Story: Public history

Page 2. Government publications, 1900–1970s

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One of the first historical projects to receive government funding, in the 1880s, was John White’s collection of Māori traditions, The ancient history of the Maori. Government also supported Robert McNab to produce two volumes of Historical records of New Zealand in 1908 and 1914, and James Cowan to write his two-volume history, The New Zealand Wars, in the early 1920s. Lindsay Buick, an expert on the Treaty of Waitangi and pre-1840 period, was employed by the Department of Internal Affairs from 1934–38 to compile historical material.

History at the Turnbull

From the start, research libraries were havens for people studying history. Some – for instance Johannes Andersen, the first Turnbull Librarian – were also library employees. The libraries were meeting places for other government employees: Elsdon Best, the first ethnologist employed by the Dominion Museum, wrote many of his works at the nearby Turnbull Library in the 1920s. James Cowan and Lindsay Buick, the first paid government historians, were based there in the 1920s and 1930s.

Centennial publications

From the late 1930s major anniversaries and war commemorations inspired greater government interest in history. In 1937 the Centennial Branch in the Department of Internal Affairs was established to initiate projects marking 100 years of nationhood. By 1941 it had published 11 commissioned surveys of New Zealand life, and 30 smaller pictorial studies under the title Making New Zealand.

Champion of history

The Under-Secretary for Internal Affairs from 1935, Joe Heenan, was the driving force behind the centennial publications programme. A voracious reader, his cultural interests were coupled with enthusiasm for popular sports. He was adept at persuading politicians, and astute in his choice of advisors. For guidance on historical matters he went to eminent scholar J. C. Beaglehole.

Early reference works

Because of their scale and national significance, reference projects received government endorsement. In 1937 parliamentary librarian Guy Scholefield undertook to complete a two-volume Dictionary of New Zealand Biography for the centennial, and work on a historical atlas began. Plans to finish the atlas after 1940 prompted the creation of a permanent Historical Branch of around five historians led by J. C. Beaglehole. In 1950, following a review, the branch disbanded. In 1959, however, new parliamentary librarian A. H. McLintock and two staff started preparing An encyclopaedia of New Zealand. The three-volume work appeared in 1966.

War histories

Government’s intention to record New Zealand’s efforts in the Second World War began with an archiving project from 1941, and in 1946 Major-General Howard Kippenberger became Editor-in-Chief of the War History Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs. Its staff peaked at 40 in 1947. Eventually 43 books and 24 booklets on the war effort were produced.

The War History Branch was renamed the Historical Publications Branch in 1963, suggesting a broadening of its mandate, and in 1969 the Ministry of Defence began employing a historian. Publication of war histories continued, examining other conflicts including the Korean, Vietnam, South African and First World wars.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Public history - Government publications, 1900–1970s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 22 Oct 2014