So what *have* I been doing this year?

Like many people at this time of year, I am muttering to myself with increasing urgency ‘where did the year go?’ Well, I have a good excuse for the lack of posts since January.

All year and right up to last week, when I have been doing more writing for the online Te Papa channel, I have been putting the finishing touches to my new book. Real Modern is being launched this coming week at Unity Books in Wellington and I am so pleased to see it out in the world!

standing real modern

As every writer knows, a book is a labour of love. At 432 pages with more than 500 images (b/w and full colour) it is a big beastie! It is beautifully designed to evoke the period and to recreate the material world of post-war New Zealand in a way that invites you in to the era. The book covers a whole range of areas of everyday life in a thematic structure.

2015-10-07 16.15.48

Each chapter has an overview that surveys that theme and then is followed by vignettes of 10 objects or sets of objects which flesh out the arguments and materialise it more fully. I have aimed not just to have a catalogue of objects, such as you would find in a museum collection publication, but to write a material history than focuses on practices as well as things.

me with last proofs

Meeting with the publisher to look at the final colour proofs open at the page with the quilt below.   Photo by Catherine Chadwick

me with advance copy

Proudly clutching the advanced copy the afternoon it arrived! Photo by Catherine Chadwick

As I write in the introduction to the book:

[r]ather than discussing individual objects that are ‘designer’, special, unique or modern classics, the book puts a large array of more ordinary objects in the spotlight.* It shows that function is just as important as form, emphasises the ordinary rather than items ‘on show’, and reveals the hidden beauty, variety and colour of commonplace objects.

The objects discussed in the following pages are also put back into their everyday context. Many ‘ordinary’ activities such as such as sitting, waiting, cooking, gardening, washing, listening to the radio, enjoying hobbies, queueing, shopping, driving or riding in a bus can be overlooked when objects are the focus. These arenas are precisely the spaces where we spend most of our lives in the present, just as we or others did in the past. They are fundamental to historical experience yet are so often overlooked.

By paying attention to these kinds of activities, as well as to the things associated with them, we can see that the life of past objects is inseparable from the social routines they were part of. This also means that value is based not in a product or its meanings, but in how it is put to use. In emphasising habits, routines and patterns, then the issue becomes ‘not just what things mean but how things are done’. In taking this approach, Real Modern goes beyond the domestic doorstep and out on to the section or into the street and beyond. Bringing together the domestic and non-domestic and a range of activities that they encompassed enables a fuller consideration of how daily life was experienced in these decades, in the round.

* Endnotes are in the book

 contents page

The contents page gives you an idea of its scope and the groovy colour scheme deployed throughout the book.

Real modern explores the role of things in people’s lives to further understand how people lived. It does this through a focus on everyday activities: getting dressed, gardening, going shopping, making dinner; sewing; listening to records, going to school or work, going out, playing sport and more. The book does not aim to be a total or comprehensive history of daily life in these decades. Nor is it a history of this period in the conventional sense: the ‘big events’ or ‘the turning points’. Rather, it is an example of material history: it shows how, through this focus on objects, their uses and their meanings, we might gain a different view of the post-war period.

Here is the quilt seen in the photo above to whet your appetite. You can buy the book here.


Patchwork Quilt, Ruth Bright, (maker/artist), 1967, New Plymouth, Gift of Irene Middlemiss, 2012, GH017657, Collection of Te Papa.

Poised for 2015

Happy New Year!

May 2015 be a productive research and writing year for you.

At the end of last year I read a lot of end-of-2014 posts which reflected on the writer’s year and already this month I have read some scary post about writing planned for 2015 (Pat Thomson’s ‘A whole lot of writing going on’). So I thought I would do a mix of the two.

I started writing MATTER in the middle of 2014 after much hesitating and wondering if I could keep it up. Well I couldn’t. More of that later. My aim was to create a space for my research and writing on material histories, or as I have worded it on the site’s subtitle: ‘Objects, people, histories, and the spaces in between’. I wanted to air some more inchoate or unfinished thoughts and ideas, provide a record for me of what I have been writing, and to connect with like-minded people. I had done a fair bit of looking at other people’s sites and how and what they posted. I determined to do two shortish ones a week and to include lots of images of objects, people and spaces.

Between June and December 2014 I managed to post ten times – hardly the twice a week regime I had optimistically set myself! I began well with regular posts in June and July and then the rot set in until I posted twice in December. The posts alternated between accounts of conferences and papers presented and tips for writing.

I have had 1,430 views over that time with the most in one day at 99. I don’t think that is at all bad for a beginner. Unsurprisingly, June was the most popular month. Apart from the archives/home page, the most popular posting was ‘The bliss of writing retreats’. That surprised me, as I don’t think of myself as someone who writes on writing. But it seems that this is what visitors are looking for. I will continue alternating the range of posts but I do want to write more about my current book projects and articles in train.

