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.

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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.

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