Anita Robertson spends her working days tucked away in the depths of Waikato Museum, surrounded by beautiful art and interesting artefacts and taonga.
As the Museum’s Senior Registrar, Anita’s role is to catalogue and record information on the thousands of artworks and artefacts held in the Museum.
Her day, she laughs, “means not much natural light but uncovering lots of fun things” and spending a lot of time with a clipboard in her hand as the Museum’s official record-keeper.
She’s quick to acknowledge she always felt she was destined for a career in the museum, arts or history sector, having thrived on the subjects loosely referred to as the “humanities” in universities: think history, geography, art history.
“In my professional career I’ve always worked in art galleries and museums,” she says.
Anita has been the Museum’s Senior Registrar since November 2017, and she leads a team of three.
The team’s work is split into two categories: there’s the museum collection work which means caring for and ensuring the 30,000 items the Museum holds are where they are meant to be in the storage or display areas, and there’s the up-to-date record-keeping of these items.
“Every object has a number, and that number is recorded in our Vernon collection database,” Anita says. “Any time we look at an object, or move an object, it’s recorded in Vernon. Every year we check and move objects, so it’s an ongoing process. We also liaise with the curators on the new objects they bring into the collection.”
Anita and her team also support the Exhibitions Team, work which involves incoming and outgoing items and retrieving items from the Museum’s own collection to suit the theme or time period of the exhibition being installed.
For external exhibitions being brought in from other museums, Anita’s team works on the logistics of getting these items in and out of the Museum – a task which can require dozens of flight cases and boxes to be parked in the loading bay area – either arriving or leaving on trucks.
Anita says some exhibitions come into the Museum in their entirety, in one large delivery, or items can be shipped in from all over the country – adding an extra logistical and record-keeping challenge.
The largest item she has managed in recent times is a gargantuan painting named Salamanca Rd, by noted New Zealand artist Karl Maughan. The oil on canvas painting comprised of six panels, each 2.5m high and 1.5m wide, so when displayed the whole artwork is 9m long.
“Even just to check its condition, then crate it up again, was a huge task,” she says. “You have to plan in advance for things like that.”
In fact, planning is vital for all the team’s physical tasks: Anita says there is a fundamental approach in which nothing is moved without a place to put it, and a specific plan in how to get it there safely.
There is also some key science involved in the team’s work. The Museum’s galleries and storage areas are climate-controlled to ensure collection and exhibition items are kept in the best possible condition. “We must have an understanding of the material an item is made of and how the environment can affect that material,” says Anita.
The staff handle everything they come in contact with while wearing special cotton or nitrile (rubber) gloves as the natural oils from human hands can impact on an object.
Although she is naturally drawn to the Museum’s art collection due to her previous roles, Anita says she has a growing fondness for the diversity of the Museum’s catalogue. “We have everything from vintage sewing machines to little tobacco tins. We’ve got toys, amazing ephemera (papers, letters, posters, cards) from Hamilton and the Waikato’s history, all the way through to these beautiful Colin McCahon paintings – I love it all, everything has its own purpose.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Anita isn’t a collector herself: “No, actually I’m a minimalist at home – I’ve just got a few black and white paintings!”