The reason my posting resolve broke down was the need to drop everything and do the last push on my current book manuscript, in order to get it ready for the editor. The book, which is a history of everyday life through objects in post-war New Zealand,  has involved lots of object and image research, and re-researching as objects and images have been taken out, put back in, shifted around… Real Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the fifties and sixties [working title] is quite a complex text. It will have over 400 pages and some 350 images (contemporary photographs and objects). Then it was sent to a final external reader, having been read by three people at a very early stage. The editor completed one chapter but hurt her back badly so through all that I felt that I could not begin blogging again. However, all that is back on track this month and I am now responding to editing suggestions again.

Thanks to a Spring writing retreat I managed three more posts before Christmas, only one of which was about writing strategies. I have now ‘aired’ several conference papers in a different format, as a planned step towards publishing them in journals.

In 2015 I want to get back on the blogging horse and this is my ‘new’ beginning. I want to write about some of the projects below, in terms of both process and mechanics, but also the content and themes.

Currently, I have on my plate:

  • Responding to edits for my book manuscript and participating in the design of the book
  • Edit remaining chapters for an international collection on material histories, based on a symposium I convened with some new papers added
  • Complete a proposal for a co-authored monograph on social history in museums
  • Write a chapter for an edited collection on ‘Mad Histories’ based on a symposium paper delivered last year
  • Perhaps work up another book idea
  • ‘Bring out my dead’ – see if I can resurrect any conference papers and incomplete articles lying around and send them off for publication

Wish me luck, won’t you?

The importance of reading aloud

The third post in a series of tips and strategies around academic writing.

It is the last day of my regular, blissful writing retreat. It is finally like summer, warm but windy. The scent of roses (and chocolate) fills our writing room. Last night, we had our regular reading aloud session, when one member nominates an article for us to read, paragraph by paragraph, in a circle.

When did we lose the familiarity and joy of reading and being read to? It is something I love, but seldom do so now. In fact the last time I read aloud to someone was when I was reading the bravura opening chapter of the historical novel The Luminaries by @Eleanor Catton. Her chapter just begged to be voiced, with its beautifully constructed sentences and paragraphs. And that was to my partner lying next to me in bed!

Yet writing advice, academic and otherwise, consistently urges us to read our faltering sentences and paragraphs out loud so that we can hear what is right and wrong, where we have run out of breath because our sentences are too long, what doesn’t link up, where gaps in logic and argument are, or in Pat Thomson’s words: ‘klutzy syntax, missing and misplaced words’.[1] Our groups editing of paragraphs the first night of the retreat are designed to do exactly this. I always come away thinking: ‘Why didn’t I see/think of that!’

But the reading aloud of a chosen article is also very useful. It provides one model of what can be achieved. Our reading is always broken off by admiring discussion of just how an author achieved the desired effect or why we thought a passage was particularly persuasive and illuminating. Of course we do the opposite as well. We have had the odd failure, or at least, an article that wasn’t particularly compelling or praiseworthy. I really believe in reading what you think is good in order to use it as a model or something to aspire to.

This time at Tauhara I joined the group reading a piece by Sarah Ahmed, author of the blog feminist killjoys. It was a posting called ‘White Men’. What a tour de force. After nearly every paragraph we were giving her high praise not only for the content but for the rhythms of her prose. It is a very sophisticated piece of writing and lends itself well to reading out loud.

Ahmed argues that

When we talk of “white men” we are describing an institution. “White men” is an institution. By saying this, what I am saying? An institution typically refers to a persistent structure or mechanism of social order governing the behaviour of a set of individuals within a given community. So when I am saying that “white men” is an institution I am referring not only to what has already been instituted or built but the mechanisms that ensure the persistence of that structure. A building is shaped by a series of regulative norms. “White men” refers also to conduct; it is not simply who is there, who is here, who is given a place at the table, but how bodies are occupied once they have arrived; behaviour as bond.

She uses a lot of word play and alliteration and one word sentences (oh!) spaced out on the page. I urge you to read the rest and the very funny vignette with which she begins this powerful post.

So it is not just what she writes, compelling as it is, but it is the way she writes it. How do we incorporate this practice of reading aloud to find models and exemplars into our daily writing practice? I left Tauhara determined to find a way to read aloud as part of my academic life, not just as a wonderful ritual for writing retreats. I am always telling my post-graduate students to read and study models of writing that they admire, so once again, it is time I followed my own advice!

What pieces of superb writing would you nominate and why?


Anniversaries, exhibitions and women’s history – part 2

In May I was invited to give a paper at conference examining anniversaries and this blog post continues a discusssion of that paper in a previous posting.

