Since the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, international exhibitions, or world’s fairs (as they are called in the United States), have been major events where nations put themselves on display. New Zealand has participated in many, and has copied the format at home.
Precedents for these exhibitions were traditional European market fairs and the French industrial exhibitions held intermittently from 1797. The 1851 Great Exhibition in London, inspired by the vision of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, was the first international exhibition and established the mode. Between 1855 and 1915 an exhibition involving more than 20 nations was held, on average, every two years.
They were primarily glorified showrooms in which nations and firms displayed goods in the hope of encouraging sales. Medals were awarded, which firms subsequently used in their advertising. Exhibitions were also tributes to economic progress and displays of the latest technology. Often their buildings embodied a fantasy, futuristic element. Promoters argued that exhibitions also served educational purposes and so they increasingly encouraged mass attendance. Art exhibitions were always part of the fairs, and increasingly countries used the opportunity to advertise their culture along with their social and physical attractions. New Zealand’s displays at exhibitions tell of the nation’s evolving identity.
The New Zealand display at the 1851 Great Exhibition included two interesting models. One was a model of volcanic White Island with a drawing by surveyor Charles Heaphy. The second was a model of a ‘war pah on a scale of half an inch to six feet’1 exhibited by H. C. Balneavis. Balneavis had come to New Zealand in 1845 as an officer with the 58th Regiment and he served throughout the northern war. The model represented Ruapekapeka pā, and was afterwards put on display at the United Service Institution Museum.
At the Great Exhibition in London, New Zealand was offered a place among the British and colonial produce (as distinct from foreign produce) on the western side of the spectacular Crystal Palace building, which was designed by Joseph Paxton to house the exhibition. In June 1850 colonists were encouraged to contribute specimens. The local committee’s suggestions included flax in all stages of preparation, wood, wool and ‘specimens of native art’2. This was largely what they received.
The exhibition was organised into four classes – manufactures, machinery, raw materials and arts, and the New Zealand display of 40 collections fell largely into the last two classes. There were about 20 specimens of flax, various minerals such as copper ore from Kawau and coal from Waikato, New Zealand woods (some made into furniture), Māori handcrafts, kauri gum and a vegetable caterpillar. But, amid the scale of the Great Exhibition, the display was small and little-noticed.
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:
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.
The London exhibitions of 1851 and 1862 inspired Dunedin to host the country’s first domestic display. Following a suggestion by Anglican leaders, Dunedin promoters saw an exhibition as a way of turning gold-rush wealth into long-term wealth. With equal grants of £4,000 from the central and provincial governments, the exhibition became an international event, with displays from Canada, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria, Great Britain, Fiji and the Australian colonies.
The New Zealand Exhibition of 1865 did not start promisingly. The boat bringing the British exhibits had an unusually slow passage to New Zealand, and did not arrive on time. Governor George Grey, who was due to open it, was otherwise occupied by military events in the north and failed to show, and indeed never subsequently visited. This created resentment, although he did send specimens of ferns and mosses.
The exhibition pioneered many features later used in international exhibitions – a gilded obelisk representing gold exports; maps and geology displays by the then provincial geologist, James Hector; stuffed native birds from ornithologist Walter Buller; collections of woods, flax and wool; paintings by landscape artists and a good collection of Māori artefacts intended to show off ‘one of the finest and most intelligent of aboriginal races’.1
The exhibition attracted 31,250 visitors.
The 1880s saw a flurry of local exhibitions. They were intended to promote local industry just as A & P (agricultural and pastoral) shows were promoting agriculture at this time.
The revival was started by Canterbury businessmen who, in 1879, formed the Canterbury Industrial Association to encourage local industry and advocate for protection. They decided an exhibition would aid their cause. Held in the Christchurch drill shed in 1880, it was intended to run for only three days, but was extended to six.
