What’s next for the history of public memory in Aotearoa New Zealand? (part 1)

This post (in two parts) is adapted from a paper I gave at the conference of the Professional Historians’ Association of New Zealand/Aotearoa (PHANZA) conference, held at Massey University, Wellington, 13-14 April 2019. The theme of the conference was ‘After the war: what’s next?’

For the past five years or so, historians have been involved in a major enterprise of public memory: commemoration of the centenary of the First World War. They’ve contributed to exhibitions, commemorative events, documentaries and other activities intended to raise awareness and understanding of New Zealand’s role in the war. Through such activities, historians help to shape public memory; but memory itself has a history, and by studying that history we can better understand the changing ways in which our society relates to its past. In this post, I want to consider where the history of public memory in Aotearoa New Zealand might go next: what are some areas that would benefit from further research and analysis?

The boundaries between public memory and public history, and between public memory and private memory, are fuzzy, but I find it useful to distinguish them nonetheless. By ‘memory’, I mean relatively simplified representations of the past through images and stories, in contrast to the more detailed research and analysis of the past undertaken by historians. And by public memory, I mean those representations of the past that are, firstly, shared to some extent within a particular society and, secondly, manifested in the public realm (public spaces, media, institutions and so on), as distinct from those held by individuals or small groups such as families. Public memory can take a wide variety of forms, including representation of historical events and personalities in museums, memorials, commemorative ceremonies, film, art and popular culture.

The tremendous growth in memory studies internationally since the late twentieth century, often labelled the ‘memory boom’, hasn’t been matched within New Zealand historical scholarship. All the same, there’s been a steady increase in writing on public memory in New Zealand, and the areas of focus for this literature mirror those found in other countries. In particular, there’s now a significant body of New Zealand literature on the memory of war and on memorials. Exemplifying both of these themes, an important early text was Chris Maclean’s and Jock Phillips’s 1990 book on New Zealand war memorials, recently revised by Jock Phillips under the new title To the Memory.[1] The public memory of the First World War has been studied in greater depth than that of other wars, although in recent years the memory of the New Zealand Wars has received greatly increased attention and is now the subject of a major Marsden Fund project led by Joanna Kidman and Vincent O’Malley.[2] More has been written about New Zealand memorials to war than about other types of memorial, and the history of Anzac Day has been examined more fully than that of other historical anniversaries.[3] I won’t review the existing literature on public memory in New Zealand here, but will refer to other work along the way as I set out some topics for future research.

I’ll outline five areas for further exploration in the history of public memory in Aotearoa New Zealand:

  • change over time;
  • local, national and international contexts;
  • cultural differences;
  • the interaction of private and public memories; and
  • public memory in the arts and popular culture.

Change over time

In this year of the 250th anniversary of the first land-based encounters between Māori and Europeans, it’s worth bearing in mind that modern Aotearoa New Zealand was born from the meeting of two memory-minded cultures. Māori remembered the deeds of their tūpuna through place names, waiata, whakataukī and whakapapa, as well as in physical form through carved representations. British memory culture was more calendar-based than that of Māori, and at the time of British colonisation of New Zealand a secular commemorative calendar was developing alongside the existing religious one. Throughout their Pacific voyages, for example, James Cook and his crews were careful always to observe the King’s birthday, and as early as 1820 the missionary John Butler was already thinking ahead to how the first use of the plough in New Zealand would be remembered, writing: ‘I trust that this day will be remembered with gratitude, and its anniversary kept by ages yet unborn.’

Given this long history of memory-mindedness, there’s an opportunity to trace the cultures and practices of public memory in this country over some 200 years or longer, and to consider what’s changed or stayed the same. Jock Phillips’s work on war memorials is relatively unusual in covering the period from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. Apart from an entry in Te Ara by Jock Phillips there is, for example, no long-term study of the commemoration of historical anniversaries in New Zealand, although good work has been done on particular anniversaries or on commemoration within particular time periods. Taking a longer view would allow us to consider how commemorative practices and forms have changed over time, and what factors have influenced these changes.

If we consider public memorials, for example, we can see a number of changes over the past 150 years or so. Memorial forms imported from Britain, such as obelisks and statues, were dominant for a long time. There was, however, an ongoing debate about whether memorials should instead be utilitarian structures or should take non-material forms such as educational scholarships. A trend towards utilitarian monuments was particularly apparent around the Second World War, and many memorials to that war were community facilities such as halls, libraries or swimming pools. More recently, memorials have evolved and diversified in form. There’s been a move away from obelisks, columns, cenotaphs and arches towards a much wider range of forms, with a growing preference for memorials that are more organic and integrated into the environment. Increasingly, too, carved pou and other commemorative structures using Māori artforms and iconography are appearing in public places across Aotearoa. At the same time, new memorial spaces are being created online, with sites such as the Auckland War Memorial Museum’s Online Cenotaph or the Battalion Roll on the 28th Māori Battalion website, where people can lay virtual poppies or add information or photos.

