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The next stage in a journey of thousands of years

After five months of careful storage, the conservation process has commenced for the six moa footprints extracted from the Kyeburn River in May.

Given the size, weight, and material of the clay blocks, careful planning has gone into the next steps of this moa’s journey, and a new, if temporary, conservation space has been set up in the People of the World gallery on the second level of Otago Museum.

The conservation process will be open to the public from Wednesday 20 November – a little like watching paint dry perhaps, but steady feedback suggests that the opportunity to see the prints and to learn more about what the care of the taoka entails is eagerly anticipated.

There will be a small gathering for the people who were involved in the extraction project on the morning of 20 November to mark the occasion.

The display and project have been given the name Te Huna a te Moa by Kāti Huriapa Rūnaka ki Puketeraki, including some of the rakatahi who were involved in the project.

This is derived from a whakataukī ‘Huna i te huna o te moa’, which was a whakataukī to express contempt for the moa’s attempt at concealment.

In the moa prints context, this could be used as a metaphor to explain that these prints were hidden in plain sight, but were eventually found due to their size. It also has an added layer of meaning as a metaphor for the loss of an aspect of culture.  Perhaps these prints will give us insight into how moa were of cultural as well as scientific significance.

The public display is a custom conservation space in a small room with a viewing window just inside the People of the World gallery. As well as the view into the conservation room, there will be information, and some objects of interest. It is anticipated the display will be in situ until about mid-2020, before designing a permanent home, and to source any funding that may be necessary to ensure their appropriate preservation and protection, while retaining adequate access for research purposes.

The prints have been stored and monitored in the Museum’s Collections storage for the past five months, encased in the wet towels, SympaTex, and plastic that they were wrapped in at the excavation site.

The first part of the conservation process was computed tomography (CT) scanning, which was completed by the Museum’s Conservation team and staff at Pacific Radiology in September.

Nyssa Mildwaters, Otago Museum Conservation Manager, says, “The CT scans, essentially multiple cross-section x-ray images of each block, provide a very accurate picture of the block, and will show any internal weaknesses or cracks that may present issues during the drying phases. This will also ensure that there is a record of the block should it crack or become distorted as it dries.”

“The data provided by the CT scans is an essential examination and documentation tool for effective conservation, and will also provide opportunities for future research-related examination.”

The blocks will sit atop individual wooden panel bases covered with conservation-grade foam to support them during handling, moving, and storage. The significant weight of each piece of clay has also required some creative thinking around making bespoke supports in the future, so they can be moved carefully and safely.

Humidity is being carefully controlled using custom made frames covered with clear polythene sheeting that is placed over the blocks to create a microclimate, essentially like a hat. One of the blocks will sit inside the Museum’s Perspex humidity chamber so it is more clearly visible. The humidity inside the chambers will be slowly reduced, allowing the blocks to safely dry.

If, during the drying process, cracks start to appear, Conservation staff will apply a consolidant to strengthen the structure of the clay blocks.