Computer Cartography, Miles Fairburn

New Zealand Historical Atlas: Visualising New Zealand
Malcolm McKinnon (ed)
David Bateman, $99.00
ISBN 1 86953335 6

The New Zealand Historical Atlas is a large and prestigious publication made up of 100 double pages (“plates”) of illustrative material and text. The plates are organised into four sections representing the different eras in New Zealand history, a two-paged historical essay introducing each section. The themes and chronological boundaries of these eras largely conform to a well-established historiographical convention. Thus the first section, “Origins”, deals with the natural history of New Zealand in the era before human settlement, the second, “Te Ao Maori”, dwells on Maori history and race relations before 1840, the third, “Colony and Colonised”, covers the era from the 1840s to the turn of the century, the fourth and largest section, “Dominion”, visualises the era from 1900 to about 1980; while the fifth and smallest section, “From Progress to Uncertainty”, takes us up to the present.

In striking contrast to this rather orthodox division of past time is the modish design of the plates. All historical atlases have to make fundamental decisions about how much space should be devoted in the average plate to text and how much to illustrative material, about the size and number of items of illustrative material that should feature on each plate, about how much of this material should consist of maps and how much of photographs, and so forth. Most historical atlases have followed a design policy which is in what may be called the “classical” tradition. As exemplified by the Times Atlas of World History and Australians: a Historical Atlas, their plates tend to give more space to straight text than to illustrative material, to feature only three or so illustrative items in each plate, and to make the maps very simple and immediately intelligible by placing severe limits on the range of data covered.

The New Zealand Atlas, however, has completely rejected this classical tradition: its plates are dominated by graphs, maps, diagrams and all kinds of other illustrative material, the plates tend to have no centre, the material (especially in later sections) being fragmented into myriad bits and pieces which are often viewed from extraordinary angles, the text, mainly consisting of captions and insets, is scattered everywhere; and map outlines are often pushed, squeezed, condoned, and pulled by all the latest computer software and cartographic devices into the oddest shapes imaginable.

A best-seller, the Atlas has been universally and resoundingly praised by reviewers: does it deserve this success or does the Emperor have no clothes?

At the outset it has to be emphasised that the Atlas has much to commend it. In the first place, the plates, although not conducive to serious reading, are lively and make for splendid browsing. In the second place, despite the curious disclaimer in the preface that the book is primarily intended not for reference purposes but as an interpretation of New Zealand’s past, the Atlas is one of the best reference tools on New Zealand history we have. The comprehensive bibliography is organised like a research library’s subject catalogue; the index is excellent, and the information contained in the visual images of the plates is usually good insofar as visual images are a good medium for conveying information. In addition, the Atlas often presents familiar aspects of New Zealand’s past in a visually imaginative fashion which makes us rethink them or leads us to take them less for granted. A case in point, “Patriotism and Memory”, an elegant plate on the Great War, brings home the devastatingly pervasive effects of the war with a street map of Invercargill telling us that practically every one of its streets produced male residents who were killed in action.

Moreover, although most plates do not draw on new research, a few make genuinely interesting discoveries. A good example is the plate “Between Town and Country”, with a map of the small towns of the lower North Island between 1906 and 1960, highlighting the periods when their populations peaked and post-offices closed: this map reveals quite brilliantly that rural restructuring has always been a significant feature of the North Island, especially during the first two decades of this century when saw-milling, the staple industry of a multitude of small towns and country districts, went into steep decline.

The Atlas, however, has several problems, some serious. The first is its confusion about its target audience. The prose employed for the plates all too often seems to assume that the target audience consists of the undereducated. This is the only reason I can think of to explain why the verbal descriptions accompanying the illustrations and that are supposed to elucidate them, tend to be bleached of empirical content and conceptual precision, hit us over the head with the obvious, and so add nothing. We are told, for example, “many towns had their own newspapers”, “many immigrants were assisted by the government, “while the larger towns provided a greater number and variety of rural services, even quite small communities provided some services”, “domestic commercial enterprises ranged from small to very large”, A and P Shows “provided opportunities for social contact and entertainment. The meetings of hunt, jockey and racing clubs also fulfilled social purposes for some”; “many returned soldiers went onto lowland farming land”; “many young women participated in the paid workforce in the period between leaving school and marrying”; “the public service employed many women”, “large numbers of New Zealanders went to live overseas between 1966 and l991”, and so forth.

