The Lives of Colonial Objects, edited by Annabel Cooper, Lachy Paterson and Angela Wanhalla (Otago University Press, 2015), 368 pp., $50
The inspiration for this beautifully produced and sumptuously illustrated essay collection, described by its three editors as one ‘in which objects serve as pathways into New Zealand’s colonial history’, comes originally from Neil MacGregor’s celebrated best-selling book A History of the World in 100 Objects (2010), itself based on a groundbreaking collaboration between the BBC and the British Museum. The occasion for this book’s conception, however, was the 2013 conference on ‘Colonial Objects’ at Dunedin’s Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, whose themes were described as the ‘material circumstances’ of colonial life; and while there were 70 papers given, only 50 are included here, and of those, some were not actually presented at the conference.
The writers include academics, librarians, independent scholars and those involved in heritage matters generally – especially in museums – and there are naturally diverse approaches and a generous selection of cross-cultural themes that embrace Pākehā, Māori and Pacific interests and themes. There is an admirable emphasis both on establishing the provenance of each object and telling the stories surrounding them, many of which involve cherished family memories, and there is an over-riding aim to make the ‘ordinary’ into something special. The essays are placed in chronological order for, in the editors’ own words, they ‘warmed to the sense of history through “glimpses”, and the alternation of large political themes and smaller domestic realities, which the ordering revealed’. But they were also conscious of the thematic relationships of objects contemporary with one another. The arrangement works admirably and every object deserves mention. A paragraph from the editors’ Introduction explains all:
The taonga within The Lives of Colonial Objects initiate kōrero both small and large. Individually, many open a series of small windows into the material circumstances of colonial life and the everyday social aspects of the time; the clothes people wore, the work they did, the things that gave them pleasure and joy, the sounds they heard, the music they played, the houses they built and lived in, the words they wrote, the hardships they faced and the emotions they expressed. Many reflect the political forces at work in colonialism: the infrastructure that facilitated settler ideas of progress, Māori resistance and cultural exchange. Object stories bring attention to under-examined social and cultural practices, as well as a focus on the less familiar elements of emotion, feeling and experience in otherwise well-traversed dimensions of our history. While each object is the subject of a particular story, therefore, the objects … taken as a collection, inform and enrich major themes in the colonial history of Aotearoa New Zealand.
The editors’ definition of ‘colonial’ might raise some eyebrows, for it extends not only beyond the date on which New Zealand became a Dominion, but into the World War II – with a memorial plaque to a beloved dog, carved by a Japanese prisoner of war – and even into the 1960s to include the last TEAL Solent Flying Boat, the final link of the once famed Empire Route. The majority of the chosen objects, however, are safely located in the Victorian and Edwardian eras and include the vastly important Maori Land Court minute books, travel journals, music albums, a ledger of Māori newspaper subscribers, the Lindauer Art gallery’s visitors’ book, and the boyhood diaries of Herries Beattie. Chris Brickell’s study of Nola Pratt’s amusingly captioned photograph album, for example, sheds entertaining light on a high-spirited young woman, happy to poke fun at social conventions and ideas of what was considered ‘proper’ for New Zealand women in 1912; she never lost her sense of fun in spite of her often turbulent subsequent career. As Nola Luxford, she achieved some fame in America as a silent movie star. She also founded New York’s Anzac Club during the World War II.
One of the very best essays is Jane Stafford’s, on Katherine Mansfield’s hei tiki; it’s a masterly piece of meticulous research and sheer common sense that places the Māori carving in the context of Wellington’s fashionable society of October 1907. In doing so she destroys the myths that have surrounded this small object by those anxious to impose on Mansfield’s wearing of it a wider significance that has no basis in fact. It was a simple fashion statement by the young woman destined to be a great New Zealand author and was not unique. We need many more such studies to question some of our other cherished myths.
