The thing-ness of history, Cherie Lacey

The Lives of Colonial Objects
Annabel Cooper, Lachy Paterson and Angela Wanhalla (eds)
Otago University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9781927322024

The Lives of Colonial Objects seeks to tell the history, or rather a number of histories, of New Zealand’s colonial past through objects. The collection consists of 50 short essays by a range of authors, from academics, archivists and librarians to heritage professionals, each of whom has selected one object to write about “from the perspective that suited them best”. Spanning the highly celebrated to the profoundly mundane, each object serves as a pathway into aspects of New Zealand’s colonial history. Taken together, the essays present a kind of bric-a-brac approach to our past, giving us “history through glimpses”, rather than a unified, totalising narrative of colonial New Zealand.

As the editors acknowledge in their introduction, the volume takes its lead from Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, a joint project by the British Museum and BBC Radio 4 that was designed to take us through “the history of humanity” via 100 objects housed at the museum. The incredible success of this project has initiated what the editors describe as “the study of object histories”, which attempt to bring history to life for both historians and non-historians through material objects.

The volume’s interest in the “thing-ness” of history taps into a wider tendency across a number of genres to privilege the single object as a short-circuit to the past. A technique that dates back to ancient Rome and Greece, the interest in the object as vehicle for memory and history has been revived recently by writers such as Ian Wedde (The Grass Catcher), Tony Judt (Memory Chalet) and Julian Barnes (Levels of Life). There are some clear advantages to this approach. As the editors point out, attending to objects enriches our understanding of the material existence of colonial life, as well as shedding light on the practices of collecting, taste, dress and consumption, patterns of leisure, print culture, and medical or scientific knowledge. It also allows writers to weave together personal or familial memory with colonial history, revealing how one object can touch on a number of narratives across both space and time, and at the same time rendering history both tangible and immediate.

However, and as Conal McCarthy and Jonathan Mané-Wheoki point out in their theoretically inclined final essay, this focus on objects is not without its problems. This essay, one of the standouts of the collection, asks us to consider what counts as an object, and how the very concept of object might be culturally limited, or at least culturally defined. Using the story of the Wharenui Mataatua at Whakatāne, McCarthy and Mané-Wheoki show that this taonga both is and is not an object, since it is also an ancestor – a “living and breathing” entity. This more reflective piece came as a welcome, not to mention useful, coda to the collection, which is determinedly non-theoretical. This final essay draws out some of the more compelling themes of the book – the politics and subjectivities of collecting, colonial and postcolonial museological and historiographical practices – as well as problematising the essays that come before it.

The volume also engages with a more recent interest in, and emphasis on, singular and local histories, as well as history beneath or beyond the nation-state. I am reminded here of the work of historian Tony Ballantyne, which has invited us to see local, small or micro histories not merely as part of a national narrative, but embedded within a wider, dynamic and international web of connections. Ballantyne contributes a wonderful essay to this collection on the boyhood diaries of Herries Beattie, an essay which offers splendid detail about life in colonial Gore, as well as demonstrating the strength of connection at this time between Gore and Scotland, at least for the Beattie family.

The book allows – invites, even – the reader to graze, exploring essays and objects of most interest to them. For this reader, it was the stories of women and children, and the realm of the domestic – “people and families who may not have left an imprint on the written record” – that captured my attention first. Alison Clarke’s beautiful essay, “A Photograph, a Feeding Bottle and the Tragedies of Colonial Family Life”, notices the presence of a small object at the edge of a colonial portrait – a Victorian feeding bottle – and uses this object to explore the tragic life of one mother. In another essay, Lynette Townsend writes about a basic wooden Noah’s ark, complete with 40 animals and figurines, once owned by the Crowther children and now housed at Te Papa. Townsend connects us, via this one wooden ark, to the experiences of colonial children and their parents, to how Christian values were transferred through play, as well as to a darker history of childhood labour in the colonial era.

Another essay which quickly drew my interest was Kelvin Day’s “Voyaging Taonga: The Kīngi Tauihi”. This object is housed at Puke Ariki, and I remember spending a lot of time with this object when I visited the museum several years ago. Day’s essay reveals a longer history of the object than the one afforded – for pragmatic reasons – by the museum label, tracing the Tauihi’s journey through time, and between the Māori and Pākehā worlds. The story of this particular object touches on iwi migration, the Taranaki War and Parihaka. And, later: the collecting of Māori curios, travelling exhibitions and colonial display practices, demonstrating how the object’s story is “repeatedly entangled with the process of colonisation in New Zealand”.

This is not to say that there are not other equally compelling and rich essays in this volume – it is certainly full of them. What my reading experience does reveal, however, is what I believe to be one of the strengths of this book: its broad appeal, particularly to non-historians like myself (albeit someone very interested in stories of colonial New Zealand), and what I referred to a moment ago as the “grazing” of history. Although the book is ordered chronologically, and is thus able to provide a sense of the impetus of colonial history, the reader is by no means required to read from cover to cover – indeed, to do so would probably result in that special kind of fatigue experienced when one has spent too long inside a museum or an archive. The broad range of objects collected within this volume – William Colenso’s composing stick, Spinks Cottage in Wellington, music albums and instruments, many a colonial photograph or portrait, a road, Minute Books from the Māori Land Courts, a tin billy, to name only a few – means that many people will find something in here of interest to them. The full-page, full-colour photographs, as well as the large-scale format of the book, only add to its broad, gift-giving appeal.

Although the collection does well to encompass multiple histories – women, children, Chinese, Pacific, stories of migration and mobility – this strength could also be one of its weaknesses, as objects tend to become representative of certain histories simply by virtue of their selection or inclusion. The tendency might be for these objects to be read illustratively, thus subverting some of the stated aims of this book. Mané-Wheoki’s and McCarthy’s essay goes some way in accounting for this, but the non-theoretical tenor of the collection as a whole means that slightly problematic, but certainly very thought-provoking, aspects such as these get swept aside in favour of broad readership and general interest.

Cherie Lacey is a lecturer in Media Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction and Review
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