Cabinet of curiosities, Roger Blackley

Icons Nga Taonga: From the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
Te Papa curatorial team
Te Papa Press, $79.99,
ISBN 090901096X

On a recent visit from his Tasmanian hideaway, art museum guru Daniel Thomas expressed amazement that Te Papa’s current art collection show lacked any kind of catalogue, even a simple checklist of its contents. How, he asked, would anyone in the future be in a position to judge the nature of Signs and Wonders: He Tohu He Ohorere? Nor was there an alternative mode of delivery, such as the web catalogue that documents City Gallery’s Telecom Prospect 2004; Te Papa’s website gives only a truncated description of any exhibition, past or present.

Te Papa’s patchy record as a publisher has seemed out of sync with the research and exhibition functions central to any museum, especially a great national museum ambitious to “speak with the authority that arises from scholarship and matauranga Maori”. The illustrated annual diaries have remained the best general art collection publications, while ephemeral brochures dished up for a gold coin within an exhibition have sometimes indicated that a proper publication was a tantalisingly real possibility. Even the highly innovative 2001 show Masquerade: The Art of Courtship, which genuinely succeeded in uniting the disparate art, ethnographic and natural science collections in a mode that engaged the audience as well as fulfilling Te Papa’s long-stated objectives, left no proper record of its existence.

The publication of Icons Nga Taonga, a spectacular compendium of Te Papa’s wide-ranging collections, makes significant amends. It’s a massive tome of 320 pages, weighing in at over two kgs and any future editions will require something stronger than a vulnerable soft cover. I have heard suggestions that a similar publication should have been on hand for “Day One” in 1998, but I doubt whether anything comparable could have been achieved in the face of that particular challenge. Indeed, there are refreshing signs that the museum is maturing or at least becoming more relaxed about the idea of a diversity of approaches.

It is the calibre of the collections it reveals, in tandem with the editorial clarity and graphic panache of its presentation, which makes turning the pages of this book such a delicious experience. But why was the list of individual writers so grudgingly consigned to the fine print at the rear of the book? By not identifying these individuals through initials (the usual convention in such publications), Te Papa has lost a major opportunity to signal that, in addition to a house of treasures, it also comprises a significant community of researchers and curators.

Auckland Museum, Te Papa’s older sibling and chief rival, published the splendidly illustrated 150 Treasures in 2001 to mark its forthcoming 150th anniversary. Opening with a succinct but scholarly history of the Auckland Museum, it proceeds to weave an eccentric path through a series of marvellous objects and pithy accompanying texts, in an extremely quirky sequence which freely mixes every conceivable museological category. A nice touch is the inclusion of Auckland Museum’s own building as one of the treasures. 150 Treasures has clearly been a point of reference for Te Papa’s publishers, who have chosen to follow a similar tactic – marvellous object meets pithy commentary – but collated in sections which follow the disciplinary divisions within Te Papa. Te Papa’s designer has enhanced the “artefactual” allure of the photographs by the discreet employment of trompel’œil shading, with objects on dark backgrounds projecting a correspondingly light halo. What results is an almost tactile sense of the collection as an unfolding sequence of objects.

Icons Nga Taonga opens with an introduction by W H Oliver, briefly outlining the ancestry of Te Papa and the 1980s project that came up with an innovative institution to replace the National Museum and National Art Gallery. In light of the book’s status as a record of the national collections accumulated since the institution of the Colonial Museum in 1865, it seems a pity that a deeper historical perspective at least comparable to Auckland’s was not attempted. Was there a conscious decision to overlook the museum’s archive of historical photographs? Could this have to do with discomfort over the museum’s own colonial histories? Or is it simply that a compartmentalised approach meant that no one ended up considering the wider frame?

Much stranger still is the absence of any image of Te Papa’s vaunted postmodern building, let alone a visual comparison with the classicism of the abandoned 1930s museum and gallery. Could there even be a certain discomfort over its postmodernity? The pre-histories of Te Papa, which surface in so many fascinating ways throughout the commentaries, still await a coherent history.

