What are the inner workings of an audiovisual archive? Who are the people that do the actual archiving? Archive Fives is a series that looks at the five Preservation Services teams that are part of Collection Services at Ngā Taonga.
In part two, we check in with the Sound team to learn more about them and the great job they do.
The Sound team have their ears to the ground and on the discs and tapes that make up the sound collection. The trio preserve audio material, caring for the originals and creating digital copies. This enables the history of Aotearoa to be saved and shared for generations to come. The content of the recordings are often surprising, as is the journey some of the material has taken.
Can you describe your job in a few words?
Julian Millar, Sound Team Leader – rewarding, frustrating, interesting, enlightening, educational. The things I find out, especially in the sound collection often surprise me.
Grant McBride, Sound Archivist – Educational as well. Especially from programs like Insight. It’s a documentary series – there’s hundreds of them. Diversity because I’m doing all sorts of things – from the Te Māngai Pāho collection to RNZ’s Insight and topics all over the place. Technical. And history, as our tapes span back to 1950s.
Sandy Ditchburn, Senior Sound Archivist – They took all the good words! I think definitely educational. Because I’ve learned more about New Zealand history here than I ever did in high school. Interesting, enjoyable, fascinating.
Do you have any favourite items from the collection?
Sandy – Some of my favourites are Radio Northland clips from the late 1970s. They had a presenter named Darryl Ware who was hilarious. He interviewed people like Rowan Atkinson and Spike Milligan. And he was the guy who taught us about Cheese Day [an Avalon institution in which cheese is eaten]. It’s such good listening.
Grant – I really like Insight. It’s really interesting listening to ones when they brought in fingerprint identification and they were talking about how Orwellian it was. Looking back at that now, it’s pretty tame. There was the same thing with forensic DNA testing. They were introducing these ideas which now are common knowledge.
Julian – In the sound collection there’s a New Zealand at Large program titled Les Nation, Boat Builder. I thought, “I know that name”. That was my PE instructor 46 years ago. He’s now retired, building a boat on his front lawn in Stokes Valley. I really like a couple of Len Lye experimental animations, The Peanut Vendor and The Birth of the Robot.
Have you had any really memorable events during your work here?
Julian – Things that stick in my mind are shifting a bunch of times. We were based at the Film Unit, where GNS is now. The Film Unit needed the space and John O’Shea offered the Pacific Films soundstage in Kilbirnie. Later it was to Hunter Street where there was a huge collection of unaccessioned material. We spent about a year going through it before we shipped it into Cable Street.
Grant – I haven’t really been here that long – only six months. So Cheese Day. I’ve mostly just been learning my job at this stage – nothing out of the ordinary.
Sandy – Moving from Christchurch to Avalon was memorable. I like finding some of the oldest items in the collection and preserving them – there’s some real gems. There’s an analogue disc that’s like a horse race. You dropped the needle on the disc and there are eight different tracks but they’re so close together you can’t tell which one was which. Each track is a different horse race with commentary and you sort of bet on which horse would win. I hadn’t seen anything like that before.
It was super awesome when our colleague Sarah in Christchurch was looking into the huia recording. That was a huge undertaking. They had a big whiteboard with all of the clues about where these recordings had come from, who the guy was who mimicked the call. It’s used in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It took them so long but they figured it out bit by bit.
Could you describe how your work interacts with the rest of the archive?
Grant – I guess if we’re not preserving it, no one can access it.
Sandy – For us it’s just doing our job, but for someone else, it could be a really big thing. It’s great when people say things like “I heard my grandmother mother’s voice for the first time in 40 years”
Julian – We produce a lot for Sarah Johnston when she’s on Jesse Mulligan’s show. Sometimes you think, “oh, why are we talking about this?” And then you click. For example, we recently digitised some material about Erebus.
Grant – I guess we enable the rediscovery of a lot of the audio. Without us putting it into a digital form, it can get overlooked.
Sandy – Listening to things we can go, “oh, we’re the first person to listen to this in 50 years.” And so then we can pass it on to other people who can then get it out into the world. So other people get to experience it too.
Can you give a quick background on how you’ve come to be working here?
Julian – Briefly: I was made redundant by Telecom but a job came up at the Film Archive. I met with Jonathan Dennis and he was offered the position of film handler. I started there, then went to film preservation, then I moved slowly through to Collection Manager. Later I was ‘Mr I.T.’, running on less than a shoestring budget. And then at Avalon as Television Collection Manager. There was some restructuring and then I became the Sound Team Leader. Over the last 30 years I’ve done everything except documentation.
Grant – I worked in radio broadcasting as a producer for six years. I headed to England for an OE and was there for a couple of years working as an installer for audio equipment. So I worked with a lot more analogue stuff. When I came back, I wanted to pick up sound work again. I saw the job posting and have always had a really strong interest in history.
Sandy – I studied audio production and then was a house painter in Christchurch and randomly searched Seek one day. This ad came up for a Digital Transfer Operator, and I thought “that sounds cool.” So I got it and I barely knew what an archive involved but finding out that it’s actually a super awesome job and perfect and I love it and cool this can be my career, how about that?