What’s next for the history of public memory in Aotearoa New Zealand? (part 2)

Cultural difference

A third area for further investigation is cultural difference. The study of public memory in New Zealand has focused primarily on Pākehā of British and Irish descent, in part because this is the group that’s historically dominated the public sphere since colonisation. Damon Salesa has usefully reminded us that the Pacific and Pacific peoples have been largely absent from the writing of New Zealand history and, I’d add, from the public memory of Pālagi New Zealanders.[1] Pacific peoples, and other peoples whose origins don’t lie in Britain and Ireland, will have their own approaches to public memory. What does public memory look like when viewed from, say, a Tokelauan or a Cantonese perspective? Which historical individuals or events loom large, and how have these been represented? For example, how has the 1902 sinking off Hokianga of the SS Ventnor, the ship carrying the remains of some 500 Chinese men to China for reburial, been remembered and commemorated within the New Zealand Chinese community? We need more studies of cultural specificity in public memory, like Senka Božić-Vrbančić’s important book on memory and identity in Croatian and Māori communities in Northland.[2]

Compared to the memory of non-British ethnic communities, Māori public memory is better represented in the existing literature, and indeed in the public landscape itself. Judith Binney, for example, wrote extensively about Māori concepts of history and memory, while Rachel Buchanan has been writing from a Taranaki and Te Ātiawa perspective about the public memory of Parihaka and of colonisation in Taranaki and Wellington.[3] Considering cultural difference can mean looking for public memory in different places from those scholars of public memory may be used to. Anyone who attended Te Matatini, the national kapa haka festival, in Wellington recently, might have seen haka providing iwi perspectives on Captain Cook and the New Zealand Wars, for example.

Māori public memory also problematises the public/private distinction I made earlier. Marae may be private places from a non-Māori perspective, but they are very much part of a Māori public sphere, and are places where historical memory is articulated daily. Even outside such uniquely Māori contexts, there are distinctively Māori histories of public memory to tell. One is the story of how Māori have engaged with European memorial forms and practices. From the late nineteenth century onwards, Māori adopted European forms of memorialisation, such as obelisks and statues.[4] More recently, as I’ve already mentioned, there’s been a turn away from Pākehā forms towards more distinctively Māori commemorative iconography in public places. There’s more to be written about how and why Māori have initiated and funded their own public memorials, and about how they’ve responded to memorials created by Pākehā.

nlnzimage (2)
Statue in memory of Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui, also known as Major Kemp, at Whanganui, 1912. 1/1-021036-G, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

Public and private

The relationship between public and private memory is a fourth area that warrants exploration. The boundary between public and private may be fuzzy, and may shift depending on cultural perspective, but I think memories held privately by individuals and small groups can still be usefully distinguished from memory articulated publicly on behalf of larger communities. These two types of memory interact in important and interesting ways, which are yet to be widely explored in New Zealand. As Anna Green, lead researcher for a Marsden Fund project on Pākehā family memory, writes: ‘How we think about past, present and future is often filtered through the lens of our family stories, and this in turn influences the ways in which we act as citizens, as well as family members, in the present.’

Individual and family memories may affect our responses to public memories of collective events such as war, industrial conflict or natural disaster. In some cases, private memories can be sites of resistance to the dominant narratives of public memory. In other cases, people may be able to place themselves and their families in public narratives, seeing their private memories as representative of larger stories. For example, memories of ancestors who served in overseas wars may provide a point of identification with the Anzac legend.

Public memory can also influence private memory. As far as I know, New Zealand historians have not yet taken up the approach of Australian Alistair Thomson who, in his book Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend, used oral history interviews to examine how Australian returned soldiers from the First World War ‘composed’ their recollections of the war. Thomson was particularly interested in the relationship between personal memory and public myth, noting that ‘Our memories are risky and painful if they do not fit the public myths, so we try to compose our memories to ensure that they will fit with what is publicly acceptable.’

Another question for consideration is how public memory changes once those with direct, personal memories of individuals or events are no longer alive, so that memory becomes more reliant on mediation through stories, objects and performances.

Arts and popular culture

The final topic I’d like to touch on is public memory in the arts and popular culture. The way in which history is represented in film and television, literature, the visual arts, music, and so on can have a powerful influence in forming public memory, but this influence is still relatively unexplored in New Zealand. A reasonable amount has been written about how New Zealand history has been portrayed in cinema, most notably in Annabel Cooper’s recent book about the New Zealand Wars on screen,[5] but I’m not aware of comparable work on music, for example. How have the New Zealand Wars featured in popular music, from the gentle parody of the Howard Morrison Quartet’s ‘Battle of the Waikato’ to the thrash metal of Alien Weaponry’s song of Pukehinahina/Gate Pā, ‘Rū Ana te Whenua’?

Likewise, the representation of New Zealand history in the visual arts deserves closer attention. Leonard Bell, Rebecca Rice and Roger Blackley have written about the depiction of Māori history and the New Zealand Wars in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Pākehā visual art.[6] But what of contemporary artists who are engaging with New Zealand history, and particularly with the history of colonial relationships between Māori and Pākehā – artists such as Lisa Reihana, Marian Maguire, Sally Burton, Robyn Kahukiwa, Fiona Pardington, Harry Watson, Nigel Brown and Brett Graham, to name a few? How are such artists responding to, and perhaps helping to reshape, public memory?

Then there is the body of commemorative memorabilia produced to mark particular anniversaries: from official commemorative items such as stamps, coins or medals, to commercial products such as crockery, figurines, postcards and games. Richard Wolfe has written about commemorative stamps,[7] but there’s much more work that could be done in analysing the imagery used in such objects and the stories they tell about New Zealand history.

I’m aware that I’ve only scratched the surface of possible topics in the history of public memory. I haven’t, for example, discussed museums as institutions of public memory, or the public memory of gender and sexuality, largely because others are more qualified to write about those topics than I am. So now, over to you: what do you see as the key challenges and gaps in writing the history of public memory in Aotearoa New Zealand?


[1] See, in particular, Damon Salesa, ‘New Zealand’s Pacific’, in Giselle Byrnes (ed.), The New Oxford History of New Zealand (South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 149-172.

[2] Senka Božić-Vrbančić, Tarara: Croats and Maori in New Zealand: Memory, Belonging, Identity (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2008).

[3] See, for example, Judith Binney, Stories without End: Essays 1975-2010 (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2010); Rachel Buchanan, The Parihaka Album: Lest We Forget (Wellington: Huia Publishers, 2009); Rachel Buchanan, Ko Taranaki Te Maunga (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2018).

[4] For a case study, see Ewan Morris, ‘Māori Monument or Pākehā Propaganda? The Memorial to Keepa Te Rangihiwinui, Whanganui’, in Annabel Cooper, Lachy Paterson and Angela Wanhalla (eds), The Lives of Colonial Objects (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2015), pp. 230-235.

[5] Annabel Cooper, Filming the Colonial Past: The New Zealand Wars on Screen (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2018). See also Alistair Fox, Barry Keith Grant and Hilary Radner (eds), New Zealand Cinema: Interpreting the Past (Bristol: Intellect, 2011).

[6] Leonard Bell, Colonial Constructs: European Images of Maori, 1840-1914 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1992), esp. ch. 4; Rebecca Rice, Unsettling: Art and the New Zealand Wars (Victoria University of Wellington, Art History Lecture Series 14, 2016); Roger Blackley, Galleries of Maoriland: Artists, Collectors and the Māori World, 1880-1910 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2018).

[7] Richard Wolfe, It’s in the Post: The Stories Behind New Zealand Stamps (Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2010).

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