Slice of Heaven: 20th Century Aotearoa is Te Papa’s exhibition about four crucial social and political changes that occurred in New Zealand after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and before the millennial panic of ‘Y2K’ (‘Year 2000’).
I hope that the exhibition, which closes on 23rd January to make room for the new art space, has made people think about whether (or not) New Zealand was a ‘slice of heaven’ and ‘God’s Own Country’ during the 20th century.
Souvenir of the century
To mark the closure, I’ve chosen 20 objects from the exhibition to create a personal mixtape of the century that was.
The ‘A’ side, which I’ve already posted, covered the first 40 years of the century.
The ‘B’ side, below, starts with the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941 and ends with the protests that erupted over the South African rugby team’s tour of the country in 1981.
11. ‘Riddle of the Pacific’ jigsaw puzzle
When Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbour, in December 1941, the war was suddenly much closer to New Zealand
This jigsaw gives form to the escalating panic about a Japanese invasion. It also vividly demonstrates how a global event like World War II permeated everyday life in New Zealand.
Prior to the war, the jigsaw was sold as an educational toy and featured a bland ‘Oriental’ illustration on its cover.
But with the Japanese heading for New Zealand, the manufacturer redesigned its cover, which used a caricature that played on the fears and prejudices of consumers, to make a sale.
12. Japanese figurine
When this little ceramic figurine was donated to the museum, we tested it to see if it was radioactive. That’s because the donor had picked it up in Hiroshima not long after the first atomic bomb was dropped there in August 1945.
At least 70,000 people were killed by this bomb, with many thousands more dying or suffering from radiation in years to come. The bombing of Japan also kick-started the nuclear-arms race.
The testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific after the war, by New Zealand’s friends and allies (Britain, the USA and France), mobilised a campaign to ban nuclear weapons and their testing in the region.
It was as if a diplomatic bomb had been dropped when, in the 1980s, New Zealand became a nuclear weapons free zone. This declaration blew up ANZUS, the post-WWII defence alliance between New Zealand, Australia and the USA.
13. Shop sign
This sign was displayed in a Wellington store in the 1950s, and it’s a dreamy example of post-WWII typography and graphic design.
It’s also a throwback to the formal fashions and strict codes of behaviour proscribed for the fairer sex before ‘Women’s Lib’.
As this column published in the Auckland Star in 1940 indicates, it was socially acceptable back then to scrutinise a woman’s appearance and to make character judgments based on it:
‘I look at you across restaurants and in dance halls and in cloakrooms … and I know just what kind of girl you are’, writes the unnamed journalist.
‘I know you by your gloves. Even when you are wearing them I can often tell the colour of your nail varnish. Holes… And ragged bits of cotton that I have sometimes seen you trying to bite of the bus.’
Fast forward thirty years and second wave feminists ditched more than just their gloves…
14. Chip and Rona Bailey’s portable typewriter
This typewriter was hot property during the Cold War, during the biggest confrontation between workers and employers in New Zealand’s history.
It was also secret weapon in class warfare. In 1951, Wellington communists Rona and Chip Bailey used it to produce underground political pamphlets that furthered the workers’ cause during this vicious and acrimonious 151-day dispute.
Typing these pamphlets was a serious offence: during the dispute, any demonstration of support for the water-siders – ideological, financial, or otherwise – was deemed illegal.
The police were granted special powers to help enforce such emergency regulations. These allowed them to search the homes of people they suspected were sympathisers.
Rona and Chip therefore took the precaution of concealing their typewriter when they were not using it.
15. Carved radiogram
Massey Retter (Muaupoko, Ngati Raukawa), carved this radiogram at Otaki, during the 1950s. It’s a gorgeous fusion of technology and Maori art, with motifs and styles deployed to personalise and customise a piece of domestic furniture.
The front facing edge of the machine is carved in customary figural motifs, juxtaposed with a naturalistic figure of a woman wearing a feather cape and piupiu, holding a patu. The actual gramophone of is housed in a hinged bin that opens out to reveal a painted kowhaiwhai pattern.
It’s in a different league from the cultural appropriations and commodification of kiwiana (or iwiana) such as No. 7 Souvenir weather house on the ‘A’ side of the mixtape.
16. Signed rugby ball
This is a piece of New Zealand’s sporting history that dates from 1956 and an era when, to many, rugby trumped politics.
This ball won, for the All Blacks, the fourth test against the Springboks at Eden Park in Auckland.
Peter Jones scored the winning try before a capacity crowd there. After a conversion by fullback Don ‘The Boot’ Clarke, the final score was 11-5 and the All Blacks won the test series 3-1.