Two years later two promoters, Jules Joubert and Richard Twopenny, who had organised money-making exhibitions in Adelaide and Perth, arrived in Christchurch with similar ambitions. The Industrial Association was supportive (although some were less keen when the exhibition included competing goods from European countries, America, China, Japan, India and the Australian colonies). The New Zealand International Exhibition, as it was called, ran for 14 weeks in Hagley Park; but the promoters’ hopes were dashed as the event lost money, even though 226,300 visited. There was a ladies court, with 270 handcrafts; a Māori court with flax work, carvings and pounamu; and an art gallery, a concert room and a fernery.
There were also local industrial exhibitions in Wellington, Dunedin and Ashburton in 1881, and Christchurch again in 1883–84.
Impressed with these efforts the Stout-Vogel government decided to hold an exhibition in Wellington in 1885. The government invested £9,000 in the event, which was held in a large building on Lambton Quay. The exhibition included art displays and concerts, and ran for three months.
The New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition was held on Anderson’s Bay Road in Dunedin to commemorate 50 years of British sovereignty over the colony. Once more promoters Jules Joubert and Richard Twopenny were the leading officials, and the private company set up for the exhibition received a £10,000 government subsidy. There was a modest profit.
The exhibition was international in scope, with exhibits sent from some European countries, Australia, Japan and several Pacific Islands. Many displays were brought over from the 1888 Melbourne exhibition. Although industrial and mineral exhibits were significant, there were also government courts on minerals, education and tourism. There was a concert hall and, for the first time in New Zealand, an amusement zone.
The Māori court, organised by collector Thomas Hocken, included displays from Pākehā collectors including John White, Walter Buller and Augustus Hamilton. But there was no Māori involvement.
A major aspect of the 1889 exhibition in Dunedin was the art gallery. It displayed an impressive collection of 1,500 works, highlighted by the etchings and engravings of European artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Andrea Mantegna and Rembrandt van Rijn from Bishop D. G. Monrad’s collection. The positive public response to the exhibition fuelled moves to expand and give a new home to the Dunedin Art Gallery, founded by W. M. Hodgkins in 1884. Artworks were purchased and part of the exhibition buildings were added to Otago Museum as an expanded home for the gallery.
The exhibition to mark the colony’s jubilee (50th anniversary) was followed by industrial exhibitions to mark provincial jubilees – New Plymouth in 1891 for Taranaki’s jubilee; Dunedin in 1898 for Otago’s; and Christchurch in 1900 for Canterbury’s. These exhibitions were primarily designed to show off local manufactured goods. This was also true of several other events during the decade – a Christchurch Industrial Exhibition in 1895, once more promoted by the Industrial Association, a Wellington Industrial Exhibition in 1896 and, not to be outdone by the southern cities, Auckland held an Industrial and Mining Exhibition in 1898.
From the turn of the century New Zealand’s displays at international exhibitions were fewer and more selective. The new Department of Tourist and Health Resorts, established in 1901 and led by T. E. Donne, played a major role. Increasingly New Zealand’s displays were as much focused on attracting tourists as on selling goods.
The New Zealand Herald claimed that among the attractions at St Louis, ‘the natural wonders of New Zealand outshine them all. There is but one Wonderland … already nobody has “travelled” who has not seen the Pyramids. In the near future nobody will have “travelled” who has not seen Rotorua.’1
This was especially the case at the 1904 St Louis Exposition in Missouri, in the United States, where Donne arranged for a place in the Forestry, Fish and Game Building as well as the Palace of Agriculture. The Tourist Department sent photographs and paintings of scenery, stag’s heads and ‘monster trout’, pictures of Māori (who were seen as a tourist attraction) and literature intended to lure tourists to the country. The Department of Industries and Commerce sent flax, grains, wool and timber.
Britain’s first commercial exhibition complete with an amusement zone was at White City in Shepherd’s Bush, London. Again, there were photographs and paintings of scenic New Zealand, but also a strong focus on New Zealand’s exports. Electricity made it possible to have a refrigerated display of the frozen lamb, butter and cheese, which New Zealand was now sending in bulk to the mother country. Other exhibits included gold, coal, kauri wood and kauri gum – a piece of which was presented to Queen Alexandra.