The centenary of women’s suffrage in 1993

In 1993 the Suffrage Centennial Year Trust was established to mark the centenary of New Zealand becoming the first country where women gained the vote. It was a well-funded occasion with which to focus on the achievements of women. through books, articles, television and radio programmes, public sculpture, cultural displays and art exhibitions and heritage trails. The trust gave out $5.3 million in funding for relevant activities such as:

  • 37 audiovisual projects, including a major film (Bread and roses on the life of politician Sonja Davies)
  • 21 memorials, including the Kate Sheppard National Memorial in Christchurch, opened on Suffrage Day (19 September); a bust of Kate Sheppard in the Beehive (Parliament’s executive wing); a tile suffrage memorial in Auckland’s Khartoum Place and a number of gardens, often displaying the white ‘Kate Sheppard’ camellia
  • more than one hundred publications, including Sandra Coney’s historical survey of women in New Zealand, Standing in the Sunshine
  • almost 90 art and history exhibitions
  • 30 dramatic or dance performances
  • about 80 celebrations and festivals, many of which took place on Suffrage Day.

The year also kicked off with a ‘summits for suffrage’ weekend, when 4,000 women climbed to the top of hills or mountains, including Aoraki/Mt Cook.[1]

There was, quite literally, a women’s history bonanza. I published a guide to women’s history and biographies of two prominent regional suffragists from Whanganui, my home town and who I had researched for an honours dissertation.


The suffragists, published in 1993 for the centenary of women’s suffrage from The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

What about the exhibitions of women’s history? As was the case when researching other historical displays, the remaining evidence – written, photographic and material – is often diffuse and very patchy. There were lots of community displays and archives built up. The Trade Union History Project mounted a photographic exhibition: Te Keiti E Mahi Ai (What Katy Did): Te Wahine Te Mahi (Women and Work) 1880s-1940s, a photographic exhibition at Wellington City Art Gallery and at Porirua, Auckland and Canterbury Public Libraries.

 What Katy Did

The National Library mounted a major exhibition About Women About Time: Stories from the Alexander Turnbull Library (poster above).  I am still in the process of looking at other national/touring exhibitions about women’s history at this time.

The exhibition of women’s history now

I finished my paper by asking a series of questions to which I don’t yet have the answers. I think these questions could well apply beyond New Zealand.

How would we categorise the current situation? There is a lot about the historical situation and activities of women in exhibitions about cities and localities. For example, the splendid exhibitions at at Toitu Otago Settlers Museum in Dunedin and the permanent Taranaki Life display at Puke Ariki. And then the most frequent way that women’s lives are captured is through exhibitions of fashion and clothing, which are more about decorative arts than history. I would say though that some of the exhibitions in the Eyelights fashion gallery at Te Papa are about social history, such as the recent very thought-provoking exhibition about uniforms and uniformity.

I suppose underlying my questions about women’s history and the history of women is the fate of social history exhibitions more generally at places besides Dunedin and New Plymouth.

Are we building upon previous historical exhibitions or are we doing endless galleries about migration, pioneer wives and ethnic communities? Where is the public history in our major museums?

And what is its connection to current scholarship? And I can’t believe that I am echoing something from the 1980s, but I feel obliged to say: where are the women and the women’s stories, the ones that are not about culture, art or fashion?

[1] Jock Phillips. ‘Anniversaries – Anniversaries since 1990’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 10-Nov-14 URL:

Anniversaries, exhibitions and women’s history – part 1

In May I was invited to give a paper at conference examining anniversaries, hosted at Palmerston North’s museum Te Manawa , who organised it with PHANZA, the Professional Historian’s Association of Aotearoa New Zealand and the W. H. Oliver Humanities Research Academy at Massey University. Although we are in the midst of the centenary of the First World War, none of the papers were directly about that conflict, instead they looked at a range of anniversaries in New Zealand history and the whole issue of what we do when we are marking an anniversary and commemorating in a public way. One of the contributors, Jock Phillips, has written an excellent blog about the day. It was one of the most stimulating days I’ve been to in a while.

My paper was grandly titled ‘From women’s history to the history of women’. It aimed to look at the way women’s history has been celebrated and commemorated over the twentieth century in exhibitions. I examined the women’s exhibition at the New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition in Dunedin; displays at the Centennial Exhibition in Wellington in 1939-40; and a much more preliminary exploration of the centenary of women’s suffrage in 1893. I wanted to open up a set of questions about how they presented the female past, to a wide audience. The paper brought together my long-standing interest in women’s history and the historiography of exhibitions (what they present and how they do it) in a new way.

