Conference 2012: Opening Address

Andrew Sharp: Opening address to the New Zealand Studies Network inaugural conference, 6-7 July 2012.

Tena koutou. Kia ora tatou. I am delighted to welcome you all to the inaugural conference of the NZSN, the full title of which is the New Zealand Studies Network (UK and Ireland). I will tell you more about why this is its title soon: the ‘Network’ part, the ‘New Zealand Studies’ part, and the ‘(UK and Ireland)’ part–in that order.

In the meantime I should say that my name is Andrew Sharp. I am the chair of the Network, and my task is to tell you a little about it before the conference proceedings begin. I will not speak for long, and will be followed by two other speakers who will also address you–also briefly–because the point of such a conference is in the detail of the offerings and responses more than the introductory noises.

The first of the following speakers will be Rod Edmond. Rod is the Deputy Chair of the Network, and he will say something about the intellectual substance of the conference over the next two days. He will explain how the papers to be presented relate to each other and to the main theme–which is to highlight the various ‘cultures’ that have, and continue, to make New Zealand what it is. He will also—just as importantly–explain the terms of engagement during the paper-giving sessions: how much time the speakers and their interrogators will have, and the duties of those who chair the sessions–the time-keeping duties especially, essential so that everyone gets their say.

Rod will be followed by Janet Wilson, who is one of the Network’s so-called ‘Event Organisers’. It was her idea to hold this conference, and since then she has borne the weight of responsibility for realizing that idea almost entirely on her shoulders. The Network offers her its profound thanks for her unremitting commitment to the unromantic and demanding labour she has undertaken to get us all here today. Janet will conclude our introductory remarks by carrying out one of her final tasks. She will tell you how the conference will be run from now on: about the venues where we shall meet, what we may do during the breaks, how for instance food and entertainment have been organized. She will explain how and where any payments are to be made, and so on.

But now it is time for me to explain to you why the Network is here, which is a matter of history and politics.


First the history.

The Centre grew out of the ashes of the New Zealand Studies Centre, which was located at Birkbeck–once called Birkbeck College, University of London, now simply Birkbeck, University of London. The Centre was run out of Birkbeck, and was sponsored (i.e. paid for in cash and kind) by the New Zealand High Commission, the Vice Chancellor of the University of London, and Birkbeck. The Centre had a paid Director and several part-time staff. It had basically three purposes.

First, it aimed to embed itself in Birkbeck, by providing teaching for the teaching programmes and co-operating in research and publication. These activities, it was hoped, would provide an income stream through payment for the teaching and outside grants for the research; but above all they would inject a consciousness of New Zealand in its many aspects into the mainly European, North American, African and west Asian teaching and research foci of Birkbeck as it then stood.

The second function of the Centre was to provide a physical space–in the Senate House in fact–where scholars of and from New Zealand could meet, network, relax and even do a limited amount of their work. It was a kind of senior common room away from home.

Third: the Centre ran a programme of events designed to attract New Zealanders especially to speak about their academic specialities, read their poetry or extracts from their prose, perform their music and so on. Events were held every two weeks or so. They were well-attended and greatly appreciated by an audience of mainly expatriate New Zealanders.

The Centre continued in this fashion for two years in this way, as a hub and meeting place and as a forum for communicating much of the best of New Zealand literature, music and the fine arts.

It sadly turned out though, that the Centre could not be made sustainable. Despite the valiant efforts of the Director, the embedding exercise, caught between the pincers of shrinking government university funding and lack of sufficient interest among the academic staff at Birkbeck, proved a failure. The Centre was accordingly dissolved by Birkbeck, leaving two sets of disappointed and loyal core supporters.

One set was outraged at Birkbeck, the High Commission and the Vice-Chancellor University of London and they thought that the expression of their outrage might lead somewhere. The other set wished to see if anything could be rescued from the ashes by cooperating in a less public way with the sponsors of the Centre. The New Zealand Studies Network is the Phoenix rising from the ashes of the Centre, the creation of the second, less heroic, group.


Now to the politics of the creation process.

We of the second group realized that we could pay no staff. We would have to be an amateur constituent of the Big Society. We found too, that though Birkbeck would help us for a few years by providing us with rooms for public and committee meetings, the Network could be given no permanent domicile as it once had had. It would have to be a virtual Network with no physical Centre. Hence the word ‘Network’ in our name. It would have to be an organisation that could not act as a permanent place for New Zealand scholars and artists to meet, or as a London destination for those interested in New Zealand matters. Finally, we also found in our turn that Network could not–despite every effort–be embedded in Birkbeck. It would do no teaching and no research on its own account.

Still, we were left with the healthy stock of the old Centre: the habit common to a core group of New Zealanders of attending regular meetings in Bloomsbury to learn of New Zealand matters—mainly literary and artistic. We have been tending that stock, and mean to grow substantial vegetation from it. Since July 2011 we have held over 20 meetings, attracting attendances of between 10 and 50 people. They have been pretty much along the same lines and with the same arts-centered emphases as the Centre did, and we are now we are holding our first (biennial) conference.

But we think—and the conference shows this–that the Network can grow in three ways, all connected.

First, we aim to extend its intellectual reach beyond the fine, performing and liberal arts into other subjects and disciplines: the sciences and professions of course, but also business practices and the arts of bureaucracy and government. The ‘New Zealand Studies’ in our title is no longer meant to evoke a particular approach to the study of New Zealand, but is now a generic title meant to refer to a great variety of disciplines, approaches and topics of interest.

Secondly (and partly as a result of our extension of intellectual reach) we aim to attract non-New Zealanders to join the Network in much greater numbers or at least attend particular meetings. We believe that that New Zealand has much to teach other peoples, especially the British and Irish. Hence the part of our name in brackets. Our view is that studies of New Zealand can show the interaction and development of its British, Irish and Maori founding traditions. The country was once called the ‘social laboratory of the world’, and it still provides experimental evidence (imperfect of course) of an the workings of an open, egalitarian, society and politics, and the adaptations made by its peoples to European and world trends in artistic, academic and professional and governmental practice. Comparisons and contrasts are made easier yet more interesting because of its small population, distant Pacific location and emerging Asian-Pacific identity. We think that lessons can be learned from and about New Zealand, and that more than New Zealanders should learn them.

Thirdly (and almost finally) being of the same iwi as them, we aim to do what we can for New Zealand graduate students who have come to study in Britain. We intend to offer them a forum where they can present papers to an audience of interested generalists at occasional meetings, and to present papers at conferences such as this. We are pleased to say that three New Zealand doctoral students are presenting papers at this conference. I wish them well, together with all the presenters and participants.

Finally, I cannot close without asking the paper-givers especially, when they return to where they came from, to publicise the existence of the NZSN as providing a welcome, and a place to speak to all who can bring insights and information about New Zealand to London. And so haere mai, nau mai. Welcome to you all. I now hand over to Rod Edmond who will tell you something about the content of the two days’ conversation on New Zealand that is to follow.


Read a review of the conference