Behind the scenes at the City Archives

28 July 2020

There are lots of mini irons at the Wellington City Archives. Sunbeam ProSteam Travel irons to be exact.

Detail from an early rates book.
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Once the essential companion of the well-pressed traveller, their size makes the user seem like a giant.

While no doubt great for un-creasing trousers, here in the backroom of the Archives on Barker St, the Sunbeam ProSteam Travel makes the perfect document flattener.

As we get the behind-the-scenes tour of the large and meandering building, the sight of staff working away ironing stacks of papers for digitisation is just one of the more intriguing sights we’ll see.

But then again, it’s all pretty intriguing.

There is the enormous mayoral chair for starters, tucked away next to a mini model of an alternate Civic Square, complete with hulking casino, which the financial crash of 1987 apparently put paid to.

A separate artist's impression of Civic Square from another era includes a sunken amphitheatre. 

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Established in 1994, the Archives holds physical and digitised records dating back to 1842, when Wellington became the first site of local government in New Zealand.

As well as providing comprehensive records relating to Wellington’s regulatory history, the collections are a rich resource for anyone researching the city’s social history, and show changes in our community and urban development over the past 150 years.

A Sunbeam mini travel iron.

Visiting is by appointment only – this ensures the team are as prepared for your visit as they can be.

Around 75% of the archives are now searchable online, and are constantly being added to at https://archivesonline.wcc.govt.nz/.

As well as the website, which features an excellent image lucky dip, the Archives are now active on Facebook and Instagram , bringing the city’s curios to a new audience in a new way.

Back at Barker St, the tour continues, past mayoral portraits in storage and exotic gifts to the city.

Basically there are interesting things everywhere, bits and pieces of Wellingtoniana, all carefully being preserved for future generations.

That’s not to say it’s all fascinating for the layperson.

A large amount of the collection is documents relating to land use and regulatory records – records that are crucial for recording how Wellington has developed, and which have huge secondary value for researchers.

A model of Civic Square.

But it’s hard to imagine anyone ever poring through the hundreds of neatly stacked boxes chokka with accounts and minutes from the old Wellington Harbour Board.

And the row after row of ancient rating documents are almost oppressive in their symmetry and expanse.

The smell is comforting though.

A model of Civic Square.

In the smaller stack room the temperature and atmospheric conditions are carefully calibrated for peak preservation.

Inside there are huge leather-bound ledgers and boxes of plate negatives and – probably not being preserved – an old ‘Macintosh LC575’, which just adds to the nostalgia.

As we near the end of our tour our guide opens a box to reveal the mayoral chains of the old Tawa Borough.

The mayoral chains of the Tawa borough.

Elegant in their simplicity, the chains feature 19 shields linked together around a central badge engraved with the word ‘TAWA’, and featuring a tawa tree.

The neighbouring text conveys simpler times.

“This chain was used from 1953-1989, when Tawa Borough sought to be an independent township. While only six mayors ever served during this period, each one was given the honour of having their services recognised through inscription on these shields.”

In other words, 13 shields will forever remain blank.

That feels a little sad.

But it also neatly sums up a part of our city’s history that needs to be preserved, needs to be kept as a reminder both of what we’ve lost and what we’ve gained.

It’s reassuring to know the Archives is there to do just that.

A wall of boxes containing Wellington Harbour Board records.