The historiography of exhibitions

I became interested in what history exhibitions in the past had been about and how they were presented when I worked at New Zealand’s national museum as a curator from 1996-2000, over the period of the development of Te Papa on Wellington’s waterfront.  As we were developing a new interconnected suite of history exhibitions,[1] I wondered what had come before, why and how. I have long wondered why history exhibitions are not treated as another form of historiography, and why we don’t seem to pore over changing representations of them as much as we do history presented in book or article form, or even on film or in images. The materialisation of the past has its own intellectual and evidential forms and fashions, which are very instructive.[2] This is recognised perhaps more in museum studies, anthropology or archaeology, art and science, but I want to put social and cultural history in there too. To this end I have been researching and writing about collecting and developing ‘history’ in New Zealand’s museum in the post-war period and the key female curators associated with it.[3]

Women at the 1925-6 New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition

The ‘southern hemisphere’s greatest exhibition’ at Dunedin was open for 6 months from spring to autumn and attracted over 3.2 million visitors from a population of just over 1.4 million. The ‘women’s section’, a brand new feature of the Exhibition, was ‘so successful it will be a necessary adjunct to all future undertakings’.[4] The reason given for focusing on women was the necessity to acknowledge the advanced nature of New Zealand because of the very early achievement of the vote for women. A range of displays occupied over 4,500 feet in a prominent position in the No. 4 Pavilion on the east side of the Australian Court and north of the Canadian Court.

Women's section 1935-6 exhibition

Entrance to the Women’s Section of the 925-6 New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition, Dunedin, New Zealand

Central dome in women's exhibition 1925-6

Both images from G. E. Thompson, Official Record of the New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition, Dunedin, 1925-26 (Dunedin: Coulls Somerville Wilkie Ltd, 1926)

There were three key areas. The first was ‘a miniature Exhibition in itself’ of women’s arts (fine and applied), crafts and literature from many countries including Australia, the United States and Great Britain. This included three bays of live demonstrations of spinning, weaving, lace making, pottery, illuminating and lettering, batik dying, bookbinding, colour process printing and sealing wax work. Themed ‘special week’ exhibits, encouraged women sent in items of handiwork from all over New Zealand, in an increasingly competitive series of displays. The other two areas consisted of a ‘Loan Section’ and the Lecture Hall programme. The former illustrates how important the display of material culture was to the Women’s Committee in creating a sense of women’s history and women’s values, alongside their manifest achievements in the arts. The following inscription appeared above the entrance to this section, which contained modern objects and many more ‘enveloped in the glamour of age’.

This little nook is devoted to the memory of things as they used to be long ago. Many of the exhibits are beautiful and valuable; but they have their place here not on account of their beauty and value, but for their connection with the lives of our mothers and grandmothers. Costly and beautiful, or merely homely and quaint, we, the women of Dunedin, have collected them here in the hope that they may bring back pleasant memories of bygone days to many others.[4]

Women at the 1939-40 Centennial Exhibition

This exhibition was the national centrepiece of the anniversary with over 55 acres of displays. There was a large government contribution, commemorating the material progress of New Zealand, innovations in technology, the pioneering spirit of its inhabitants. Here are the period rooms displayed there:


Centennial Exhibitions – Wellington. Deste, Eileen, 1908-1986 :Collection of prints and negatives. Ref: 1/2-036211-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

There was also an exhibition in a women’s section, lectures of interest to women and fashion parades of colonial clothing.

Cover of 1940 women's catalogue

As part of my investigation I spent some time in the archives of the Canterbury Museum, piecing together the history of the famed Christchurch Street, which is still mostly intact. Here I found another story of women, especially in the figure of the redoubtable Rosa Reynolds, a community stalwart, and the honorary costume and then history curator who was the force behind the establishment of the colonial history galleries and the street.

She observed that ‘through the medium of personal adornment and the close association of everyday things’ donations ‘provide a wide and varied panorama of our colonial and early post-colonial life. Carefully preserved and displayed in the right setting, they should give endless delight and satisfaction for generations to come’.[5] She was instrumental in developing the Gallery of Period Costume and all the various incarnations of the Colonial History Galleries


The Canterbury Street, unknown photographer, 1990.358.902, Rose Josephine Reynolds Collection, Canterbury Museum


The Cob Cottage Display, 1960, unknown photographer, 1990.358.950, Rose Josephine Reynolds Collection, Canterbury Museum

—–To be continued—-

[1] Bronwyn Labrum,‘Historicizing the Museum’s Recent Past. History Exhibitions at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 1998-2008’, Museum HistoryJournal, 5 (2012), 29-52.

[2] Examples of my research are: Bronwyn Labrum, ‘Always Distinguishable from Outsiders’: Materialising Cultures of Clothing from Psychiatric Institutions’, in Migration, Ethnicity, and Mental Health: International Perspectives, 1840-2010, by Angela McCarthy and Catharine Coleborne (Routledge, 2011), pp. 65-83; Bronwyn Labrum, ‘Expanding

Fashion Exhibition History and Theory: Fashion at New Zealand’s National Museum since 1950’, International Journal of Fashion Studies, 1 (2014), 97-118.

