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.

The importance of a name

Just as I was casually googling ‘material histories’ I saw it. How did this happen? I asked myself, dumbfounded. I had found another blog entitled Material Histories. To cut a long, agonising, story short, I have decided to rename my one, out of respect and courtesy.

Then the second hard part of this saga began. With so many good blogs on this subject (as my blog roll attests) what new, memorable, apt name could I conjure out of my consciousness? I finally decided on MATTER. It refers, of course, to the content of materiality, stuff, and material histories. But it also, I think, is a nice play on what matters, and the matter in hand. So I have changed the masthead as you can see.

MATTER was also the name of a short-lived but active, research cluster I directed in my former school in the College of Creative Arts at Massey University from 2009-2012. Now that the School of Visual and Material Culture has been restructured out of existence, and I shifted to the School of Design the cluster went into hibernation. The cluster was very productive. As well as running seminar series and housing postgraduate students it also produced:

A delegate blogged on the Material Histories conference and I am in the process of editing some of the papers for publication.

I continue to be fascinated by, and to tussle in my research with, objects, people, histories and the spaces in between. They are an endless variety of forms of matter, they are the matter in hand and they are what matters to be in my research life.