Lights, camera, action — the making of the Turnbull Library's mini-documentary

Lights, camera, action — the making of the Turnbull Library's mini-documentary

A look behind-the-scenes at the making of a new documentary about the Alexander Turnbull Library and its staff and collections — plus a chance to watch the finished film.

Lights, camera, action!

In the interest of preservation, actually, no lights.

Through the generosity of a Lottery grant, secured during lockdown, the Turnbull Endowment Trust commissioned a five-minute mini-documentary to capture a flavour of the Alexander Turnbull Library. This proved to be no mean feat.

Anna Cottrell, maker of the Great War Stories series knows the Turnbull well and has worked with and used the Library for many years. Appointed as Director for the mini-documentary, her mandate, post-COVID lockdown, was to show the depth and breadth of the collections: the variety of formats, and the conservation and curatorial expertise lovingly brought to the care of our documentary heritage.


Director Anna Cottrell was tasked with showing the depth and breadth of the Turnbull Library collections.

Assigned to the position of Executive Producer (as I later realised in the credits) I was tasked with co-ordinating venues and talent to optimise a tight filming schedule.

Condensed into two, two-day sessions, filming spanned the labyrinth of the library’s facilities and beyond, and involved engaging with staff, researchers and an external conservator.

Filming in freezing storage conditions

Cameraman Ivars Berzins (wrapped in goose down) brought his artistic eye to navigate the 2 degree Celsius photographic storage vaults and kilometres of books, manuscripts and newspapers. Throughout all of this, we were under the guidance of Vesna Zivkovic, the Turnbull’s Preventive Conservator — ensuring protection of all items during filming.


In the photographic store with Vesna Zivkovic, the Turnbull Library’s Preventive Conservator.

Rare books from Antarctica

Rare books containing stunning hand-painted birds, the ‘Beans’ edition of Aurora Australis printed in freezing conditions on Shackleton’s journey to Antarctica, and samples of cloth collected throughout the Pacific on first voyages were filmed.

For me the most moving of all is to hear the story of a security guard reciting Islamic poetry from an eight hundred year-old book, still taught in schools today, and what that meant to him.


Director Anna Cottrell with Rare Books Curator, Anthony Tedeschi.

Mīharo Wonder

We gained an insight into the Miharo Wonder exhibition with the show’s curatorial team, discussing the intricate details of some individual exhibition pieces. Pieces like the ‘Meek Tree’ revealed innumerable hours of painstaking inkwork by hand, depicting the artist’s view of New Zealand in 1876. And a handmade book created in Featherston by a Japanese prisoner of war, recorded lyrics of Japanese songs on the back of cigarette packets – the only paper available to him.

The Mīharo Wonder exhibition, the second in the Turnbull Library centenary series, opens on 26 February 2021.


Film crew with the Miharo Wonder curatorial team.

Conservation and cleaning

In the conservation lab the careful removal of silt and dirt from books with scalpel and brush, indicate that items are donated or procured in a variety of conditions.

They are painstakingly cleaned whilst not losing details of their journey to the library. External conservator Carolina Izzo’s delicate hand brushed away the grime of a West Coast past, transforming the painting into the centrepiece of the upcoming exhibition.

With the guidance of Dr Oliver Stead, we explored the array of ephemera, prints, watercolours and oils that the Turnbull holds. Behind each work is a story of adventure, admiration or adversity. Some are by unknown artists and represent people, events and terrain significant to New Zealand’s past. All are fascinating and some clearly in need of treatment before they can be shared with a wider audience.


L: In the painting store with curator, Dr Oliver Stead. R: Staff and researchers in the Katherine Mansfield Reading Room.


Digitising these works across so many formats requires technical know-how. The Imaging Services team captures scenes and portraits from glass plate negatives, printing in tiny prayer books, or paintings on enormous canvases. Whatever the item, care is paramount throughout.

The Reading Room remains an essential access point. Historians Jock Phillips and Jane Tolerton shared their time and interests, claiming the Turnbull to be an irreplaceable, wonderful, world-class resource.

Caitlin Lynch’s revisit of a previous film endeavour, told the story of an unsung women’s suffrage champion.

The workings of the music, sound, digital and microform collections were captured, too. Unfortunately, we missed the meticulous work that goes into detailing the metadata that sits behind the arrangement and description of individual items and collections.

Four days of filming simply could not allow us to do justice to every facet of the library.


Cameraman Ivars Berzins with the Scott family.


Architect John Scott’s archive arrival into the Library provided an opportunity to film the respect and aroha that accompanies donations of work. The Scott family were welcomed and hosted with a ceremony that showed the commitment to care for these works forever.

Now the impossible task of delivering a five-minute film has been completed. But with all the intricate content, the result stretched to sixteen minutes. The combined creative talents of Anna Cottrell, Ivars Berzins and editor Peter Metcalf have culminated in an updated view of the library, overlaid with a stunning music compilation from Ian Leslie.

Small vignettes coming in 2021

Over summer 2020/21 The Turnbull Endowment Trust plan to draw on unused footage to commission several small vignettes, focusing on individual interviews. Watch this space for releases through social media during 2021.

Please follow The Turnbull Endowment Trust on Facebook / Instagram / Linked In.

This may well be my first and last movie-making experience. I am grateful to all who shared their insights, accommodated requests for time (often at the last minute) and who guided us through the treasures that are cared for every day.

Exhausted by the process of filming, I met a donor supporting the Trust, Barbara Blake, and I recall saying to her, ‘I love my job. I am lucky to learn something new every day!’

And so, the legacy of Alexander Turnbull continues. Please join The Turnbull Endowment Trust in supporting the Library at or

Meri Kirihimete to all.


Watch ‘A Century of Wonder — An Alexander Turnbull Library mini-documentary’


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