[3] Bronwyn Labrum, ‘Reliving the Colonial Past: Histories, Heritage, and the Exhibition Interior in Postwar New Zealand’, Interiors: Design, Architecture and Culture, 2 (2011), 27-44; Bronwyn Labrum, ‘The Female Past and Modernity: Displaying Women and Things in New Zealand Department Stores, Expositions and Museums, 1920s-1960s’, in Material Women 1750-1950: Consuming Desires and Collecting Practices, ed. by Beth Fowkes Tobin and Maureen Goggin (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 315-40

[4] G. E. Thompson, Official Record of the New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition, Dunedin, 1925-26 (Dunedin: Coulls Somerville Wilkie Ltd, 1926), 117.

[5] Typescript of Reynolds’ 1963 annual report, 3, Series 2/5, Folder 4 ‘Other Reports to Trust Board – Departmental 1958-1983,’ Canterbury Museum.

Keeping the writing going

 The third post in a series of tips and strategies around academic writing.

What is the difference between a pomodoro and a pear? And how does a grape count? These slightly bizarre questions were thrown up during my recent writing retreat. But we were jesting in earnest: pomodoros, pears and grapes are all techniques to keep writing regularly. They are just one of the activities I use between writing retreats and meetings of my writing group. In this post I will outline the fruit strategies and some other tips I have found useful. It is important to remember, however, that you need to find something that works for you, as only you can do this.


  • Writing every day

This is an oldie, but a goodie, and one I personally struggle with. It is best to do this first thing – before coffee and definitely before email – and may be done while still in your pyjamas. Even if you can only manage 30 minutes it all adds up. This is the thing that I say at everyone final session of my writing retreats. Binge writing doesn’t work and is difficult to fit into a busy schedule. Reward yourself with coffee afterwards. Put a star on the chart or put some money into your shoe buying jar.

  • Process writing

I use this frequently with students. If you are staring at a blank screen simply start writing ‘I don’t know what this is about but what I am trying to say is…..’ Don’t pause, don’t edit and see if you can write half a page. Only then look back over what you have written, and see what bits you can cut and paste into a new document.

  •  Draft without editing

Another version of the previous one. The greatest hand break is the censor within. That voice that says ‘I can’t believe that is a sentence…. What is that cr@**%p?’ It is best to look over your draft after leaving it for a while or as part of your next daily session. Things will compost or percolate in your brain while you are showering or on the way to work and overnight. That is a very valuable stage of the process.

  •  Breadcrumbs for next time

I do this without realising that it has a proper name. When you finish a writing session, jot down some notes to help you start again straight into it. It could be bullet points of the next steps in the argument or next paragraphs. It could be a list of keywords. It could be a revision of the writing plan that you should have sitting next to your keyboard.

  •  Writing plan

I am a great believed in writing a plan or sketch of the structure of the piece you are working on, even it is revised many times while writing. Do you have notes for the intro, body and conclusion of the piece? What contribution are you making to the literature/knowledge in the area? Can you recite an ‘elevator pitch’ of your piece ( the two to three sentences/paragraph that says exactly what you are doing and why as you ride the elevator between floors)?

  •  Blogging

It took courage to start blogging, just as it did to stammer my first tweet out. But it is more relaxed, easy writing that can be done in 30 minutes and keeps your hand in. It can help you find a ‘voice’ and the almost instant feedback is gratifying and all the moral encouragement you need! Blogging about your research is also a way of having a first stab at what might end up as a more formal piece of academic writing. You can try out things and get reactions. It is also a mighty fine way of building in regularity and discipline to a writing schedule.


  •  Planning – as outlined above
  • Electronic gadgets

A pomodoro is a set time of writing (usually 25 minutes) with 5 minute breaks and is named after the Italian word for tomato partly because people used tomato shaped timers. You can also download electronic apps that don’t have the same ticking noise. The breaks are really refreshing and mean that you can concentrate and then pause. [A pear (pair) is two pomodoros, one of which may be reading (invented by me at the last retreat). A grape is working in groups of three or four and perhaps incorporating feedback.]

I use the free app Evernote to store all my documents and images; PDFs of articles, lists and schedules. It has a function that lets you clip from websites which is very handy.

I also use Pocket to store things to read later – webpages, articles, tweets, Youtube videos, whatever. I have these apps synced across my laptop, phone and tablet so that I can reach them anytime, anywhere.

  •  Write on site or shut up and write!

A research group buddy set these up in a spare room on campus once a week for two hours. We had a 5 minute break in the middle but otherwise it was just 5 of us and our laptops, working away silently and collegially. People often use local cafes too.

  •  Rewards are your friend

Whether it is coffee, a phone call to a friend, a star chart, movies, shoes or a workout, give yourself a gift for making progress.

  • Accountability group

In order to get the last part of my book manuscript finished, I enlisted the help of my work in progress group from my writing retreat. I had to email them every fortnight to report on whether I had finished the latest chapter or not. The warmth of the replies was fabulous! It gave me a set deadline that was external and public.

