New Zealand turned down an offer to exhibit in Paris in 1855, but from the 1860s the New Zealand government became more involved in international exhibitions. They saw exhibitions as ‘gigantic illustrated advertisements’1 of the country – which might increase trade, attract immigrants and show off the country to prospective tourists. New Zealand had substantial displays at the following 19th-century exhibitions:
- London, 1862
- Vienna, 1873
- Philadelphia, 1876 – the first exhibition with a women’s pavilion and an amusement park
- Sydney, 1879
- Melbourne, 1880
- Colonial and Indian exhibition, London, 1886, organised by the Prince of Wales to show off England’s power and worldwide empire
- Melbourne, 1888
- Paris, 1889, notable for the Eiffel Tower, mass attendance (32 million) and villages of living indigenous people
- Queensland, 1897.
Not all received prizes
At the 1862 London Exhibition New Zealand exhibitors won a surprisingly high number of medals – 33 – but the judge was not impressed with the specimen submitted by Auckland’s J. Goodfellow: ‘a sample of curd soap (with blotches) of disagreeable odour, but well manufactured, possibly with some cheap oil produced in the colony.’2
New Zealand’s displays became more ambitious – a mere 113 exhibitors and 58 square metres at London in 1862; 1,114 items in 149 square metres at Philadelphia in 1876; and a huge court at Melbourne in 1888 of 465 exhibitors, 3,934 items and 2,444 square metres of display. Items were often recycled from one event to the next. The initial displays were normally put together by local committees, from 1873 to 1888 under the guidance of James Hector, director of the Colonial Museum in Wellington, who functioned as the executive commissioner. Hector drew support from other museums, with Julius Haast from Canterbury Museum providing moa skeletons for several exhibitions. Hector always included his own map of the geology of the country and, from 1876, made available his Handbook of New Zealand.
New Zealand generally confined its exhibits to raw materials produced in the country and objects made from them, and items about the history of the colony or which showed off its scenery. Certain items were consistently displayed. For example, at every exhibition from 1876 to 1889 there was, in prime spot, a gilded pyramid showing the amount of gold New Zealand had produced. At successive exhibitions it grew from 7.6 metres to 10.4 metres high. Coal was always displayed, copper was displayed in the early years and building stone was included later.
Flax continued to be shown in both raw and processed forms, and wool became increasingly important – in 1886 there were 89 exhibits organised by breed. Native woods were a consistent offering, usually also shown inlaid into furniture. There were five pieces of furniture by Anton Seuffert at the 1886 exhibition. In the 1880s grains were displayed, and tinned meats were exhibited at Melbourne (1888) and Paris (1889).
There were few manufactured goods, but Australian exhibitions did attract some who were hoping for a trans-Tasman market in items such as boots, soaps and beer, or the odd eccentric invention.
At the 1880 exhibition in Melbourne J. E. Hayes displayed ‘an ingenious invention … which enables its lucky possessor, without rising from his chair, to indicate on the outside of his room or office-door whether he is engaged or otherwise’.3 Other much-praised inventions were J. A. Packer’s artificial leg with moveable joints at knee, ankle and toes, and H. A. H. Hitchens’s ‘miraculous cure’ for gout.
New Zealand’s tourist attractions were a consistent showpiece. There were photographic scenes of beautiful New Zealand, with pioneering photographers the Burton Brothers represented at all exhibitions from 1876 to 1889. In the 1880s watercolours and oils by landscape painters such as John Gully, William Mathew Hodgkins and J. C. Richmond were shown. Displays of New Zealand birds became common, with ornithologist Walter Buller showing off paintings of birds by J. G. Keulemans in 1886. There were albums of pressed ferns, and at Melbourne in 1888 there was a large live fernery.
Māori culture was strongly represented in New Zealand’s courts. At Vienna and Philadelphia Māori craft skills were emphasised, with displays of flax mats, garments and greenstone jewellery.
From the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition, where a Ngāti Awa wharenui (meeting house), Mataatua, was displayed with the carved pou (post) reversed and visible on the exterior, the exhibitions increasingly displayed Māori as an exotic people who added to the scenic attractions of the country. The ‘old-time Māori’, believed by many to be on the verge of dying out, gave a romantic cast to New Zealand.
At the 1886 exhibition, alongside paintings by Gottfried Lindauer and a Māori tomb, there were models of Māori figures in traditional costume, which were displayed again at Paris (1889). The group included a tattooed warrior in flax cloak resting on a taiaha (fighting staff), which the catalogue described as giving ‘a very fair idea of Maori life’4. At Melbourne in 1888 the principal New Zealand attraction was said to be a Ngāti Pikiao pātaka (carved storehouse), shown by Walter Buller.