Exhibiting ourselves, Margaret Clark

Farewell Colonialism: The New Zealand International Exhibition, Christchurch, 1906-07
John Mansfield Thomson (ed)
Dunmore Press, $39.95
ISBN 0 86469318 4

This is a gem of a book. It looks and feels beautiful, it tells a fascinating story, and it stimulates one to think hard about the essence of national identity. Let me deal with each of these in turn.

The Dunmore Press acknowledges the financial assistance of the Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs and the Stout Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington – and it shows. Photos, caricatures and coloured prints abound and add immeasurably to the value of the book as an historical record. The typography and layout are exemplary, and the book is a tactile and aesthetic joy. The Press should take a bow.

The book tells the story of the great International Exhibition held in Christchurch in 1906-07. It was Richard Seddon’s brain-child, though he did not live to enjoy it. He wanted to mark New Zealand’s transition from colony to dominion status, but he also wanted to advertise past achievements and herald “imminent greatness”. Richard Seddon didn’t think small. The Exhibition covered agricultural and artistic endeavours, manufacturing and Maori life, and the achievements of the Liberal Government. There were some contributions from the Empire too, and people loved it. At a time when New Zealand’s population had yet to reach a million, more than two million visitors came to the Exhibition in the six months it was open.

The contents of the book reflect the variety and novelty of the Exhibition. John Thomson writes on its predecessor, London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. Jock Phillips, responsible for the historical exhibits at Te Papa, contributes an engrossing chapter on the theme of “Exhibiting Ourselves”. Gavin McLean gets down to the brass tacks of trade, commodities and selling ourselves. Peter Shaw and Walter Cook describe and evaluate the Exhibition’s architecture and gardens. Bernard Kernot focuses on the Maori Pa – one of the Exhibitions top attractions – and finds in it numerous and subtle “Maoriland Metaphors”. Linda Tyler and Jane Vial deal respectively with the British Art Exhibit and the Australian and New Zealand paintings on view. Women and crafts got a look in, and are saluted by Ann Calhoun. John E Martin turns from the decorative to the everyday realities of working life and writes of the exhibit of the Department of Labour. (Keep in mind that part of the contemporary myth was that New Zealand was a workers’ paradise). The book closes memorably with translations by Margaret Orbell of Maori writing about the Exhibition. There is another whole book to be written about Maori participation in the Exhibition and responses to it.

The one chapter I’ve not mentioned, and the one I shall concentrate on, is John Thomson’s chapter on music at the exhibition. I don’t do this because he is the editor, nor because the quality of the other contributions is in any degree less. I do it because I know a little more about music than the visual arts (and indeed than machinery or industrial relations) and because I’m astonished that music played such a significant role at this Exhibition. Has it done so before or since at other exhibitions, I wonder?

Music on this occasion was in fact the most prominent of the arts. There was no acknowledgement of literature or drama. And the collection of contemporary art from New Zealand and Australia could have been very much better. A highlight of the “entertainments” proved to be an orchestra of more than 50 players, assembled and conducted by Alfred Hill (perhaps best remembered now as the composer of “Waiata Poi”). They heroically gave almost daily concerts covering much of the classical repertoire, as well as contemporary and commissioned pieces. The Christchurch Star enthusiastically described the orchestra as “a strong well-balanced combination of players, and the wild impassioned music was played with a magnificent conception of its character”.

The Government had invested heavily in the orchestra, and at first there was some worry about whether or not it would pay its way. But word of mouth spread and audiences grew steadily. When the Exhibition closed, the Christchurch Star summed it up this way: “Although in the very early stages of the Exhibition, the Orchestra appeared to ‘hang fire’, it has since steadily gained in popularity until to many people it is now the principal attraction of the fair. Its increased popularity is due solely to its inherent merits”. It gave great pleasure, and was highly educative too. What a pity it was to be more than 30 years before a permanent symphony orchestra was set up under government patronage.

At the beginning I remarked that this book makes readers think about the essence of national identity. Indeed it does. Many of the themes the Exhibition dwelt on are still a feature of the way we display and define ourselves – just visit Te Papa. The Maori as tangata whenua were people of the land, but the earlier colonisers too had no other resource to exploit. Conflicting aspirations and attitudes were inevitable, and we are still dealing with the consequences of colonialism. The designers of the Christchurch Exhibition might have thought they were farewelling colonialism, but it wasn’t quite as easy as that (as their own several looks back to Britain attested). We are still farewelling colonialism in a variety of ways – not least the workings of the Waitangi Tribunal, and the persistent discrepancies between Maori and Pakeha that show up in all our statistics of well-being or its absence.

In 1906 the national identity that New Zealanders exhibited was very masculine. Have things changed that much? Evening Post columnist Mary Varnham recently wrote: “If hysteria about rugby and yachting constitutes nationhood then women don’t want a bar of it.” Indeed, if national identity is what television tells us we are, then that is an imagined community I too feel marginalised from. A piece of good advice came from an unlikely source when Jim Bolger gave a valedictory interview on National Radio. He suggested we emulate Ireland and focus more on literature and the arts in seeking to define our nationhood!

At the launch of this book Jock Phillips spoke of John Mansfield Thomson as “a living national treasure”. He is. He lived and worked for more than 20 years in London where he was well respected and admired in publishing and musical circles; and it probably would have been easier for him to continue to work and make a living in that larger society. Instead he chose to come home to New Zealand and has since made his distinctive and irreplaceable contribution to our evolving sense of self. Our debt is great.

Margaret Clark is Professor in the Political Science Department at Victoria University.

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