  • Work in progress with friends and buddies

Do you have some colleagues or friends that you could meet with to talk informally and briefly about your writing? Can you ask for feedback or suggestions for issues that you are having problems with? They will amaze you with their acuity and resourcefulness. Remember, a problem shared is a problem halved.

Inspiration and other sources of advice

  • Twitter #writingpact

I have just begun this. It is group support that is instant and full of warm fuzzies. Tweet what you are about to do with this hashtag and then success or progress when you have finished with the same hashtag. You will get lots of favourites and replies!

  • Other blogs:

I have been following and reading theses for a while and they are goldmines of advice: Patter and Thesis Whisperer. There is lots of other advice on the internet. The most important point is to stop reading and start doing! And make sure that you have a good work situation set up that encourages you to make use of it.

And you know the old adage: practice makes perfect! My best wishes to you in your endeavours to keep the writing going.

I would love you to share your best strategies and what works for you via comments below. Thank you.

How writing groups work

The reaction to my last post on writing retreats was so positive — thank you everyone for your likes, retweets and reads—I thought I would continue the vibe and focus on writing groups.

I have been part of a writing group for three and half years now and it is a key part of my strategy for keeping the writing going between retreats. Some of the same elements of a retreat are carried over: good company, good food, and work in progress. What’s different is that it is disciplinary specific: we four are all historians. This provides a different kind of intensity and also a taken-for-granted understanding of what I am trying to do, which I really appreciate.

The group was initiated by another member who had a semester’s sabbatical and had to complete her book manuscript in that time. We decided that it was a great idea for all of us and had an initial meeting. What’s interesting for me about the constitution of the group is that it consists of a former colleague, my PhD supervisor and my MA supervisor, who are all now good friends. So we all knew each other and each other’s work well.

We decided that we would meet roughly every six weeks on a Monday evening for dinner at a wonderful local restaurant, and that we would eat, drink and talk about what we are currently working on and our progress to date. At the beginning of the year we usually share an annual writing plan and then we do a stock take at the December meeting of what we have achieved (or not).

A typical meeting consists of brief updates from us all and then we focus on one member’s work in particular. We might circulate abstracts and bits of drafts for reading beforehand, and the woman whose work is in focus might provide a fuller piece. We are meeting this Monday and I have part of a chapter to respond to in advance, from a larger book manuscript. Often we also talk about workplace issues or support we might want for thinking about our career. We try to keep moaning to a minimum! We also have a practice of bringing the artefacts, our publications, to the table, to be passed around and celebrated in person. Our collective productivity is really quite amazing.

For most of last year I felt as if I was always turning up with little to show for it. Yet it was always good to talk, to get reassurance and to get searching, productive, questions about what I was trying to do. Having to front up regularly was very good discipline. I also find that I learn as much from the other members and their wrestling with writing, as I do from what I am attempting to do. It is patently clear that I try to do too much and have a long, ambitious plan in February, when really I should just concentrate on the main thing on my list. So I have taken myself in hand. This year is much better in that respect.

In the first year we helped our colleague finish her book and she won two prizes for it. There has been one from another member since (gone to press due to be published in August) and the other two of us have nearly finished our ones. There have also been articles, chapters, online encyclopedia entries, and several conference papers each. In between meetings we text, email and phone encouragement (and empathy), and email new articles we have published to each other. It is just wonderful to know that my writing group members are always there for me.

Happily, I will be able to report on Monday that in the last six weeks or so I have delivered a keynote and an invited paper (in sequential weeks!). I have received feedback on my book manuscript from a good writer friend and the publisher, and completed the revision of the introduction, while at my writing retreat. I have also sorted out what I have to do to next on the book revisions and in what order. I have done lots of thinking and planning about my current and next projects. I have also commissioned the last contributor to an edited collection on material histories that I am preparing and received another abstract and paper in outline. Oh, and of course, I have started this blog!

The bliss of writing retreats

I am writing this from a desk looking over Lake Taupo, in the middle of the North Island of New Zealand. A well-stoked fire is roaring and six women are writing with me as we share space in a large hall. All is companionable silence.

This is the tenth year I have been coming to either a winter or spring retreat of ‘Women Writing Away’ at the Tauhara Retreat Centre. It has made all the difference to my productivity and also to my hopes and fears around writing. I would not have published as much scholarly work as I have, nor learned how to think, plan and organise around it, if I had not attended these retreats. They form precious bright spots in the year when I can leave everything else behind and focus. Yet, as other women have commented, at the same time it feels like a holiday because we have good company, good food, and as much sleep as we want to have!

ImageThe main building at Tauhara, image from website

The WWA retreats are organised by the incomparable Barbara Grant from Auckland University, who has written about them here. They follow a well-developed template of a mixture of writing time, work-in-progress sessions, group paragraph editing, optional workshops, and a collectively written murder mystery that often has a lot about university politics and bureaucracy thrown in for good measure!

