On display, Stuart Murray

Making Ends Meet: Essays and Talks 1992-2004
Ian Wedde
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 086473503

In the title essay of this wonderful collection, originally given as a talk on issues of research and archiving at the National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa in 2003, Ian Wedde outlines how he came to choose the key phrase “making ends meet”. It suggests, he notes:

a necessary and even desperate economy of means: that knowledge forged by narrative out of museum collections may on occasion have a vast surplus of factual information at, or as, its point of origin in the archive, but the knowledge generated there will often have deployed extremely frugal connections, because it’s the intangible narrative connections – the stories if you like – that get lost and forgotten.

 

As with so much in these essays, it’s a point put with eloquence, illuminating an often complex set of cultural and practical relations. It also provides a clue as to how Wedde outlines the workings of culture, and, more widely, his own place within them. This is a marvellous book in which to view the intermingling of “economy” and “stories”, and the dangers that come from their being in proximity, and as such it emerges as a particularly enlightening and indeed vital account of a key period in New Zealand’s cultural history.

The dates are key. The first talk collected here dates from 1992, just after the 1990 sesquicentennial and its bout of national introspection. Titled “The Jacobin Style: Museums, Art and Virtue”, it outlines ideas concerning the development of Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand, and this is fitting as in many ways the shadow of Wedde’s work at Te Papa between 1994 and 2004 dominates the book as a whole. In 1992, the kind of dynamic space that Te Papa was to become had to fight as an idea in the contested domain of a problematic late bicultural nationalism that agonised over the failed Labour administrations, or the impact of such texts as Once Were Warriors. The notion that thoughts concerning culture and belonging might still exist in some transparent form, in a way that might be picked up and represented, still hung over the debates surrounding what culture in the national space might be. In “The Jacobin Style”, Wedde speaks of such processes producing “specimens of debate” and contrasts this with “dynamic occasions for debate”, the distinction clear between an ethnographic impulse to fix culture and a democratic idea of making it. By 2004, and the material, such as the 2003 National Library talk, that closes the collection, it is clear that we can not only see Wedde as a figure who had significant vision in 1992, but that the evolution of his ideas is itself a marker of the journey that New Zealand’s institutions of culture took in the 12-year period.

“Making Ends Meet”, the title essay, is a remarkable ranging across the ways in which culture, research and knowledge might exist in the institution. Whether pointing out how archivists need storytellers as much as the other way round, noting the place of mana taonga in developing institutional research culture, or finding meaning in specific art works, Wedde’s writing here continually asks what makes what he calls “public scholarship”. With the need always in mind to produce concrete examples of such culture in practice, examples such as Te Papa, the essay is a wonderful intellectual act in itself, an account of the “knowledge domain” that understands the need to stress the value of audience even as it talks with great insight on specific paintings.

It is above all a sense of Wedde’s erudition that emerges from these pages. The references from New Zealand and beyond are multiple, and often within the same paragraph. Michel Foucault and Edward Said are here along with personal and critical reflections on Alan Brunton and Ralph Hotere. Wedde is a true intellectual, a genuine man of cultural letters; the pieces here contain the knowledge of a figure devoted to thinking through the issues of culture in the public space. But at the same time they are idiosyncratic and occasionally nicely offbeat.

In “Lost at Sea: Drowning in New Zealand Literature”, for example, taken from a 1992 talk for the New Zealand Book Council, Wedde engages with his father’s reading of John Masefield’s poem “Cargoes”, but doesn’t talk anywhere about Allen Curnow’s Not in Narrow Seas, or Curnow’s meditation on islands (and indeed drowning) in the 1940s. In an out-and-out academic collection, this would be a cause for comment and possible criticism, but the kind of public intellectual space that Wedde carves for himself in these essays means that this simply isn’t something felt by the reader. Instead the essay develops through biography and a selection of 19th– and 20th-century New Zealand writers to think around the questions of the insecurity of Pakeha nationalism, and it is wonderfully effective in doing so.

The Te Papa Museum project operates as the spine of Making Ends Meet, and it is remarkable how Wedde manages to keep in play the full range of essential topics raised by the museum. Time after time he returns to the need to keep culture both intellectually rigorous and in the public domain. In the splendid “Living in Time: A Day at the Footie”, Wedde characterises himself in what he terms “the chaos of events” as a participant of such debates, and Te Papa’s necessary articulation of narratives of nation, culture, space and art make this chaos, and the challenge it posed to a figure such as Wedde (as he says “there is no more fiercely disputed territory than the national canon”), all too understandable. Yet the writing here shows understanding on these most complex issues. From what Wedde calls the “nationalist DNA” to the idea of contemporary culture as an agent of continual change, the essays describe the contestations of New Zealand with deep insight.

Take this, on the issues of a “national” art collection from “Our Place: The Place of the Collection”:

It’s illogical to judge the performance of a European-style “national collection” capable of long-term installation or integral to an architectural heritage against a post-colonial one that has neither historical depth nor comparable material robustness. The latter shouldn’t be measured by the inappropriate yardstick of a European model. Its “unified” strengths are breadth, variety and cultural complexity. Its discourses go wider than art history, incorporating narratives of cross-cultural exchange, science, ethnology, and cultural and social history. These are distinct strengths, and the museum has had to develop strategies for playing to them.

 

The point seems clear enough when expressed with such eloquence, but New Zealand’s public intellectual culture has been full of the difficulties of arriving at such a “place” where these things might be said, and many commentators less erudite than Wedde have been frozen into stasis when faced with the challenge of making such points.

The deep sense of history that the essays contain, the meditations on Cook and Pacific exploration, for example, leave powerful impressions in the present. Wedde is excellent in describing the differences, across the time of contact and settlement, between European and Polynesian approaches to artworks and the business of looking at the land. When, in “Loaded Canons: Whose Place”, he counterpoints a European idea of “viewing” with the notion of “land as whenua”, he talks of crucial differences that need to be understood in reanimating the country’s sense of its past (that this section of the essay also takes a swift detour to describe the classical long Arabic poem is typical). But such thinking finds its home in what Wedde elsewhere terms Te Papa’s “cheerfully optimistic and eclectic mix” of layered objects, copies, stories and (as a consequence) debates. It strikes me that the method here is one that should be seen in terms of courage – the courage properly to understand the past and its products – and then the courage to bring the knowledge thus devised into the public space of contemporary culture and national projection, and to place it on view, to be seen and talked over. There are many intellectuals who would baulk at such a challenge, but Wedde is not one of them.

This is a genuinely brilliant book in a number of ways. Not only is it itself a kind of history of New Zealand culture in the 1990s and through to the present, and not only does it contain deep insight into individual writers, artists and moments, but it offers a wonderful method for the exploration of the vexed interplay of culture and state institutions, and the fact that it is personal and idiosyncratic only adds to this. Wedde confesses in his introduction that he works in the book “through a process of analogy, by way of anecdotes”, and comments that this “may not be methodically rigorous”, but it has a rigour of its own, and it fits the material being debated perfectly. This is a book to use, in New Zealand and elsewhere. It is tempting to say that the essays here contain Wedde on display, because the reader emerges with a deep sense of an intellect capable of great thought, but I would guess that the appellation would be inappropriate. A book of stories and treasures it definitely is, however, and of the most mobile and fluid kind.

 

Stuart Murray works in the School of English at the University of Leeds in the UK.

 

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