Maxwell James Grant Smart was born in Wanganui on 16 April 1896, the son of David William Smart, a commercial traveller, and his wife, Isabella Ritchie Joss. After attending Wanganui Technical College he was employed as a law clerk by Marshall and Hutton. From 1916 to 1918 he served in France with the 2nd Battalion, Wellington Infantry Regiment. He was wounded in 1916 and invalided home, suffering from phthisis, in 1918. As a result of his war service he later suffered from ill health and eventually received a lifetime war pension.
After his discharge in February 1919 Smart returned to his position as a law clerk, but soon decided to try a life on the land. He went to a farm training scheme in Wairarapa, then worked as a farm-hand in the remote Manganui a te Ao valley in the hinterland of the Whanganui River. He later moved nearer to Wanganui, farming at Upokongaro before purchasing a dairy farm at Westmere in 1922. On 2 July 1924 at Wanganui he married Margaret Munn Moreland; they were to have three children. Smart farmed at Westmere until about 1951, when health problems associated with his war injuries caused him to retire to Wanganui.
Retirement was a turning point in Smart’s life, opening up a new and important career. He had always had an amateur interest in the natural world, especially in shells, and had been honorary conchologist to the Wanganui Public Museum since 1946. This led to his appointment as honorary director of the museum in 1951, a position he would hold for nine years.
Prior to his arrival the museum had been a respected local institution, but was seen as a little remote from the public. Ably assisted by his wife as office assistant, Smart did much to promote the work of the museum and foster an appreciation of its important collection, which had been carefully acquired over many years. As his health improved he gave lectures, radio talks and conducted tours. He became an identity in the district, known for his warm, gentle personality and his skill as a story teller.
Smart still found time to do much research into the history of the town and region. In particular, he developed his interest in recording Maori history and customs. His thirst for knowledge, his retentive memory, and his sympathy for Maori made him a respected figure at marae on the Whanganui River. His reputation soon spread: he was a council member of the Art Galleries and Museums Association of New Zealand, a member and chairman of the Wanganui regional committee of the National Historic Places Trust, and the local recorder for the New Zealand Archaeological Association.
Ill health saw Smart retire as director of the museum in 1960, but he continued to lecture and write articles and to pursue his work on the early history of the area. With his son, Colin, he located and mapped some 300 archaeological sites in the Waitotara, Whanganui and Whangaehu valleys. He also hosted many archaeological field trips from the Palmerston North Teachers’ College. In the late 1960s he started work with Arthur Bates on a long-needed popular history of Wanganui. The association between the two men had started when Bates was honorary secretary to the museum’s board of trustees. The book was not finished when Maxwell Smart died in Wanganui on 5 March 1972, but it was completed by the co-author and published late in 1972 as The Wanganui story .
Smart was survived by his wife and children. A keen amateur historian and archaeologist, he had helped lift the Wanganui Public Museum into a better-appreciated place in the cultural life of New Zealand. In 1978 the Whanganui Historical Society – of which he was the first life member – erected a statue in his memory at Virginia Lake. The statue depicts Tainui weeping for her dead lover Turere. According to Maori legend, Tainui’s tears formed the lake: it was a story often told by Smart.