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.

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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: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/anniversaries/page-6