I should hastily add that I am not saying that the Atlas should avoid making itself accessible to a popular audience; on the contrary, accessibility is a laudable and perfectly proper objective. My point, rather, is that if accessibility was the goal, then why, apart from implementing it in such a condescending fashion, does the Atlas fail to pursue the goal consistently? Only someone with a good prior knowledge would be able to get much out of the dense and complex plate 63 on the West Coast coal mines, or take in the cluttered map in plate 92 which provides something like 19 different types of data on the Volcanic Plateau and the Bay of Plenty in the post-war era. Then there is the opaqueness of certain of the Atlas‘s technical terms. Consider plate 70: it has a map showing the national distribution of religious denominations in 1921, with a key headed with these words: “Concentrations of adherents of major denominations greater than the mean +1.5 SD 1921 (non-Maori population)”. Now what does this key mean? More particularly, what does the abbreviation “SD” stand for? If we happened to know that it was short for “standard deviation”, a ‘technical term in statistics, how many of us would be any the wiser? The undereducated, and even, I suspect, most graduates, would find the term – and, by extension, the maps it refers to – quite incomprehensible. So would, I have to add, the vast majority of historians, the people most likely to be the heaviest users of the Atlas, since they are notoriously innumerate. To be sure, the book, towards the beginning, has a section labelled “How to use the New Zealand Historical Atlas” which endeavours to explain what a “standard deviation” is. However, the explanation – which states that the term is a “measure of relative significance” and that maps with more or less than one standard deviation highlight abnormally large or small proportions respectively – is so simple, it invites us to ask why it was not used in place of the term itself. To make matters worse, the term is integral to the maps of four other plates where the overly complicated graphics are difficult enough to make sense of anyway, consisting as they do of a series of circles, often containing other circles, dumped at various places on a map of New Zealand, each circle being divided into many segments and sickles of varying sizes and colours.

Another problem with the Atlas is the imbalance in its selection of subject-matter. Of the 100 plates, some 34 deal entirely or primarily with Maori history and race relations; but only two with women. Canterbury and Christchurch are the sole or dominant topics of 11 plates, far more than each of the other main centres (indeed, twice as many as Wellington). Of the smaller regions, Taranaki gets the lion’s share of attention, the Wairarapa virtually none. Maori myths of origin are reverentially visualised in 12 plates; the equivalent non-Maori myths – which abound – are never talked about at all. The Labour Party receives some attention in two plates, the Liberals, Reform and National receive none even though they governed New Zealand for a much longer period. There is no attempt to cover the most common causes of death in colonial New Zealand; yet the drains and plagues of colonial Christchurch have a plate all to themselves. Whereas the Manawatu flax industry is given a tiny map in a plate on early 20th century trade union radicalism, the kauri gum and timber industry of the far north has a plate all to itself, as does the short-lived Canterbury wheat boom of the 1880s. There is plate after plate on the Wars of the 1860s and Maori protest in the 20th century; but other episodes of major social conflict and protest are neglected – such as the 1890 Maritime Strike, the 1913 General Strike, the 1951 lockout, the anti-Vietnam protest of the 1960s. The Atlas ably documents the expansion of communications within New Zealand during the colonial era, yet has nothing on the increasing frequency of overseas mail services and their organisation over the same period.