This was New Zealand’s first at-home test series win against their arch sporting rivals. It redeemed the test series loss during the previous tour of South Africa in 1949, and united the nation.
But as concerns about South Africa’s apartheid political regime intensified, this rivalry on the rugby field would mobilise political action and conflict in the streets.
17. ‘Hit tunes’ by Johnny Devlin
In 1958, 20-year-old talent quest veteran Johnny Devlin took New Zealand by storm with his cover version of the rock’n’roll song ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’.
Recorded at the ‘Jive Centre’ in Auckland, the song went to top of the hit parade; overnight Devlin became the country’s answer to Elvis Presley.
During the 1950s, an older generation of New Zealanders worried that rock’n’roll, and American pop culture generally, was creating of a breed of anti-social teenagers. Their behaviour caused a nation-wide panic about moral standards.
But not everyone was alarmed by this breakdown of society! Coca Cola, riding the wave of Devlin’s popularity, released the freebie ‘Hit Tunes’ at the end of 1958. Devlin had starred on the Coca Cola Bottlers’ radio programme and the record was a tie-in with his Coca Cola-sponsored tour of New Zealand.
I especially like the record cover’s blatant product placement. The cut-out of Devlin, holding a bottle Coca-Cola, the Free World’s favourite soft drink, was lifted from an advertisement quoting the ‘Whanganui Elvis’: ‘Coke’s the most! After a solid session I dig a Coke. Dad…that flavour’s real cool’.
18. ‘Wairoa’ by Ans Westra
Two well-dressed women dressed up in the streets of Wairoa, right down to their crisp wrist-length white gloves.
This photograph could certainly be seen as pictorial evidence illustrating the point I made above (No 13. Shop sign).
But it much more than that. It alludes to a significant demographic (not to mention socio-econimc, political and cultural) change that occurred in New Zealand in the 20th century: the urbanisation of Maori.
Ten per cent of Maori were living in urban areas before WWII; this would swell to 68% within twenty years of the war’s end.
The photographs of Dutch émigré Ans Westra, taken during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, provide an outsider’s view of this movement. Her images celebrate the opportunities embraced by Maori who decided to move from kainga to cities; but they also depict the challenges and prejudices they faced.
19. Protest flag
It’s very unlikely that you could buy a National Liberation Front flags (also known as the Viet Cong) in 1967 – so Jeremy Lowe hand sewed three of them himself.
He flew this one at an anti-Vietnam War protest in New Zealand in January 1967 during the visit of South Vietnam’s Premier, Air Vice-Marshal Ky.
Communist sympathisers in South Vietnam had established the National Liberation Front in 1960 to use guerrilla warfare against the South Vietnamese.
As the fighting between the Viet Cong and the South Vietnamese continued, the USA became more involved, sending its first ground troops sent to Vietnam in March 1965. The New Zealand government supported its ally in what was a civil war, and sent troops and medical personnel to participate in it.
However, this involvement became increasingly untenable for some New Zealanders like Jeremy Lowe who made their dissenting seen and heard in public.
20. John Minto’s helmet
I mentioned above that rugby (not to mention racing and beer) seemed to be impermeable to political or social critique in the 1950s – and for most of the 20th century.
This golden age in New Zealand ended abruptly in 1981, when the Springboks rugby team was allowed to tour the country, despite international sanctions that were in place because of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Instead of uniting the nation, as it had done in the past, rugby divided and disrupted it.
Opponents demonstrated their political concerns in city streets and, in Hamilton, took them onto the rugby field itself.
This scooter helmet was worn by John Minto, a leader of Halt All Racist Tours (HART), an organisation that opposed the tour. His girlfriend gave it to him for protection after the cancellation of the Waikato-Springbok game in Hamilton, when he had been pursued and beaten by pro-tour supporters.
That’s the end the ‘B Side’, bookended by two very different kinds of conflict. Is that what made history in the 20th century?
Please rewind back to the start for the next reader.
If you are visiting Te Papa before Slice of Heaven closes, come up to level 4 and have your say – ‘post it’ to 20th century all this week (16-23 January).
Slice of Heaven: The Curators’ Cut – Thu 19 Jan, 5.30pm–7pm
Join history curators Kirstie Ross, Claire Regnault and Katie Cooper as they send off Slice of Heaven – reflecting on their favourite collection items, as well as topics that had to be left out and why.
Hear about the thinking and planning behind developing an exhibition, and listen to Head of History Bronwyn Labrum discuss what the new history exhibitions might look like.