This very broad-brush sketch of some changes in the forms of public memorials is simply intended to give an indication of the kinds of changes that are apparent when practices of public memory are viewed over a longer period of time. It leaves unanswered the question of what has caused these changes. There are also other questions we might ask. Has there been a change in what and whom we remember through memorials? Has the level of community engagement with the creation of memorials changed? How have the meanings attached to memorials changed, particularly as the events they commemorate pass out of living memory and are re-evaluated by later generations?

Local, national, international

nlnzimage (1)
Jubilee celebration crowd at Bridge Street, Nelson, 1890. 10×8-0269-G, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

Time is one dimension worth exploring further in research on public memory; interaction between the local, the national and the international is another. Fiona Hamilton, Kynan Gentry and Jock Phillips have examined the ways in which commemoration of historical anniversaries in colonial New Zealand was a focus for interprovincial rivalry, and for resistance to the idea of a New Zealand national story, particularly around the colony’s 50th anniversary in 1890.[4] Historians could usefully consider what’s distinctive about the ways in which particular local or regional communities remember their pasts, and how local or regional memory has been incorporated into national memory, or has resisted such incorporation. In talking of national memory, I’m referring to memory at the level of the New Zealand state, and the role of central government in shaping and promoting national memory is another important topic for exploration.

Public memory within New Zealand also needs to be seen in a wider global or transnational context. I’m not talking here about comparisons between New Zealand and other countries, although that would also be illuminating, but about the ways in which New Zealand public memory itself has an international dimension. For a start, New Zealand has been affected by international trends, such as the move to utilitarian memorialisation during the Second World War, which I mentioned above. Events within New Zealand or involving New Zealanders are commemorated overseas (witness the New Zealand Wars memorial at Anglesea Barracks, Hobart, or the New Zealand Memorial in London’s Hyde Park, for example), while overseas individuals and events are commemorated here (as with the statue of Mahatma Gandhi outside Wellington Railway Station, or the plan for a Holocaust memorial in the Auckland Domain). Transnational ethnic ties also mean that New Zealanders may contribute to commemorative projects in other countries that have no obvious connection to New Zealand: Scottish New Zealanders, for example, contributed £40 (around $6700 in today’s money) to a memorial for Major-General Hector Macdonald erected in 1907 in Scotland.[5] For all these reasons, the history of public memory in New Zealand can’t be viewed in isolation from the wider world.


[1] Chris Maclean and Jock Phillips, The Sorrow and the Pride: New Zealand War Memorials (Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs/GP Books, 1990); Jock Phillips, To the Memory: New Zealand’s War Memorials (Nelson: Potton & Burton, 2016).

[2] For an article that brings the historical memory of the First World War and of the New Zealand Wars into the same frame, see Charlotte Macdonald, ‘The First World War and the Making of Colonial Memory’, Journal of New Zealand Literature, no. 33, 2015, pp. 15-37.

[3] On Anzac Day see, for example, Maureen R. Sharpe, ‘Anzac Day in New Zealand: 1916 to 1939’, New Zealand Journal of History (NZJH), vol. 15(2), 1981, pp. 97-114; Scott Worthy, ‘A Debt of Honour: New Zealanders’ First Anzac Days’, NZJH, vol. 26(2), 2002, pp. 185-200; Helen Robinson, ‘Lest We Forget? The Fading of New Zealand War Commemorations, 1946-1966’, NZJH, vol. 44(1), 2010, pp. 76-91; Stephen J. Clarke, ‘The One Day of the Year: Anzac Day in Aotearoa/New Zealand 1946-1990’ (MA thesis, University of Otago, 1994); Jenny Macleod, Gallipoli (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), ch. 6.

[4] Jock Phillips, ‘Anniversaries – Provincialism in anniversaries, 1890 to 1940’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/anniversaries/page-2 (accessed 10 April 2019); Fiona Hamilton, ‘Pioneering History: Negotiating Pakeha Collective Memory in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries’, NZJH, vol. 36(1), 2002, pp. 66-81 (see particularly pp. 72-75); Kynan Gentry, History, Heritage, and Colonialism: Historical Consciousness, Britishness, and Cultural Identity in New Zealand, 1870-1940 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), pp. 126-127.

[5] Part of my ongoing research into New Zealand reactions to the death of Hector Macdonald.

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