Melissa Nightingale went behind the scenes to look at some of the Te Papa treasures the public don't see.

Te Papa museum is like an iceberg.

At the tip you have the favourites – the colossal squid, the earthquake house. There's hundreds, probably thousands of items to see, touch and smell.

But below the surface looms an immense store of historical pieces, some of which will never go on display.

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New Zealand's national museum has an astonishing 2.2 million items in its collection, but only 2 or 3 per cent of that is shown to the public at any one time.

Its archives are scattered around different buildings in Wellington, including the museum itself. Its purpose is not for it to go on display but for research and to preserve history.

A lot of the collection can be seen online.

The first part of our tour is spent in a room jam-packed with thousands of dead birds.

One bird is particularly special to curator of vertebrates Colin Miskelly.

He was measuring a Campbell Island snipe chick when its parent wandered across his book, giving him a perfect set of muddy footprints to keep on record. He later decided to include them in his wedding ring design.

The room is full of cabinets crammed with specimens, whether they're laid flat in drawers – these ones are called "study skins" - or mounted in lifelike positions on perches.

Curator of vertebrates Colin Miskelly holds a stuffed mount of the extinct laughing owl. Photo / Melissa Nightingale
Curator of vertebrates Colin Miskelly holds a stuffed mount of the extinct laughing owl. Photo / Melissa Nightingale

One of the mounted birds is a laughing owl, an extinct native owl. The last known bird was found dead on a road in Timaru in 1914, having been hit by a car.

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It seems like a lot, but Te Papa aims for 30 male and 30 female specimens of each species for research purposes. That way they can compare differences between sexes, ages, and eras and environments the birds were alive in, among other things.

Hoarding birds of that number quickly adds up. They have about 18,000 study skins and 800 mounts stashed away for safekeeping.

And safe they are – each cabinet is carefully fitted to protect against earthquake damage, with bolts holding them into the floor, metal bars stopping drawers from shaking open and velcro strips keeping the mounts from falling over.

In the 2016 Kaikōura quake, only nine of Te Papa's 2.2 million items were damaged, a sign the system works well.

"Iconic" creepy crawlies

In the same room is the creepy crawlies.

In a jar on the table is something gruesome. Floating in preserving liquid is a weta, and filling up most of the rest of the jar is a long, twisted parasite. The gordian worm.

"We've effectively got a coil of worm that occupies most of the body capacity of the weta," says Dr Phil Sirvid, curator of invertebrates.

It's just one of the thousands of creepy crawlies in his collection.

"I could hand you a vial which possibly has hundreds if not thousands of specimens in it," he says.

Te Papa curator of invertebrates, Dr Phil Sirvid, holds a jar containing a weta that was killed by the parasitic gordian worm. Photo / Melissa Nightingale
Te Papa curator of invertebrates, Dr Phil Sirvid, holds a jar containing a weta that was killed by the parasitic gordian worm. Photo / Melissa Nightingale

Much of the collection is stored in vials, or on slides, while other, usually harder-bodied specimens are dried and pinned to boards before being stored in locked drawers in the climate-controlled storage area.

"Many of those things are well over 100 years old and they look fine."

To Sirvid many of the creatures are just as iconic to New Zealand as kiwi, with 95 per cent of them only found here.

Not everyone would understand the need to store thousands of miniscule bugs, but something as simple as an analysis of lice helped researchers identify a new sub-species of kiwi.

Bugs are a "record of our heritage" and "just as important as birds", he says.

Bones galore

Te Papa's dry store contains crates full of bones and taxidermied animals. Photo / Melissa Nightingale
Te Papa's dry store contains crates full of bones and taxidermied animals. Photo / Melissa Nightingale

When we enter the dry store, the first thing we notice is the overwhelming smell of whale oil. A close second is the skeletons from which the smell comes. Whale bones exude their oil, causing the pungent odour.

The room is stacked high with partially open crates full of the bones of hundreds of animals, including those of former Wellington Zoo elephant Kamala.