The Maori works range from enigmatic taoka tawhito (ancient treasure) to Te Papa’s lurid wharenui dating from 1997. A decisively Maori perspective emerges, often to powerful effect. Of an exquisite necklace recovered from an ancient burial, the commentary speaks of local Maori outrage against the systematic archaeological pillage of their ancestors’ resting places. In other cases it is the traditional histories of taonga that bring them to life on the page. The distinctive approach to dating the works in “Maori time sequences” is arguably less successful, and problematic in a publication that addresses an international readership. The translations of these terms are buried on page 299, remaining for many readers little more than exotic, meaningless tags.

The succeeding “Art” sequence is heavily weighted towards the 20th century, shying clear of significant engagement either with colonial art or with the imperial legacy of British art, both important components of the so-called “national collection”. William Beetham’s portrait of Isaac Featherstone, depicting the snaky politician reputed to have coined the genocidal metaphor of the dying pillow, is an undeniably major work on perpetual display within the museum but unaccountably absent from the book. All I can imagine is that its interpretation presented a challenge that cast it out of contention. The same might be said for earlier British art, which could have included the magnificent (and very sexy) Edward Poynter painting, used on the cover of Te Papa’s 2003 diary under the title Icons but seemingly now retired from that role. It’s not that I want to argue with what is there; more that having set out to inspect the book’s coverage of 19th century art, I found myself needing to look elsewhere.

Some truly significant art discoveries lie just around the corner in “Natural History”. One breathtaking spread juxtaposes an exquisite 1870s fern album inlaid in native timbers by Auckland’s marquetry specialist Anton Sueffert, with a special fern collection made by order of King Tawhiao in 1888. The latter collection was a gift from the king to a Canadian doctor “in recognition of services rendered to the afflicted Maories”. My only regret is that every element of this truly fascinating case of cross-cultural patronage and gifting was not considered worthy of research, for the albumen photographs of King Tawhiao and Queen Te Atakohu (described in the caption as “black and white photograph”) should have been identified as the work of Elizabeth Pulman, probably New Zealand’s first professional woman photographer. There’s a cornucopia of natural creatures, including a scary but apparently harmless black tunnelweb spider (“collected Wellington, February 2002”), but again and again I was struck by the creative employment of major pieces of art that descend from the old museum rather than the art gallery. The natural history sequence ends with an object any Australasian art museum would kill for – Frank Grady’s silver table decoration in the form of a mamaku, or black tree fern.

The succeeding “History” chapter reveals further colonial art treasures, including a major presentation desk by Anton Seuffert and an exquisite ceramic planter by George Boyd – both of whom were major players in the Auckland art world of the time but have now seemingly been dropped from the “art” category. The opposing category of “history” is particularly fascinating because a demotic status – everyday use or common currency – is seemingly what excludes an item from the elite realm of “art”, and its maker from the status of “artist”. Paradoxically, however, objects such as the depression-era caravan, not to mention the drag-queen headdress, inevitably acquire a powerful aura simply by virtue of their entry into the museum and elevation to iconic status. What results is an unexpected conjunction – and immortalisation – of humble artisan and exotic drag queen.

Like the opening “Maori” section, the concluding “Pacific” chapter is heavily weighted towards traditional work. It includes one of Te Papa’s greatest treasures, the ceremonial feather cloak and headdress received by Captain Cook from the Hawaiian high chief Kalani’opu’u, together with a range of other marvellous artefacts, many showing varying degrees of European influence. A grey-bearded Murray Island mask, gifted by a colonial governor in 1875, sports a jaunty broad-brimmed hat fashioned from turtle shell. Such indigenous images of the European “other” now present themselves less as ethnographic curiosities than as major works of art.

Te Papa is heir to the great period of civic museum building that coincided with New Zealand’s colonial development, but Icons Nga Taonga also reveals its descent from a more remote ancestor – the wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities. These proto-museums collected “Naturalia”, “Artificialia” and “Mirabilia”, categories which embody the same arbitrary, slippery qualities as Te Papa’s “Art and Visual Culture” on the one hand and “History” on the other. The frisson of wonder in the wunderkammer was routinely provoked by slippages between the categories of art and nature, coupled with the special power of marvellous objects in the hands of expert interpreters. Which is precisely how that same frisson is delivered within Te Papa’s charming cabinet of curiosities.


Roger Blackley teaches art history at Victoria University of Wellington.


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Posted in Art, History, Non-fiction, Review
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