One Question Quiz
(Images: Getty; additional design: Tina Tiller)
(Images: Getty; additional design: Tina Tiller)

New Zealand Maritime MuseumDecember 22, 2021

How to properly care for your inherited treasures

(Images: Getty; additional design: Tina Tiller)
(Images: Getty; additional design: Tina Tiller)

Have a special something you hope will stand the test of time? Experts from the New Zealand Maritime Museum have some advice on the best ways to look after it.

This piece was created in paid partnership with the New Zealand Maritime Museum.

It might be great grandma’s pearl earrings or poppa’s cufflinks. Perhaps it’s Mum’s wedding dress or a photograph of ancestors you never got to meet. Maybe it’s a special pounamu or kākahu that’s come into your care. 

Whatever the treasure, many of us possess something we feel is invaluable. An object that no amount of decluttering could target, something that only grows more special with time. 

While some items might be of historical importance, other things might just be valuable to us and us alone. A favourite teddy bear is just an ordinary toy to those who don’t know that it’s been hugged by three generations of kids. A tattered photo might look like junk to people who haven’t kept it folded in a wallet for decades. 

Ōrākei Marae kaumātua and New Zealand Maritime Museum kaumatua Tautoko Witika (Tainui, Ngāti Whātua and Te Tai Tokerau) says that in te ao Māori, objects acquire meaning the more we use and cherish them. “Everything animate and inanimate has a lifeforce and is very sacred,” he says. “Taonga become taonga because we breathe into them. Another element of becoming a taonga is time. It takes time for that particular item to gather its identity.” 

But unless we look after these items, they can be subject to environmental wear and tear. We don’t want to be overly precious with our treasures, but there are easy ways to ensure they’re preserved. That way, they can be passed down the family line. “Taonga will guide the kaitiaki or caregiver for the rest of his or her life until they’re ready to pass it through to someone else,” says Witika. 

Here are 12 simple ways to preserve different treasures, to help ensure they can be enjoyed by generations to come. 

If it’s a taonga, it needs life

While some taonga are fragile and do need to be stored away correctly, Witika says taonga should also be used to nourish their lifeforce. “For ornaments, one of the best ways to look after them is to wear them,” he says. “Otherwise, Māori taonga need to be put in a place of respect and care – on the wall, inside a whare, left in a particular corner – so long as the taonga are utilised, because you breathe life into them as you touch them and use them.”

Get to know your treasures

If you’ve inherited a valuable item and want to learn more about your lineage and where it could have come from, there are a few routes available. “Your public library system may be able to provide free advice and access to great online genealogical databases,” says the Maritime Museum archives and library manager Danielle Carter. “The NZ Society of Genealogists offer specialist knowledge, special interest groups and a research library to paid members,” she says. 

Collections manager Darryl Pike says it’s best to start with information known by your family – phone calls or visits to long-lost cousins or elderly aunts might be helpful here. If it’s a manufactured item or an award or trophy, online newspaper portals such as Papers Past might return some good leads. Even old advertisements for products may reveal information about your treasure. “It’s important to keep notes about any new information that is obtained, including the sources, in case cross-referencing is required.”

a rack of prom dresses
Have a closet of dresses gathering dust? Roll, don’t fold or hang for best preservation (Image: Getty Images)

For clothing, roll, don’t fold

Stowing away a wedding dress or your old baby clothes? If there’s a piece of clothing you want to last for many years, it’s best not to fold it, says Pike. “Annual inspection is also recommended to inspect for moth or silverfish damage.” A material called tyvek can be used to roll special clothing items or fragile garments such as piupiu, as shown in this Te Papa video. 

Go digital

Are the pages of the family photo album getting tatty? To avoid wear and tear, Pike says to store photos digitally. “Treasures should also be enjoyed so with items like an inherited photograph album, consider scanning some of them to share with family and keep the stories about the family members alive.”