There's a full wall of mounted deer heads. At the back of the room is a collection of taxidermied big cats, and hidden away on a shelf is an ominous, toothy seal, with empty eye sockets.

The dry store might seem a bit grim to some, but it's packed with fascinating natural history.

A toothy seal is one of the animals stashed away in the dry store. Photo / Melissa Nightingale
A toothy seal is one of the animals stashed away in the dry store. Photo / Melissa Nightingale

Miskelly pulls out a box with two huge moa bones in it, and another box with a tangled clump of fossilised penguin bones.

"The museum used to be the place that Wellington came to see the world," he says.

Thanks to the internet and David Attenborough, that sort of content is available at the click of a mouse. Now, people come to Te Papa to learn more about their own country.

A hospital for art

In the conservation lab, a painting nearly 250 years old is sitting under a microscope.

Waterfall in Dusky Bay with Māori Canoe is a recent acquisition and will soon go on exhibition, but first the staff in the conservation lab need to study it and prepare it to go on display.

Linda Waters (left) and Tijana Cvetkovic are examining a painting by William Hodges from 1775 in the conservation lab. Photo / Mark Tantrum
Linda Waters (left) and Tijana Cvetkovic are examining a painting by William Hodges from 1775 in the conservation lab. Photo / Mark Tantrum

The 1775 artwork by William Hodges will be assessed to see if it needs cleaning, and will be examined under UV and infrared lights to reveal different details, potential inscriptions, and preparatory drawings underneath.

"It's an opportunity for us having it in the lab to really investigate his techniques," said painting conservator Linda Waters.

Elsewhere in the lab, an anti-nuclear protest dress is being prepared for storage.

La Bombe, made by Lisa McEwan in 1988, was created to celebrate the introduction of nuclear-free legislation, but also to condemn the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior.

From the oversized shoulder puff symbolising a mushroom cloud, to the black netting for mourning and the sprinkled diamante as acid rain, the dress marks a "fashion moment" in New Zealand, says history curator Stephanie Gibson.

Stephanie Gibson prepares La Bombe for storage. Photo / Mark Tantrum
Stephanie Gibson prepares La Bombe for storage. Photo / Mark Tantrum

Centuries of local history

We start our tour of the Māori collections with a karakia.

Senior curator mātauranga Māori Dougal Austin first leads us to the patched leather jacket made by the costume designer for Once Were Warriors.

On the table nearby is a pink poupou commissioned by Te Papa and carved over at least 12 months from a corian-like material.

The poupou represents Tamarau, the whatukura or heavenly guardian. Carver Rangi Kipa's only stipulation when commissioned for the work was that it could be hot pink, pushing the boundaries of the traditional palette of colours used in Māori works.

A waka huia of unknown origin is one of the treasures kept in the Māori collections. Photo / Mark Tantrum
A waka huia of unknown origin is one of the treasures kept in the Māori collections. Photo / Mark Tantrum

Perched carefully next to it is an intricately carved waka huia of unknown origin. The chest is used to hold taonga.

The room we're in is full of wide drawers with beautiful cloaks laid out flat inside. Austin pulls out one drawer to reveal a kahu kiwi, thick with soft feathers.

There's a couple of hundred cloaks in varying conditions. Some of the cloaks are made from the skin of the now extinct kurī dog.

In another room are thousands of carvings, weapons, tools, and more. Te Papa also has about 5000 stone adzes, begging the question – how many is too many?

"That's a huge amount, but that's probably the most commonly found thing," Austin says.

As we leave the storage area we wash our hands and sprinkle water over ourselves from a special basin set aside purely for that. The ritual, whakanoa, is a process you follow after entering a tapu, or sacred, space to make you are "unsacred" again, says head of communications Kate Camp.

Water is provided outside exhibitions with stories and items associated with death, such as the Gallipoli exhibition.

Dougal Austin pulls out a drawer containing a kahu kiwi. Photo / Mark Tantrum
Dougal Austin pulls out a drawer containing a kahu kiwi. Photo / Mark Tantrum

The weird and wonderful world of art

The first thing to catch the eye when we enter the art store is what looks like a small metal gate with a mass of hair woven through it. The piece by artist Vivian Lynn is just a small sample of the wild variety of artworks in the collection.