A Māori village of 50 Te Arawa organised by Mākereti (Maggie) Papakura had been planned for the 1911 Festival of Empire. But the authorities there decided that the whare were a fire risk and one official actually pulled down one of those already up. The Māori were affronted, protesting that tapu had been infringed. Eventually the organisers of the Coronation Exhibition at White City offered space at their exhibition and the village successfully decamped.
The 1908 exhibition included a plentiful display of Māori artefacts, and when the exercise was repeated in 1911 at the same site with the Coronation Exhibition it included a Māori village. That year New Zealand had displays – largely of frozen products – at two other exhibitions: at Roubaix in France and the Festival of Empire in the Crystal Palace in London.
Intended to encourage trade within the British Empire, the British Empire Exhibition ran from April to October 1924, and then again in 1925. Although many New Zealand exhibits were late arriving, the display was widely applauded. Of the 27 million visitors to the exhibition over the two years, almost 8 million visited the New Zealand pavilion. New Zealand set out to promote its major products – there was a wool display, a sheep pen of Corriedales and exhibits of frozen meat. Dairy products were also promoted, with about 50,000 packs of butter and cheese sold.
The artistic possibilities of butter were much in evidence at the Wembley show. The Canadian pavilion had the Prince of Wales moulded in butter, the Australians showed a scene of butter Aussies playing cricket and New Zealand had a moulded-butter cow.
Once again the tourist potential of New Zealand was pushed. There were stags’ heads and stuffed fish, bush scenes with a waterfall, a model of the Waitomo Caves with imitation glow-worms and a miniature Rotorua with geysers and boiling pools. A cinema showed films of beautiful New Zealand.
Many exhibits and films went on to a Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, where New Zealand continued to exhibit annually throughout the 1930s.
During these years New Zealand exhibited at other international events, from Australia’s 150th commemorations in 1938 to the Golden Gate International Exposition at San Francisco in 1939–40.
Major effort went into the 930-square-metre New Zealand section of the British pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Although the guide stated that the exhibit would show off the country’s commercial and industrial developments, it was tourist attractions and social developments that attracted interest. Opening with a bush scene, there were miniature reproductions of the Sutherland Falls and, once again, the Waitomo Caves, and displays aimed at hunters and anglers. There was a Māori village and ‘the general well-being of the community’ was presented to attract ‘the prospective home-maker’.2
The government and tourist initiatives that shaped New Zealand’s international displays were in evidence at the Christchurch exhibition of 1906–7. Premier Richard Seddon was the prime mover, and the government paid for the exhibition held on 5.7 hectares in Hagley Park. Seddon saw the fair as demonstrating that New Zealand was a great country.
The Christchurch exhibition was displayed in a huge, 400-metre-long building in French Renaissance style. It was described as ‘a palace of white and gold above the oak trees’.1 The domed entrance, flanked by two towers, was decorated with the greeting ‘Haere mai’ (welcome). The building had a chequered history – the foundation stone was laid on 18 December 1905, but a sudden whirlwind on 20 January 1906 demolished large parts, and the experience was repeated in another gale the following month. Eventually 975 kilometres of timber were used in the largest structure ever built in New Zealand.
To encourage tourism, there was a large fernery, a geyserland in miniature, walls displaying stuffed game and photographs and paintings of beautiful New Zealand. A Māori pā, featuring Māori wearing traditional clothing, was located beside ‘Wonderland’ amusement park, with a water chute, helter-skelter and sideshows.
The government was represented by displays from no fewer than 13 departments. The Department of Labour court showed off New Zealand’s role as the ‘social laboratory of the world’, by contrasting New Zealand-made goods with those produced in British sweatshops.
The exhibition also showed off the country’s material progress, with arches of wheat, piles of corn and bags of kauri gum. There was an art gallery, a major British art display and a concert chamber that hosted both a professional orchestra directed by Alfred Hill and the Besses o’ th’ Barn band from Manchester. There were contributions from Britain, Canada, Fiji and Australia.
