Treaty signatories and signing locations

Page 6 – Preserving the documents

The Treaty of Waitangi is currently on display in the He Tohu exhibition at the National Library of New Zealand in Wellington. This climate-controlled exhibit space opened in 2017 and displays the Treaty, 1835 Declaration of Independence, and 1893 Women's Suffrage Petition. The documents have not always been so secure.

The 19th century

After the treaty was first signed on 6 February 1840, Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson sent four copies to his superiors. The copy actually signed at Waitangi (and other places) remained in New Zealand. The documents – two sheets of parchment and nine of paper – were kept in an iron box in Auckland.

Auckland was a small settlement and the government ‘offices’ consisted of a wooden cottage in Official Bay. When this was destroyed by fire in 1841, records clerk George Elliott rescued the box and the treaty documents, as well as the Seal of the colony. After the fire, the treaty documents were fastened together and put in a safe in the Colonial Secretary's office in Auckland. They were transferred to Wellington after this became the capital in 1865.

Discovery and preservation

The treaty documents were hardly seen again until 1908, when the historian Thomas Hocken found them in the basement of Government Buildings in Wellington. Water, time and rodents had taken a toll. Staff at the Dominion Museum tried to restore the documents, but getting suitable parchment was difficult. Using starch paste, they mounted the parchment on canvas and the paper on linen. This treatment caused more damage, including stains and hardening of the parchment. Security was better, though; the documents were put in a tin case and kept in the strongroom of the Department of Internal Affairs in Wellington.

More than 50 years passed before further preservation work was undertaken. Leslie Lloyd, the Auckland City Art Gallery conservator, inspected the treaty in 1966. He recommended that it 'should be treated as of first importance in conservation as it is unevenly attached to linen, is buckled and subjected to close fluorescent light and consequent fading'. More treatment was carried out in 1977–78. The backing on the sheets of the treaty was found to consist of a strong paper underneath buckram, a cloth made from cotton or linen that is used in bookbinding and for stiffening garments. The buckram was removed, and the documents were humidified to moisten the paste before the paper lining was carefully peeled away. The paper sheets were immersed in water to soften the remaining adhesive, which was then removed. The documents were then dried and pressed.

Further restoration work was still needed. In 1979, bookbinder and restorer Sydney Cockerell suggested that the gaps in the parchment sheets be filled in with handmade paper rather than vellum or parchment, as new skin would cause wrinkling. Following Cockerell's advice, conservation treatment began in January 1980. National Archives' Conservation Unit completed a thorough report on the treaty in 1987. It repackaged the documents to minimise the risk of further physical damage.

On display

The treaty first went on temporary public display in 1940 as part of the events marking the centenary of its signing. The Department of Internal Affairs, which looked after the treaty, argued that further display and exposure to light would cause the writing to fade. In 1956, the department recommended that the treaty be placed in the care of the Alexander Turnbull Library. A special display case was designed, and the treaty finally went on public display in 1961.

In about 1978 the treaty returned to the care of National Archives, a branch of the Department of Internal Affairs. Long-term security and display facilities were needed. While these were being constructed, the treaty was deposited in a secure vault at the Reserve Bank in Wellington. A secure display area was completed at the new Archives House in 1991 and the Constitution Room was formally opened on 9 December. It houses the treaty and other founding documents of New Zealand.

From 2017 the Treaty of Waitangi, the 1835 Declaration of Independence and the 1893 Women's Suffrage Petition are to be displayed at the National Library of New Zealand, a block away from Archives House.

How to cite this page

'Preserving the documents', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/treaty/read-the-treaty/preserving-the-documents, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 24-May-2017