Other gems include: Lucy Mackintosh’s discourse on an exquisite late eighteenth-century Māori flute or pūtōrino, capable of breaking down ‘spatial and temporal distance, connecting distant places, ancestors and gods with the present’. This is matched by Pāora Tapsell’s essay on Te Arawa’s iconic cannon Te Haupapa, that recalls his own Pākehā Māori ancestor, Captain Phillip Tapsell. Kelvin Day’s account of the intricately carved canoe prow, the Kīngi Tauihu, links the Musket Wars with their tribal migrations and the later Land Wars; as does Ruth Harvey’s thoughts on a photo that might or might not be that of Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitaake of the Waitara Purchase and the First Taranaki War. Related essays include Lachy Paterson’s on the Albion press that produced the short-lived newspaper Te Pihoihoi, set up by Sir George Grey and John Gorst to counter the Kīngitanga’s lively and influential Te Hikioi e Rere atu na; and Ewan Morris on the unexpectedly complex memorial to Keepa Te Rangihiwinui in Whanganui.
Every essay, without exception, is of interest: from thoughts on a gentleman’s slippers to William Colenso’s now fragile printer’s composing stick, described not only as an object of colonisation, but an instrument of literacy, religious conversion and language preservation. We ponder on a harpoon head, the Weller brothers’ medicine chest, a child’s Noah’s Ark; and Bishop Harper’s register recording his official life in early Canterbury. Charlotte Macdonald links generations of a family through that striking eighteenth-century portrait of Mrs Humphrey Devereaux we can see in Te Papa; and Kirstine Moffat’s meditations on the Broadwood piano at the Elms, once belonging to Euphemia Maxwell, give us another interesting family story. So do the Haberfield family’s kahu kiwi – feathers for a wartime bride’s hat – and the Ellison family’s cherished tokotoko taonga.
An especially evocative essay is Alison Clarke’s on a studio photograph that is, to all appearances, simply a charming image of young Rachel Stewart, daughter of one of early Otago’s most eminent families, with her baby. The baby’s feeding bottle stands on a nearby table, and the tragic irony is that because of the flawed design of that bottle – and the utterly primitive medical knowledge of the times – it most probably caused the infant’s death from dysentery at five months. Rachel herself died of septicaemia eight years later, but not before she had given birth to William Downie Stewart: politician, writer, soldier and lawyer. Rebecca Priestley’s thoughts on the Rotorua Bathhouse Radium Activator give another glimpse into the quackery that so often accompanied Victorian and Edwardian medicine. A bottle of Te Aroha’s mineral water recalls a safer but equally ineffectual medical fashion.
There is so much variety in this thoroughly fascinating collection that one can only add yet another list to include: the Ashburton Domain’s Florence Nightingale memorial tree and tablet; a road into the Ureweras; a dunite rock; Otago Museum’s whale skeleton; that iconic and much travelled museum exhibit the wharenui Mataatua; and a stereopticon reminding us of travelling lecturers and magic lantern shows. There are illuminated manuscripts in Māori, Whanganui River scenic embroideries, Australasian colonial billies, an Art Nouveau jug, a Chinese carver’s very fine church lectern, a polo trophy, a Samoan cricket bat, a striking landscape photograph, Wellington’s Spinks Cottage, a Waipori cob cottage, and the four successive churches that make up Toko Toru Tapu.
Mark Stocker highlights the Health Stamps of 1929 and 1930 and, in particular, the popular ‘Smiling Boys’ of 1931, sought after world-wide as an essential feature of any New Zealand stamp collection; and Kerry Hines retells the forgotten social history of Christchurch’s seaside tent holiday camps.
As in any collection of essays, the quality of writing does vary, and one always longs for clear and concise prose; but the best here are very good indeed. The less good, admittedly a minority, are marred by academic jargon and too much repetition.
It is unlikely that a more handsome volume will appear from any New Zealand publisher this year. This is a book to cherish – and to dip into as fancy takes one.
EDMUND BOHAN is a Christchurch historian, biographer and novelist.