Almost 2 million people visited the fair (twice the national population at that time) during its six months.
The Mataatua meeting house, which had previously been put on display at the 1879 Sydney Exhibition, the 1880 Melbourne Exhibition and the 1924–5 Wembley Exhibition, travelled back to Dunedin’s New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition. It would remain in Dunedin, in the museum, until eventually given back to Ngāti Awa in 1996. It was restored and reopened on its original Whakatāne location in 2011.
Following the Christchurch fair there were smaller industrial shows – a Coronation Exhibition in Wellington in 1911; an Industrial, Agricultural and Mining Exhibition in Auckland in 1913–14; a British and Intercolonial Exhibition in Hokitika in 1923–24; and an annual Dominion Industrial Exhibition held in Christchurch in 1922, Auckland in 1923 and Wellington in 1925.
Dunedin’s New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition, which began in 1925, was on a different scale. Promoted by the Otago Expansion League in response to the population and economic drift north, it was funded by a company that offered 100,000 £1 shares, and a £50,000 government subsidy. The location was reclaimed from Lake Logan, and Edmund Anscombe, the architect, designed seven pavilions linked by covered walkways around a grand court of reflecting pools leading to the domed Festival Hall. There was an art gallery, a fernery (with a waterfall and streams) and an amusement area with seven major rides, notably the scenic railroad and the fun factory with a large comic-face entrance.
Edmund Anscombe, who was the architect for both the 1925–26 and 1939–40 exhibitions, was a fanatical exhibition man. At the age of 14 he went to Melbourne to see the 1888 exhibition, he probably visited the 1889 New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition in Dunedin, he worked as a builder at the 1904 St Louis Exposition and, in addition to designing the 1925 exhibition, he claimed to be its instigator.
The themes of the exhibition were:
There was an education court, a women’s court and a motor pavilion. More than 3 million people visited the show, making it the most popular in New Zealand history.
Set on a 22.5-hectare site in Rongotai, the centennial fair was designed to mark New Zealand’s centennial by illustrating the progress of the country, rather than to sell goods. A huge frieze at the base of the 46-metre-high tower illustrated this, as did large statues of a pioneer man and woman. The art deco lines of Edmund Anscombe’s design of the exhibition buildings, richly illuminated in colour by electricity, suggested an exciting future.
The fair was organised by a limited liability company; but the government gave a £50,000 grant and several loans. The government court, with 26 departments, evoked a progressive benevolent welfare state complete with a talking robot, Dr Well-and-Strong.
The Centennial Exhibition buildings required 7,080 cubic metres of timber, 60,387 square metres of asbestos, 350 tons of nails, 200,000 bolts, 5,574 square metres of glass, 68,191 litres of paint, 37,000 lights and 3,594 kilometres of wiring. In all, 2,641,043 people visited.
There was a dominion court, with a massive diorama of the country, and women’s and Māori courts. Britain and Australia had their own buildings.
Playland, the amusement park, was popular, with the Cyclone roller coaster, the Crazy House and the Laughing Sailor particular highlights. The outbreak of war affected attendance, which, at just over 2.6 million, was lower than the 1925–26 Dunedin exhibition.
The Centennial Exhibition inspired Otago (in 1948), Canterbury (in 1950), Southland (in 1956) and Marlborough (in 1959) to put on provincial centenary industrial fairs. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, as the country encouraged domestic production, Christchurch and Wellington, with their industries fairs, had annual displays of manufactured goods.
In 1990 Sesqui, the celebration of New Zealand’s sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) was a strikingly unsuccessful attempt to hold a modern celebratory exhibition and amusement fair. It closed after a few weeks. The era of the New Zealand fair was over.