Not too hot, not too cold

“The best temperature to keep objects in is a steady temperature between 19 and 21 degrees,” says collections specialist Julie Burns. But when it comes to photo negatives, an even cooler environment is best – Burns says below 10 degrees such as in a basement helps them live longer. 

Keep damp at bay

Considering one in five New Zealand households are damp and mouldy, a dry space might be difficult to achieve. But for dwellings with only mild dampness issues, a dehumidifier might help prolong the lifespan of objects, particularly metal items which are prone to tarnishing and rust. “The best humidity to keep objects in is between 45 to 55%. I understand this can’t always be achieved in areas like Auckland where the humidity can be kind of crazy,” says Burns. “The best way to mitigate the humidity is to place a dehumidifier in the room and check it quite regularly. That does prove a really effective tool to reduce moisture in the air.” 

Ditch the shoebox

It might be tempting to store items in old shoeboxes or to wrap valuables in fabric, but for preservation reasons this is a big no-no. Burns says to avoid plastic, dyed fabrics, coloured paper and card when storing treasures. She recommends using acid-free tissue paper or polyethylene-based products such as Mylar, which are made in various shapes and sizes to wrap the treasure, before placing it in an acid-free box. 

It’s time to ditch the shoebox (Image: Getty)

For taonga Māori, consider a blessing

If a taonga is given as a gift, Witika says it’s likely it should be blessed. “Anything, whether it be pounamu, bone, wood, stone or even from the sea or nature, if any of those are given as gifts then normally they would require a blessing,” he says. “When you give someone a gift you’re initiating a pathway for that gift to become a taonga. Depending on how a gift is given, it determines whether that gift’s journey will be more enhanced as a taonga.” The story, exchange and use of an item helps determine its status as a taonga. How it’s received, perceived and cared for possibly determines whether in time it will become a taonga because it will gather a number of elements that will create identity.”

Name your photographs

Do you have a photograph of ancestors, but can’t identify who they are? To help preserve the knowledge in your family tree, consider writing on the back of your own printed photos. “If you want to make sure photos last for your kids or grandkids or you one day want to donate them to a museum, use graphite pencil only and never pen,” says Burns. “Then write on the back the date, the location, a brief description of what the photo’s of, if possible the identity of the people that are in the photo with a first and last name. This all helps provide the context and the provenance which really brings the history of the photos to life.” 

Glove up 

“When you’re handling any object, especially metal, it’s best to wear clean cotton gloves or nitrile gloves, and that’s because the oils in your hands can transfer onto the object and cause irreversible damage,” says Burns. If you don’t have gloves, washing your hands with soap and warm water, then drying thoroughly is the next best thing before touching your treasures. 

Avoid sunlight

“For things like photographs, if they’re exposed to too much light, they can tend to fade and warp and it’s very hard to bring those things back,” says Burns. The same can be said for paintings and clothing, which can fade when exposed to light long-term. 

Seek out people who can help

Sometimes it’s not possible to know everything about an item in your care. Wikita says it’s helpful to identify the creator of a taonga or the place it originated as a starting point, which might lead to learning more. Start with Google and libraries, says Witika, but the most helpful source is a “living voice”. “Living voices can give you stories that you can then cross-reference with Google and libraries,” he says. But it can be challenging. “Sometimes a taonga doesn’t want to tell its story, so that’s when it gets difficult. But that also introduces a new inanimate element into the research process and gives more depth and wairua to that specific taonga because it has so much to tell us. And in the process of research, it has a lot to teach us.”

Matua Tautoko would like to acknowledge that he is not an expert on taonga Māori, but holds considerable knowledge that has been passed down to him. “Other individuals are free to add and even disagree with aspects of my whakaaro and korero,” he says. 

The New Zealand Maritime Museum is open every day except Christmas Day this summer. Head along for a visit on Auckland’s waterfront to learn more about Aotearoa’s maritime history.

Keep going!