed me how tiny insects suspended in liquid are photographed by having a clear Perspex box full of alcohol spirits in which the insect is placed, and then numerous photographs are taken and the layers sandwiched together to produce pin sharp images. We also watched a few documentary videos which Jean-Claude had filmed of various archaeological digs all over the world.


Next morning I was privileged to be able to photograph the new Gallipoli exhibition with Norm Heke. We were in the exhibition space before it was open to the public and he showed me how to get shots which gave the public viewing online a taste of the exhibition, and how to get some great overall shots which could be used for promotion as well as security.

There was a private tour coming in at 9:30am so we had to rush to stay ahead and not be seen. It highlighted the need to be prepared ahead of time and plan your shoot to make the best use of often limited time. The rest of the morning was spent with Norm who showed me a great setup for photographing coins and medals, which he had developed and which made the details of the objects stand out and almost look 3D. We also photographed a kete using white, grey and black backdrops, and different lighting angles. He taught me a new technique involving suspending the kete upside down then rotating the photograph 180 degrees so it appeared to float and created a beautiful image.

Same kete, different lights.

The afternoon was spent in the large Tory Street studio watching Michael photograph some carvings. They had painted motifs which had been overpainted with different paints over the years.  When photographed with UV lights the different paint layers showed up as different colours.


This morning Kate had to photograph four art works on level four of the building for the museum’s exhibition records before the show opened to the public. We loaded up two light boxes and lights, a tripod and cameras and managed to shoot three of the four works before the public started to arrive and we had to leave.


Kate in front of Gretchen Albrecht’s work Shower of gold

As I often have to photograph bottles and glass which I find to be one of the most difficult to photograph effectively, we spent some time back in the studio photographing glasses and bottles with different coloured backdrops and lighting angles to get the most realistic image. Michael then gave me a short tutorial on how to create shadows and layering in Photoshop.

I spent some time in the museum shooting people from above and taking some “arty” shots.


I spent the day in the studio experimenting with different lighting effects on different objects and backgrounds. Michael photographed a series of old glass plate negatives on a light box then converted them into positive photographs using Photoshop. I then had another chance to walk around the museum with Michael and he showed me the different photographs he and the team had taken, showing the diversity of images needed for the different exhibitions.

I was amazed to learn what a big part photography plays in such a large institution. I also learned that a lot of the techniques I learned can easily be applied to my work even with limited space and resources. Thanks to the whole team, I had a great time at Te Papa. I have been extremely grateful for the opportunity to work with all the people on the Imaging team. It’s been a great learning curve and I enjoyed every minute of it.