The retreat centre at Tauhara is around the lake in Acacia Bay on semi-rural land. We supply our own breakfasts and coffee, and daily lunch and dinner, made from local produce, is provided for us. This takes the time and angst of meal preparation away and leaves ample time for writing.


The dining room, image from website

The aim of the week is to produce an article ready for publication or for a conference, or a chapter towards a book or PhD. We arrive for Sunday night for introductions, orientation, planning and decompression, followed by a shared dinner to which we all contribute. After the first, sometimes slow, day of writing on Monday night we do the mandatory group editing of a paragraph. This exercise is brilliant. We read a paragraph aloud sentence by sentence and respond to feedback on the appropriateness/accuracy of words and send, the rhythm and length. I always come away with a much punchier and convincing paragraph and it is amazing how reading aloud helps!

On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights we share work in progress. The idea is to bring an issue, a puzzle or a piece of draft writing to the group for reponses. Last time I got collective thinking about my schedule for finishing my book and we set up an email group that I agreed to check in with every two weeks. This time I am going to run an ‘elevator pitch’ for my book past the group so that my introduction has a consistent focus. At the moment it takes several goes at saying what the book is about!


My desk as I write this

After lunch most days there are optional workshops on getting writing going, first sentence exercises, writing book proposals, applying for grants or whatever someone nominates.

On Friday late afternoon we reconvene as a group to set some goals to keep the writing going when we return home. These are emailed to us afterwards so we can keep to our promises! Then on the last night we read aloud the Case of Missing Conclusion, our jointly written murder mystery.

I usually bring one main project and other subsidiary ones. When I first started attending, there was no WiFi, and we could really keep to the retreat nature of the week. Now I do a lot of (re)searching on line so I choose to pay for WiFi access for the week. I have managed in one week to draft out a whole article, but usually my aims are more modest. If find that I do as much research planning and strategising, as actual writing, as I have uninterrupted time to think. I find the week a useful stock-taking time.

I always make time to have an on-site massage. Self-care is a big part of the week.


Accommodation units, image from website

This year I plan to go in Spring as well, as my current large administrative role makes it more difficult for me to carve out writing time. This week it is revisions to my book manuscript, which has had more than one trip to this oasis on the edge of Lake Taupo. I’m optimistically hoping that it will be the last time I bring it!


The moving home front

I was delighted to be a keynote speaker at the recent Costume and Textile Assocation of New Zealand’s annual conference. In a previous post, I reviewed the conference and asked whether it was time to rethink ‘The Home Front’. In this post, I want to more directly write about the issues I raised in my keynote: ‘The Moving Home Front: Thinking With and Through Domestic Textiles. I used the opportunity to attempt to use domestic textiles as both a resource and a theoretical tool, by reconsidering and extending the notion and theme of the conference – the Home Front. I developed the notion of the Home Front as moving in, through and beyond domestic spaces and used the case of domestic textiles at home, at school, and beyond.

When we think about this topic, we immediately thing of all those socks.

Image                                Image

Her Excellency’s Knitting Book, 1915                 Warm socks Ticket, Te Papa

But there are other equally iconic objects, such as this Home Guard armband attributed to Donald Archibald McCurdy, who served in the Home Guard with C Company, Makara Battalion, in New Zealand, during the Second World War.


National Army Museum Te Mata Toa, Acc no: 2006.86

Then again, we might think of more prosaic home-knitted vests, jumpers and cardigans, of those who served in essential industries:


Photographer John Dobree Pascoe, Ref: 1/4-000619-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

But where does the Home Front begin and end? Is it self-contained or rather something that shifts geography, function and meaning according to time and context? After all, men carried all sorts of bits and pieces, including textiles, with them to the battle front, in effect recreating their own personal part of the home front. They did this, as authors Kate Hunter and Kirsty Ross suggest in a wonderful new book Holding on to Home ,[1] in order to collapse time and space. Soldiers carried all sorts of objects beside their military garb and equipment, as the cover of their book suggests, to ‘hold on to home’:


That made me think that The Home Front is really more like a contact zone, to use Mary Louise Pratt’s phrase which was enlarged upon usefully by James Clifford.[2] It is something geographical, and also cultural and conceptual. The term ‘contact zone’ was coined in the 1990s as an improvement on the familiar concept of the ‘colonial frontier’. Rather than the predominantly linear European expansionist perspective implied in ‘colonial frontier’, the contact zone refers to a more holistic approach towards studying the spatial, temporal, geographic, economic, political and bodily interactions that exists between people of culturally diverse backgrounds during historic initial encounters with one another.[3] Clifford employs this theory in a museum context to suggest that the relations between the west and indigenous people are not one way and one sided but interactive. I spoke about transferring this way of thinking to interactions between people and objects, in this case domestic textiles at home and beyond the home.

Apart from the notion of contact zones, I was also interested in discussing the agency of these objects. After all, it is not just people who make the decisions or create opportunities. Using a material history lens also means thinking about the way that objects and textiles have agency, not just the people who make, wear or use them.

