Donald Cochrane, Curator of Photographs, 1996-2010

The Archives Research Centre staff and friends gathered to farewell Donald Cochrane in early December, who, for almost 16 years, has diligently undertaken the enormous task of preserving the Presbyterian photographic collection.  He in fact left his mark on many other aspects of the Archives work, in particular the extensive Missions collection and the Archives Research Centre web site.  Donald took the challenge of tackling new experiences and developing various preservation strategies that had to be tailored to a very limited budget with utmost seriousness.

An initial assessment of the collection carried out by Alan Bekhuis (a now well known New   Zealand photographic artist) prior to Donald’s appointment set in place the beginnings of the preservation programme that he furthered.

The somewhat cramped environment of the Archives Office of 1996 meant the work with the photographs had to be performed in the Basement Library stack where Donald was surrounded by a great many theological tomes.  The two narrow tables with their uneven tops and the restricted space did not hinder the forward movement of the project.  Not daunted by the overwhelming number of partially sorted and undocumented images – photographs, slides, glass plates, film strips, movies and negatives –he began to slowly put in place a more ordered regime.

Surprise is often expressed that the collection contains, at a conservative estimate, 150,000 photographic images.  Besides the ever growing parish collections, the National Church has made use of photographic images as part of its outreach programme since the 1880s.  Evidence of lantern slide and later photograph and film production is dotted throughout the manuscript collections.

A boost to the use of photographs by the Church during the post World War 2 New Life Movement saw the formation of the Publicity Department and the appointment of Lindsay Crozier as the Church’s Photographer in 1950.  The Photographic Unit operated until the late 1980s when it closed due to financial pressure.  During the 37 years the unit produced a wonderful visual history in a variety of media highlighting the Church’s work throughout New Zealand and overseas.  The records and catalogues they maintained eased the burden of identification in contrast to the earlier photographic record which required Donald to undertake considerable research to place them in context.

Perhaps the lack of provenance, date and documented information is one of the most frustrating aspects of preserving many of the early photographs. So it is with a sense of considerable satisfaction for Donald that he managed to fully describe some 28,000 images of which around 15,000 are now accessible on the web site.  During his years in the Archives Research Centre he completed the preservation of 70% of images which include some description and are accessible through various on-site photographic indices.

Donald’s willingness to experiment led him to designing and maintaining our web site, way before the National Church considered one, which opened up the Manuscript and Photographic Collections to the wider world as never before.  The highly successful Mission Archives section on the site evolved as a result of the demand for these records by academic researchers.  With only a paper listing of the collection and no real means of cross referencing, Donald set about rearranging and describing the collection to enable it to be entered into the electronic catalogue ‘Ark’.  Along with the completion of the preservation of the Mission photos Donald’s knowledge of the ins and outs of mission activity in the Church enabled him to become ‘the authority’ for those inquiring about Presbyterian mission activity.

The on-line second-hand book shop also managed by Donald brings in a small but steady income.

He noted to those present at his farewell he believed he had fulfilled a significant task within the Presbyterian Church’s Archives programme and justifiably leaves feeling well satisfied.   On behalf of the Presbyterian Church we thank Donald for his marvellous contribution and wish him well in his retirement.

by Yvonne

This item will be published in the Methodist paper Touchstone February 2012


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