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Review: The Lives of Colonial Objects

613d+7ti0aL._SX445_BO1,204,203,200_The Lives of Colonial Objects, edited by Annabel Cooper, Lachy Paterson and Angela Wanhalla, Otago University Press, 2015, 376 pp. ISBN: 978-1927322024, £22.50, $NZ 50. Full colour.

The Māori proverb or whakatauki ‘Ka mura, ka muri’ suggests we should look to the past to be guided into the future. Whakapapa and knowledge of our ancestry is essential for knowing who we are.  The Lives of Colonial Objects, a collection of fifty essays from historians, archivists, curators and Māori scholars, who have each chosen an object from New Zealand, offers New Zealanders the opportunity to do this.

The fifty objects provide a thrilling collection of stories linked to the monuments and detritus from lives lived in the British colony of New Zealand in the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Elegant objects are discussed, such as the portrait of Mrs Humphrey Devereux painted by John Singleton Copley in Boston in 1770, which was discovered in Wellington the 1950s.  Humble items,  such as the ‘Smiling Boy’ health stamps of 1931, are investigated by art historian Dr Mark Stocker, who displays a profound understanding of popular culture.

A major aspect of this collection is the inclusion of objects that show the influence the two major New Zealand cultures - Māori and Pakeha - have had on each other. Judith Binney calls this interaction, ‘bi-history’. A pair of taniko–patterned slippers owned by Major Kemp, kowhaiwhai patterns on an otherwise European health stamp design, and an interior of an Anglican church lined with panels of whakairo or carving, are joined by a tokotoko (walking stick) with carved naturalistic figures, clearly influenced by 19th century European art.

These uniquely New Zealand objects are evidence of the way the two races rub against each other without ever becoming one people, even to this day.

Particularly moving for me is the chapter about the Wharenui Mataatua, the meeting-house built and carved by some of my tipuna, or ancestors, from Ngāti Awa. It is heart-wrenching to read how the whare, carved in 1879, was ‘acquired by the government’ and sent to the Sydney International Exhibition where it was displayed inside out. It then travelled to Melbourne and on to London to be stored in the South Kensington Museum for many years. Later, it was displayed at the British Empire Exhibition of 1924-25, before being returned to New Zealand. The Otago Museum became its home, where its height was reduced by cutting off a lower portion of the walls. In the South Island, far from the East Coast of the North Island where it belonged, it was without its people to ‘keep it warm’. Then, as in a fairy-tale ending, it was rescued and returned to its ancestral land in Whakatāne to be refurbished and reopened in 2011, some 132 years after it was first abducted.

Gavin Bishop
Pakeha, Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Mahuta 

Gavin Bishop, ONZM, is an award-winning fiction book author and illustrator who lives and works in Christchurch, New Zealand.  He has published 59 books, ranging from original stories to the retelling of Māori myths and European fairy stories.