From 1950 to 2010 the Bureau International des Expositions (the organisation in charge of overseeing international expositions) sanctioned 20 world’s fairs, but New Zealand participated in only five – all but one in the Asia-Pacific region. In each case the aim was to avoid a ‘hard-sell’ trade fair and present a rounded image of New Zealand and its people that would increase trade and attract tourists.
There were consistent messages in New Zealand’s presentations at these fairs.
New Zealand continued to present itself as a beautiful, clean and green country – a good place to visit and safe to buy from.
At Osaka visitors enjoyed a bush walk represented by Susan Skerman’s 600 screen-printed acrylic panels. There was a painted aluminium mural by John Drawbridge that depicted, through sky, hills and sea, the ‘distinctive clarity of the New Zealand atmosphere’.1 At Brisbane patrons queued beside a 60-metre-high waterfall, sauntered along a bush walk and saw a glow-worm cave. The entrance at Seville was a high rock face, designed to look like the coast English explorer James Cook would have seen when he first saw New Zealand in 1769, with penguins and gannets. The Aichi pavilion featured at its heart a large piece of pounamu (greenstone).The Shanghai Expo featured New Zealand as a ‘city of nature’ with a pōhutukawa tree outside, and hot pools and geysers within.
The New Zealand presentations continued to make Māori culture a major element of New Zealand identity. At Osaka Māori dancers performed regularly, while New Zealand Day featured Īnia Te Wīata singing with the Māori Theatre Company and a drama of the legendary hero Māui fishing up the North Island. The same theme was present at Brisbane, where the Māui story was projected onto a film of mist. Both there and at Seville Māori performers entertained the waiting crowds. The Shanghai pavilion was designed around the Māori creation story and was subtitled ‘living between land and sky’. A huge pounamu (greenstone) boulder, designed to make a link with Chinese jade, was a feature.
The New Zealand pavilions gained support through offering food. At Osaka it was lamburgers, ice cream, cheese and milkshakes. In Brisbane a Lockwood lodge on the edge of the bush walk sold smoked eel, seafood, venison and wild boar. At Seville it was kiwifruit, venison and mussels. The pavilions in each case had a shop with the usual Kiwi souvenirs – All Black rugby jerseys, pāua-shell jewellery and furry kiwi toys.
Of all the pavilions, the one at Osaka put the greatest emphasis upon the Kiwi way of life. There were images of New Zealand sports and typical occupations such as builders and farmers, and slides of social services, city and country life and the New Zealand weekend. The three-screen film, This is New Zealand, combined scenic images of New Zealand with shots of people at work and play. On New Zealand Day there was wood chopping, champion shearer Godfrey Bowen showing off his skills and performing rams. There was a display of New Zealand pottery, with its Japanese influences.
In Brisbane New Zealand’s adventurous way of life was displayed in an area that looked like a woolshed. The exhibition at Seville put an emphasis on New Zealand as ‘exotic, sophisticated and culturally aware’ – so there was a fine display of New Zealand-made glass, and soprano Kiri Te Kanawa and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra performed.
For over 150 years exhibitions have sold New Zealand, or at least an idealised version of New Zealand, to the wider world. Whether tourism, trade and reputation have benefited as anticipated is an open question.
Cowan, James. Official record of the New Zealand International Exhibition of Arts and Industries held at Christchurch, 1906–7: a descriptive and historical account. Wellington: Government printer, 1910.
Fanning, L. S. The pictorial history, New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition, Dunedin 1925–26: a comprehensive illustrated review of the southern hemisphere's greatest exhibition. Dunedin: Coulls Somerville Wilkie, 1926.
Official catalogue, New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition, Dunedin, 1925–1926. Dunedin: New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition Company, 1925.
Palethorpe, N. B. Official history of the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition, Wellington, 1939–1940. Wellington: New Zealand Centennial Exhibition Company, 1940.
Renwick, William, ed. Creating a national spirit: celebrating New Zealand’s centennial. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2004.
Thomson, John Mansfield, ed. Farewell colonialism: the New Zealand International Exhibition, Christchurch, 1906–07. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 1998.