Late last week several Te Ara staff attended the Material histories: antipodean perspectives symposium. This was a joint conference with Massey University and Te Papa, with a focus on material culture – objects and their stories.
Poignant stories and not necessarily aesthetically pleasing dolls were key to a number of the papers, as the presenters looked at museum objects and archive collections in different ways to unpack the powerful stories that objects had to tell about their makers, users and keepers.
The centenary of the First World War is fast approaching and many of us here at Manatū Taonga – Ministry for Culture and Heritage and many other organisations are busy beavering away at projects to remember and memorialise the stories of soldiers and civilians alike. Curator Kirstie Ross and historian Kate Hunter spoke about taking a fresh look at the objects of the First World War. Kirstie told the story of Dorothy Broad, a woman who made a woollen doll in the likeness of her fiancé, Thomas Wyville Rutherford, a soldier in the First World War. Patriotic Dorothy crafted a number of dolls for fundraising purposes and also incorporated her fiancé’s regimental badges and buttons into the doll she kept for herself. Her fiancé died of influenza just before the armistice, while Dorothy, who never married, lived into old age. On Thomas’s death she was given parts of his uniform, which she kept for the rest of her life, along with regimental badges and buttons, which she turned into mourning jewellery.
Georgina White also held the audience in thrall (although we just knew it wouldn’t have a happy ending) with her presentation about the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery archives. The story of a young artist, sent from England to New Zealand for his health, was gently revealed through family papers, sketches and paintings from the archive. These vividly told of family connections and the importance of letters as a way of maintaining relationships when separated by distance. His parents were set to arrive in New Zealand a year after his departure from England, to rejoin their now hopefully healthy son. But, tragically, his parents arrived too late to see him again.
Back to dolls – among other things – Fiona McKergow and Kerry Taylor’s presentation about the publication of Te hao nui: the great catch (about objects from Te Manawa museum) was just as much about the intricacies of the workings of the museum and the museum society as the objects actually selected for the book. This reflective look at the keepers of objects, the way collections are developed (or just spring up) and how the book was intended to tell new stories about objects in Te Manawa’s collections was refreshing.
Other highlights included discussion of the second-hand, nostalgia and the various uses of the ‘past’.
There were several papers looking at the perspective that a Māori world view can bring to projects – Areta Wilkinson (a jeweller) and Hinemoa Hilliard (an artist) both spoke about how their cultural framework informs their research and practice.
The graduate students’ presentations – from the meanings and uses of wool-bale stencils (Annette O’Sullivan), to afternoon tea in the Manawatū (Megan Watson) and the teaching of dressmaking in schools (Dinah Vincent), assures us that the future of the study of material culture looks rosy.