Inspired by the riveting series of podcasts The History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil McGregor, based on the British Museum’s collections, historian Jock Philips took on the challenge of writing A History of New Zealand in 100 Objects.
Before writing his book, he travelled to museums and public collections around New Zealand and chose a wide variety of objects, including archeological finds, Māori artefacts, personal belongings, furniture, machinery, banners, and badges. These 100 objects were fascinating in themselves but could also be used to tell bigger stories to cast a light on New Zealand’s history. It proved to be a herculean but rewarding task.
A History of New Zealand in 100 Objects begins with a story about a prehistoric crocodile jaw which belonged to an inhabitant of a large inland lake in central Otago about 18 to 14 million years ago. It ends with two crocheted teddy bears, portraying the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Ailys Tewnion created them during the National lockdown in March- April 2020.
The original owner of the sturdy iron plough/parau on display at Puke Ariki could not be traced. It is believed that it was used as part of the Parihaka community’s passive resistance in which the peaceful act of ploughing symbolised the turning of swords into ploughshares. They were met with a horrifically violent invasion by government troops in November 1881.This object is a powerful reminder of one of the most shameful episodes in NZ history but it also allowed Jock Phillips to write about the history of ploughs in New Zealand.
The Sewing Machine, on show at the buried Village of Te Wairoa, belonged to Amelia Haszard. Her incredible survival story after the Tarawera eruption in 1886 brings home the impact of this disastrous event on the lives of the people who lived there.
A dashing wool velour coronation coatee, on display at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, was worn by Richard Seddon, Prime Minister of New Zealand 1893–1906, to the coronation of Edward VII, on 9th August 1902. It had a spectacular gold braid and nine gilt buttons, each enriched by the royal crest. His uniform also included black woolen breeches, white stockings, black slip-on shoes with gold buckles, and capping it all off was his black bicorne hat topped with white fur.
Jock Phillips builds a picture for us of the two sides of this leader. At home he built a reputation as a friend of the working man with a common touch but was admired overseas for being an ardent imperialist and a lover of royal occasions.
Eva Bowe’s elegant pair of bloomers with frilly bottoms, displayed at Greymouth’s Shanty Town Heritage Park, were carefully sewn from a pair of flour bags. They lead to a story about the Great Depression in the 1930’s and how the extreme loss of income forced people into ‘making do.’ As flour was one of the few essential items available for the thrifty housewife, flour bags could be put to good use.
The value of telling stories through objects is that they can illuminate the past in often unexpected and dramatic ways so I found A History of New Zealand in 100 Objects a fascinating read. That Jock Phillips chose to include objects belonging to ordinary citizens, as well as famous people, made his stories so much more relatable.
An added bonus is that these 100 objects are all on display at museums or in public collections in New Zealand. Having read the stories behind them I am keen to see more of them as we explore our own backyard.
Reviewer: Lyn Potter