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.