Te Papa stores its larger paintings on floor-to-ceiling racks on rollers, that can be pulled out and viewed with ease.

There's no thematic order to the way the paintings are stored, collection manager Anna Brookes says it's more "a kind of tetris puzzle these days".

Charlotte Davy (left) and Anna Brookes reveal one of the many large paintings kept in the collection. Photo / Mark Tantrum
Charlotte Davy (left) and Anna Brookes reveal one of the many large paintings kept in the collection. Photo / Mark Tantrum

Genevieve by George Dawe from 1812, an ornately-framed oil painting, is about twice the height of Brookes as she stands next to it is a sight to see.

There's smaller works too – ceramics, sculptures, an alarming baby doll with a goat's skull in place of its head.

Head of art Charlotte Davy pulls out the most expensive piece in the collection, a painting of a woman carrying a bowl of fruit on her head.

Porteuse de Raisins by Natalia Goncharova made its way to New Zealand when Goncharova's former husband died, and his mistress wanted all the paintings he inherited to be sent to far flung places around the world, Davy says.

She can't put an exact figure on it, but says the painting is worth "millions".

Porteuse de Raisins by Natalia Goncharova is Te Papa's most expensive artwork. Photo / Mark Tantrum
Porteuse de Raisins by Natalia Goncharova is Te Papa's most expensive artwork. Photo / Mark Tantrum

Out of this world - literally

Our next stop is a mixed bag – beloved toys from an iconic Kiwi TV show, a random collection of shoes, and a set of tiny rocks from the moon.

Were in Te Papa's history store with Gibson.

She carefully opens a set of boxes containing the cast of the kids show Play School.

Little Ted is absent, having lost his head while being shot out of a cannon at a drunken party.

Nearby we look at a wall of shoes Te Papa has collected over the years, and over at another table Gibson pulls out the special lunar rocks, samples brought back and gifted to New Zealand, among other countries, by the US.

History curator Stephanie Gibson displays the cast of Play School, minus the decapitated Little Ted. Photo / Mark Tantrum
History curator Stephanie Gibson displays the cast of Play School, minus the decapitated Little Ted. Photo / Mark Tantrum

Pacific pieces

There's at least 15,000 items in the Pacific store, ranging from 3000-year-old pottery to the Pasifika-inspired dress Parris Goebel wore to the MTV VMAs in 2016.

The dress is senior curator of Pacific cultures' Rachel Yates' favourite piece.

"Parris Goebel is an example of Pacific excellence, an example of wahine toa," she says.

Yates has pulled out a few other items of interest, an old comb and a slightly uncomfortable-looking wooden headrest, which Fijian women slept on to preserve the shape of their afros.

Senior curator of Pacific cultures Rachel Yates shows her favourite collection item, Parris Goebel's dress. Photo / Mark Tantrum
Senior curator of Pacific cultures Rachel Yates shows her favourite collection item, Parris Goebel's dress. Photo / Mark Tantrum

"I just thought it was a huge encouragement for young Pacific women, a challenge as well to embrace our natural hair."

Senior curator Sean Mallon's chosen piece is a brass instrument donated to the museum by former Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate student, Samiuela Paea.

The cornet was passed from cousin to cousin in Samiuela's family, but he decided to hand it over to Te Papa when the students were asked to donate something from their own lives to go into the collections.

"Brass instruments are really important to Tongan society," Mallon says.

Te Papa was able to replace Samieula's instrument so he could go on playing.

Sean Mallon displays the cornet given to Te Papa by a student. Photo / Mark Tantrum
Sean Mallon displays the cornet given to Te Papa by a student. Photo / Mark Tantrum

Not all about the display

"The public think of museums as places to put things on exhibit but they are so much more than that," says Camp.

"A museum is a storehouse of treasures where things are preserved for the future, a library of life where items are kept for research, a time machine where you can go back in history – and where we save the stuff from today that becomes the history of the future."