Treaty of Waitangi moves to National Library

8:12 am on 21 April 2017

One of the country's most treasured documents is about to be moved to a new home amid tight security and secrecy about when exactly the shift takes place.

Treaty of Waitangi

The Treaty of Waitangi is one of three documents that will be moved from the National Archives to the National Library. Photo: RNZ / Aaron Smale

The 177-year-old Treaty of Waitangi along with the Declaration of Independence of the United Tribes of New Zealand and the Women's Suffrage Petition are being trucked 200m from Archives New Zealand to the National Library.

The chief archivist, Marilyn Little, was organising the move with one aim in mind - to preserve and keep safe New Zealand's founding documents.

"The Waitangi sheet is on parchment. The inks sit on the top - they're not absorbed into the parchment. The inks are cracked and fragile. It's also got a seal that is cracked and parts of that seal have flaked off.

"One of our challenges is to keep the document as stable as possible to make sure they're not jolted, not jerked and there's no vibration as we move them."

The Treaty of Waitangi documents' fragility can be seen here in this close-up photo of the main sheet's seal.

The cracked seal of the Treaty of Waitangi Photo: Anna Whitehead

Three crates have been especially built to hold the documents. They'll be carried by Archives staff out of the building before being moved by truck down the road to the National Library.

Ms Little has left nothing to chance.

"Every document is going to sit in a specially-made archival box protected by foam. And that box will sit within a crate that's been specially-made surrounded by more foam and the crate is weather-proofed," she said.

"And then should it be raining, each crate has a purpose-built rain coat."

1893 Women's Suffrage Petition

The 1893 Women's Suffrage Petition Photo: Supplied

The documents have been housed at Archives for 27 years in a secure room that was not designed to attract lots of visitors. From next month, the documents will be part of a new permanent exhibition at the National Library, He Tohu.

The founding documents will be the centrepiece but there will be the new high-tech features that modern museum goers have come to expect.

Hugh Karena, who is a director of Māori relations and strategy at Internal Affairs, said it was about bringing the treasures to life.

"My hope for the new home of the treaty is that when Māori come there they will see themselves in the exhibition. They see themselves, they see their story.

"And I really want people to come and learn.

"It's interesting too that the Treaty will be diagonally across the road from Parliament so perhaps it will be there reminding Parliament that it exists and it's alive."

Over the years there have been calls for the Treaty to go back to where it was first signed, but Mr Karena said showing iwi leaders the state of the Waitangi parchment made it clear that was impossible.

"We could do it but it would kill the documents. We'd get up there and we'd have a goatskin. We wouldn't have a Treaty."

The youngest of the three documents is the 1893 Women's Suffrage Petition, which played a key role in New Zealand becoming the first country where women could vote.

National Council of Women vice-president Vanisa Dhiru, who has been part of the group advising on the move, said the leader of the suffrage movement, Kate Sheppard, would be thrilled to know her petition would have a wider audience.

"Everyone's really excited to ensure that this document is on display to get inspiration from and to really see how democracy worked in the past and how we might be able to use that vitality and inspiration in the future for the things that we want to fight for."

Chief archivist Marilyn Little in National Archives' conservation room

Chief archivist Marilyn Little Photo: Supplied

The Archives staff will remain kaitiaki of the documents but they have said their farewells in preparation for the move.

Ms Little had the final say on the timing - she even had MetService teed up to give her updates on the weather.

"It's one of the most complex jobs I've had in the public service but pretty enjoyable because it's a hell of a challenge.

"And at this point we are pretty close to when we move. At this point it's looking good."

The new He Tohu exhibition will be officially opened on 19 May and will open to the public the next day.