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TE KUPENGA: 101 Stories of Aotearoa from the Turnbull told through remarkable objects


Te Kupenga: 101 Stories of Aotearoa from the Turnbull told through remarkable objects, has been published to mark the Centenary of the Alexander Turnbull Library.

It all began with the generous bequest of one man, Alexander Turnbull, a keen yachtsman, and avid collector.


“Anything whatever relating to do with this colony, on its history, flora, fauna, geology and inhabitants, will be fish for my net.” he said.


He emptied his entire catch into his library and eventually presented it to the nation in 1918. It has continued to grow into a vast treasure trove filled with thousands upon thousands of objects of historical value including posters, comic strips, maps, journals, letters, photographs, and books.


When the idea of Te Kupenga was first mooted, the editors found it difficult to choose which objects, out of the thousands, should be included. Their inspired solution was to ask all those who work at The National Library (where the Turnbull collection is now housed) to choose one favourite object and tell its story. These were whittled down to 101 and have provided us with many tantalizing glimpses into the history of Aotearoa.


The first entry is a meticulous drawing of a rā (waka sail), the only surviving record of sail construction from Te Ao Māori at that time. The sail had probably been acquired by the unknown artist on one of Captain Cook’s voyages. Polynesian sailing technology and navigational science are now seen as one of the most extraordinary achievements in human history, although this was not yet recognized then.


As I delved into Te Kupenga, I reflected on how the lives of our tipuna (ancestors) were often marked by conflict, both here and abroad. One photograph which caught my eye was that of Ettie Rout’s Volunteer Sisterhood, looking very staunch, just before heading off to support our troops in Egypt.


There is a cautionary tale about the last of the laughing owls (whēkau) accomapnied by a striking black and white photograph taken in the Wellington aviary of Walter Buller, ornitholgist and bird collector.


Occasionally there was room for a good day out as the photograph of a large crowd at the Chatham Island jockey Club racecourse shows. Every-one is dressed in their best clothes for their annual race day early in the 20th century, a chance for us to admire the fashions of the day.


The objects which were chosen to represent my generation triggered many memories. I was amused to find an Aotea knitting pattern, for a woollen waistcoat and cardy. But knit winter woollies we did, out of necessity, before cheap, commercially manufactured knitwear arrived on the scene.


And who can forget Prince Tui Teka, one of our entertainment greats, the poetry of Hone Tuwhare and Margaret Mahy’s magical stories.


Like many I was an avid protester, both against the Springbok Tour and for a Nuclear Free New Zealand. I will always remember the momentous day that David Lange declared New Zealand a nuclear- free zone. My favourite image in Te Kupenga is a witty and irreverent anti-nuclear poster of him singing in the shower.


Our rangatahi (young people) are shaping our history now. A photograph of The Pacific Climate Warriors leading the way during the School Strike 4 Climate protest in Wellington, September 2019, is included. As well as a digital comic strip celebrating Trans week of Awareness. Appropriately, the last object in Te Kupenga is The Covid Tracer QR Code Poster from the National Library, signed by our Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield.


It will soon become compulsory for all students to learn about the history of Atearoa so Te Kupenga will be an invaluable resource for every school. But I would encourage everyone who is interested in our history to go fishing in its wonderful sea of objects and stories.


Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Massey University Press