One way of defining agency in this sense means ‘providing affordances and constraints for thoughts and actions’.[4] Through its qualities (tactile, visual, olfactory), and its properties (which may be shifting and changeable), an object affords certain responses and constrains others from being possible. Responses might go all the way from ‘thoughts and actions’ to include perceptions and possibly provoked memories. So that wearing certain garments creates the possibilities for particular interactions, effects and opportunities and constraints for certain actions. An obvious example here is the school uniform, or indeed any uniform, that creates and provokes certain actions and interactions, such as Khaki.


Young Ladies’ Contingent’ uniform, made by E. Osborn in Wellington in 1900, Bequest of the Edwin Family, 1966, PC001299, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. It was worn by one of the Edwin sisters, both of whom were part of the ‘Wellington Amazons’ Ladies’ Khaki Corps. Girls’ and Ladies’ Khaki Corps (or Contingents) were organised throughout the country during 1900 to raise funds for New Zealand’s South African War effort. 

Rationing and the shortages and accompanying practices of war time extended well into peacetime. Petrol was rationed right until 1950. The war cast a long shadow. The contact zones and agency of certain objects continued well into the next decades. Domestic textiles were, and are, often kept for a long time, reused or recycled, and, moreover, old and new sat side by side. I wanted to emphasise how home-made and domestic textiles, such as covers, tablecloths or doilies, while being made at home, might be carried out with a plate of food to an afternoon tea or function. A knitted or sewn garment is worn out into the world: at school, at work, at play. The elements that constitute a garment or textile – pattern, fabric, cotton, buttons, etc – were brought from the external world into the domestic arena and out again.

There are a range of domestic textiles at home and at school:

  • blankets; household linen; carpet; upholstery furnishings; and a peg apron.
  • school uniforms, particularly in an era when jerseys and cardigans at least, were home-made.
  • ‘manual training’ or learning to sew at school

Blankets often went into the new cars bought in this period and to the park and beach long with picnics. Household linen, especially of the ‘best’ kind (which carried a particular kind go agency, affordances and constraints, might accompany food and other goodies to functions, be seen in the formal dining room or lounge, rather than just in the kitchen. And tea towels seem to accompany just about everything at this time! Carpets and domestic upholstery went from shop to home and might end up in churches, social halls, schools and other places beside the home. Peg aprons and all the paraphernalia that went with being at home ‘outdoors’ occupied quite liminal spaces. They were seen over the back fence or in the front garden. They were domestic, but not contained. Most girls were taught to sew by their mothers or women relations well into the late 20th century. Schools also instructed girls as part of ‘manual training’. As with knitting, at times boys were also taught to sew. Aprons, rompers, skirts and later more adventurous and difficult garments were produced in their thousands and worn outside home or school.

But what about beyond home and school? What other zones are domestic textiles a part of and where else do they have agency?


Te Ara Encylopedia of New Zealand, photograph by Marguerite Hill

This visual representation of afternoon tea, reminds us that recreation and hobbies are where domestic textiles are to be found in abundance. And even on rations, women saved up coupons to make special dresses and other textiles during war-time. Sewing and knitting were the most common forms of domestic craft for women in the 1950s and 60s. Cardigans, jerseys, hats, scarves, baby clothes, and all manner of things have been produced in their thousands. Novice knitters, who would usually start with a scarf, spent many hours undoing knitting with baggy tension or incorrect stitching. Being able to sew and knit was viewed as a thrifty, sensible was of clothing families.

Smaller children were often dressed in garments which were made from the good parts of bigger clothes or in the same fabric as their mother’s dresses. Young woman sewed dresses in the latest fashions from Simplicity, Butterick and Vogue paper patterns that were increasingly available. Mothers, aunts and grandmothers made doll clothes from the many knitting and sewing patterns available from dainty 1950s florals right through to 1960s retro brights. Not all girls and women had the aptitude and many tears were shed as garments turned out badly or were unwearable. Patterns, measuring tapes, cotton reels, pins, elastic, tailor’s chalk, and sewing machines were all part of daily life, which were carried and used beyond the kitchen table.

Thinking with and through domestic textiles in the ways I have outlined is useful because it helps us move beyond a static interpretation. As well as helping us think further about materials and meanings, it helps us reinterpret historical periods, as well as historical activities and events. A moving Home Front brings into focus how domestic textiles move in and out of home, school and beyond.


[1] Kate Hunter and Kirstie Ross, Holding on to Home: New Zealand Stories and Objects of the First World War (Te Papa Press, 2014)

[2] Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (Routledge, 2008); James Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 1997)

[3] Usefully glossed in Sabine Du Bourbannnais’ webpage at, The Importance of  Contact Zones in Studying History

[4] Christopher Tilley, ‘Materiality in Materials’, Archeological Dialogues, 14:1, 2007, pp. 16-20