Today we release two new stories – Collecting and Furniture – which together provide a fascinating study of New Zealand’s cultural relationships with the outside world. They invite the question, ‘Are we no more than Europe’s most distant outpost?’
As author Richard Wolfe explains, the initial collecting impulse in this country came from European explorers who were interested in showing off the wonders of a strange new world to collectors and savants at home. So James Cook and his crew collected plants and Māori crafts and sent them to European museums. In the early 19th century there was a huge trade in moa bones, which were sent to naturalist collectors across the seas.
Then the flow began to reverse. Prominent New Zealanders began to put together collections which might remind their fellow colonials of the wonders of European civilisation. George Grey gave his collection of medieval manuscripts to the Auckland Public Library. Ronald and Zillah Castle put together a remarkable collection of musical instruments, mostly of a European origin. And of course people with money throughout New Zealand collected antique furniture, mostly from Britain, as a reminder of a more genteel civilisation across the globe.
Collecting was not always just nostalgia for ‘home’. Inevitably people began to collect distinctly New Zealand things – those two great bibliophiles Thomas Hocken and Alexander Turnbull both centred their collections on this part of the world. In the 20th century many Kiwis began to invest in local art or, at a different level, in Kiwiana from buzzy bees to Crown Lynn pottery. But inevitably the exotic and the foreign, whether Middle Eastern rugs or American records, remained always attractive items of collecting.
The Furniture story equally explores the interchange of New Zealand and the wider world. From the very start of European settlement there were local furniture makers using local woods. But what is striking is how they drew on international styles, such as art nouveau and art deco. There was a constant echo in New Zealand homes of the styles that had flowered in London, Paris or New York a few years before. And they had to compete continually with the import of furniture from across the seas.
It would be wrong to draw from this a lesson that New Zealand was just a subservient colonial offshoot. Rather, New Zealanders have always been in touch with foreign influences and trade, and have tried to keep up with new ideas and influences. We have been in constant communication with collectors, museums, fashion designers and stylists. This something to admire – it kept us moving and kept a small society thinking. The histories of collecting and furniture in this country reflect our willingness to take from the larger world in order to give us a sense of being at home.