Story: Museums

Page 4. Museums expand and diversify, 1945 to 1990

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Post-war expansion and diversification

After the Second World War there was a rapid increase internationally in the number and types of museums. Among these were children’s museums, transport museums, maritime museums, science museums, community museums, outdoor museums, heritage parks and historic house museums.

These institutions became increasingly specialised in their internal organisation. Previously staff consisted of directors and generalist curators, with technical staff who did everything else. Now there were separate roles for managers, collection managers, designers, conservators and educators. There was also greater breadth and specialisation in collecting. Collections were built in different branches of the natural sciences, social history, clothing and textiles, decorative arts and photography.

Algae, seaweeds, needlework

In 1959 Nancy Adams, one of New Zealand’s foremost botanical artists, was appointed the National Museum’s assistant curator of botany. Her particular focus was on algae. Adams’s 1994 Seaweeds of New Zealand is an acknowledged masterpiece. Less well known was her deep interest in needlework, embroidery and textile history. She worked behind the scenes on many of the historical interior exhibits set up at the museum in the 1960s, with the unofficial title of ‘keeper of costumes’.1

These international changes also occurred in New Zealand museums. While the International Council Of Museums (ICOM ) formalised procedures and codes of ethics, from 1947 the Art Gallery and Museums Association of New Zealand adapted these guidelines to local conditions. Metropolitan and regional museums became more professional. This involved the training and specialisation of staff, more funding and higher standards of collections care and storage, and improved exhibitions and public programmes.

Smaller museums, however, generally could not afford the staff and technological advances seen in larger institutions. Many remained essentially amateur in nature, continuing to be governed by private societies. The overall trend was towards governance through public trusts, or direct management and funding through local city or district councils.

Museums focus on New Zealand history

While in touch with museum developments in Britain, Australia and the United States, New Zealand museums also began to focus on the country’s own cultural heritage and national identity. Before the Second World War only a few museums, such as the Otago Early Settlers’ Museum (later Toitū Otago Settlers Museum), paid much attention to Pākehā colonial history.

Increased public interest during the 1940s, after New Zealand celebrated its centennial, was reflected in museum displays. Auckland and Canterbury museums set up replica streets, showing idealised versions of colonial-era shops. Interiors were popular exhibits, generally representing the furniture and fittings of middle-class colonial families’ rooms. Significant collections such as the Dominion Museum’s Elgar furniture were acquired at this time.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the appearance of New Zealand history as a subject in schools and universities, and an unparalleled interest in museums, historic buildings and sites. New museums sprang up in many provincial towns around the country, including the Waikato Museum in Hamilton in 1965, Manawatū Museum (later Te Manawa) in Palmerston North in 1971, and the Petone Settlers Museum in 1977.

Museum research

Museums continued to be bases for research, particularly in anthropology and the natural sciences. Most researchers were based at the larger museums. They included anthropologist David Simmons at Auckland and archaeologist Janet Davidson at the National Museum. Some smaller museums also carried out significant research, such as that of Nelson Provincial Museum’s photography curator Maurice Watson.

Te Māori and mātauranga Māori

When the landmark Te Māori exhibition returned to New Zealand, scholar Hirini Moko Mead said, ‘The Maori people want to control their own heritage; they want to be the people who handle their taonga; they want to have the knowledge to explain them to other cultures; they want to explain them to their own people; they want to define their past and present existence, they want to control their own knowledge (matauranga Maori) and they want to present themselves their way to the world and to themselves.’2

Te Māori brings change

In the 1980s Te Māori was a ground-breaking exhibition that changed the direction of New Zealand museums, becoming a touchstone for the Māori renaissance. It opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1984 and toured the United States before returning to New Zealand in 1986, where it was seen by almost a million people.

Te Māori was recognised for acknowledging Māori understandings of their carving as taonga (treasures), living things with spiritual dimension. It incorporated tikanga Māori (Māori customs) into many aspects of museum work, particularly opening and closing ceremonies. The exhibition has been credited with initiating sweeping changes in museums, an increase in Māori staff, use of the Māori language in labels and stronger relationships with local iwi.

Footnotes:
  1. Quoted in Bronwyn Labrum, ‘Reliving the colonial past: histories, heritage, and the exhibition interior in postwar New Zealand.’ In Interiors 12, no. 1, p. 35. Back
  2. Quoted in Conal McCarthy, Exhibiting Māori: a history of colonial cultures of display. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2007, p. 146. Back
How to cite this page:

Conal McCarthy, 'Museums - Museums expand and diversify, 1945 to 1990', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/museums/page-4 (accessed 18 October 2019)

Story by Conal McCarthy, published 22 Oct 2014