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Historic film rescued from rusty tins showcased

News: 7 October 2019

Never before seen film footage of the 1931 Napier earthquake is a highlight of a new exhibition opening on 11 October at the National Library in Wellington. Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision, New Zealand’s archive of film, sound and television, has mounted the exhibition Rust + Restoration – He Waikura He Whakauka as its first major public activity in its new home in the Library building.

Image of historic film rescued from rusty tins showcased is courtesy of Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision.

The exhibition, in Te Puna Foundation Gallery on the ground floor of the National Library, features film, sound and displays illustrating the Archive’s work to rescue precious film, TV and audio recordings from oblivion through the processes of collecting, preserving and digitising them.

At the heart of the exhibition is a collection of rusted film cans uncovered by the family of Thomas Henry Whetton, a freelance news cameraman active in the 1920s and 1930s. The film cans were unlikely to have been opened for nearly 80 years, and the lids needed to be prised off.

Visitors to the exhibition will be able to see how the film found within the cans was preserved and digitised. Excerpts of the high-quality Napier earthquake footage are included in a looped 20-minute programme projected on the gallery wall. Other excerpts include film dating back to 1900 and later works of national cultural significance, such as PATU! and the TV series Waka Huia. The exhibition also presents related highlights from the Ngā Taonga audio collection.

‘Preserving film, video and sound for future generations is a race against time,’ says Ngā Taonga acting Chief Executive Honiana Love. ‘In many ways it’s a miracle that we were able to salvage anything from the rusty cans of the Whetton collection, and it’s a triumph that we succeeded in saving so much.’

The exhibition will tell people about the decomposition of nitrate and acetate film stock, and will show how more recent media is also at risk of being lost, as the machines that can play video tape wear out and can’t be replaced. Video tape itself degrades and audiovisual archivists agree that tape not digitised by 2025 will in most cases be lost forever.

‘Other kinds of documentary archives can be made more stable and long-lasting, but some audiovisual material has a tendency to fall apart all by itself,’ continues Honiana Love. ‘Rust + Restoration tells the story of how we need to act before the faces, places and voices recorded on vulnerable media disappear forever.’

In a different sense a great deal of New Zealand’s social history and culture is lost when personal collections of amateur film and recordings are not perceived to be of value by later generations. Ngā Taonga is unusual among audiovisual archives in holding an extensive selection of amateur films, examples of which are also included in the compilation of film excerpts.

Entry to the exhibition is free and it runs from 11 October until 22 February 2020.

You can find more information about the exhibition at:


Updated on 24th February 2020