November 1939: This month last century

Seventy-two years ago, the Centennial Exhibition opens in Wellington (9 November 1939)

Commemorative sticker, 1939, New Zealand. Purchased 1995. Te Papa

Commemorative sticker, 1939, New Zealand. Purchased 1995. Te Papa

The 1940 Centennial exhibition was one of the many ways in which New Zealanders marked 100 years of British government. The exhibition, which was located in Rongotai, attracted over 2.6 million visitors over a period of six months. Below is a colourised view of the exhibition, taken by the official photographer, Eileen Deste. The exhibition’s modernist tower, which is in the centre of the image, was a popular subject for photographs and souvenirs.

Centennial Tower, 1940, Wellington, Eileen Deste. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa

Centennial Tower, 1940, Wellington, Eileen Deste. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa

 
The exhibition was meant to demonstrate a century of progress. It also had educational and promotional aims, but for thrill-seekers there was a theme park called Playland. In the photograph of Playland’s ‘Cyclone’ roller coaster (below) you can see a soldier in uniform – evidence that New Zealand was at war with Germany.
 
Rollercoaster, New Zealand Centennial Exhibition, Wellington, 04.1940, Wellington, Eric Lee-Johnson. Purchased 1997 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa

Rollercoaster, New Zealand Centennial Exhibition, Wellington, 04.1940, Wellington, Eric Lee-Johnson. Purchased 1997 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa

 
Enthusiasts could purchase a season ticket for repeat visits to the exhibition. Here is the one used by young Kevan Blaxall, whose father ran a jewellery stand in the exhibition.
Season ticket, 1939, New Zealand. Maker unknown. Purchased 1996 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa

Season ticket, 1939, New Zealand. Maker unknown. Purchased 1996 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa

 
Kevan’s father made and sold silver hei tiki pendants like the one below. The pendant is an example of one of the many Centennial souvenirs that appropriated elements of Māori culture. 
Tiki pendant, circa 1940, Wellington, Norris Blaxall. Purchased 1996 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa

Tiki pendant, circa 1940, Wellington, Norris Blaxall. Purchased 1996 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa

This striking example – a length of souvenir fabric – combines a repeated tiki motif with icons related to European settlement, the landscape, and native flora and fauna. 
 
Fabric length, commemorative, circa 1939-1940. Maker unknown. Gift of Sylvia Minogue, 2010. Te Papa

Fabric length, commemorative, circa 1939-1940. Maker unknown. Gift of Sylvia Minogue, 2010. Te Papa

This juxtaposition of aspects of ‘ancient’  Māori culture with symbols of European progress was a common thread in the 1940 Centennial celebrations. It was symptomatic of the way in which the event was primarily a celebration of a century of Pakeha progress and modernisation, with Māori contributions, while considered ‘noble’, were consigned to the margins of history.
 
 

You’ll also find a Maori perspective on the Centennial in Slice of Heaven:  20th Century Aotearoa

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