Immigration to New Zealand in the 19th century is the subject of one solitary plate, a scandalously slight treatment, given that migration was a key force behind the transformation of colonial society and given that many less important topics are allotted plates of their own, or half a plate. A few plates cover subjects that are purely of antiquarian interest. Amongst the offenders are plate 45 with a map taking up about a quarter of the page enumerating the Chinese population in every locality in Central Otago in 1888, that enables us to find out, for example, that six lived in Hyde and seven in St Bathans; and plate 64 with a map pinpointing every single place in Canterbury where the members of an obscure trade union (the Waimate Workers) lived in 1912, from which we could learn, if we wanted to, that Arundel had one, as did Kakanui. Furthermore, we might well ask why the Atlas has so little on political history; excludes the geography of colonial crime, of the female suffrage movement, of colonial church attendance, of the New Zealand accent, of all the various sources of energy in the colonial period, of the 1918 ‘flu epidemic, virtually ignores the prohibition movement (except in passing in the context of a plate on Dunedin Presbyterianism which falsely implies that Dunedin and Presbyterianism spearheaded the movement); and makes little attempt to represent the pervasiveness of Imperial values and the mechanisms that reproduced them after the mid-1890s. Of course, we might say that the Atlas could not possibly cover every topic, especially given that it is only a single volume. But this begs the question why it devotes one plate to the dates on which secondary schools were established up to 1970 and to the distribution of church affiliations in 1921 (hardly of major or historical importance); a plate to the early 20th century attempts at conservation (which contradicts the theme of its attendant section); two plates to Otago gold-mining (would not one have been enough?), substantial space to Freeman’s Bay in three plates; a weak and thus dispensable plate to “Rebuilding Cities” on Wellington and Napier from 1898 to 1940; and the 12 plates to Maori myths of origin in the “Origins” and “Te Ao Maori” sections?

For a publication that had such limited faith in the ability of text to convey information, the Atlas also needed to take more care with the capacity of its visual images to convey the information instead. Often the several pie charts on the same map are too small in relation to the number of pie-chart segments to give a clear idea of the differences and similarities between places; the graphics and the attendant lettering in plates are so tiny they are difficult to make out; and the fragmented plate design makes it hard to determine which keys refer to what images. Most of the graphics on occupational distributions cannot be compared since they use quite different occupational categorisations. In several plates (notably plates 47, 51, 55, 86), the illustrations straddling the centre of the plate have portions which have slipped into the binding or so close to it that detail has been lost or requires considerable effort to read. In plates such as 83 and 86, the text has been superimposed on map features which have rendered it practically illegible. What makes plate 82, “New Zealand in the Pacific”, the worst in the book, is that it is incoherent in terms of both form and content. In plate 47, the drafting of the map on the saw-milling industry of the lower North Island is so bad it provides ample repudiation, if any were required, of the truism that a picture is worth a thousand words.

In the preface, the editor tells us that the Atlas is more of an “interpretation” of New Zealand history than a reference work and in consequence each section will tell a story. What the editor means by “interpretation” is not altogether clear, but in the usual sense of the term, an interpretation makes the unintelligible intelligible, the unfamiliar familiar, by putting things in their context and/ or by demonstrating how they fit together. Now, some of the individual plates certainly satisfy this definition. For example, plate 43 on the rise of the pastoral industry has a map which neatly juxtaposes the distribution of New Zealand’s rainfall and the distribution of large sheep stations in 1879 to show how the two were connected; and a street profile in plate 57 on colonial Auckland elegantly demonstrates how house-size is correlated to height above sea level. Yet in the two largest sections, the plates do not seem to follow a logical sequence or, to a large extent, visualise the themes outlined in the introductory essays, and each plate tends to stand alone. In his introductory essay to section three, “Colony and Colonised”, the editor quite rightly emphasises that this era saw transformations in all things, and states that transformation will be the theme of the section. But the ensuing 28 plates are not organized and selected so that they tell us what key forces drove the transformations, how the transformations were functionally related, and how the transformations varied across space and time. In the introductory essay to section four, the editor states that the overarching theme revolves around the concept of “Dominion” which, he says, was associated with material progress, close economic ties with Britain, government interventionism, the subordination of Maori, and the domestication of women. Although in the 35 ensuing plates the notion of material progress is well illustrated, many of the other plates have little or no relevance to the overarching theme; indeed, some plates highlight ideas which are the polar opposite of those the editor attributes to Dominion: Maori assertion instead of subordination, women entering the paid workforce rather than staying at home.

The Atlas is an attractive and ambitious work. Its problems, however, suggest two things, one obvious, the other less so: that even with the aid of the latest computer software, visual images do not convey information adequately, unless applied to appropriate subjects; and that visual images are inherently incapable of communicating complex historical processes and arguments.

Miles Fairburn is Professor in the History Department at Canterbury University. The New Zealand Historical Atlas won the first “readers’ choice” award in the 1998 Montana New Zealand book awards.

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