Slice of Heaven: 20th Century Aotearoa is Te Papa’s exhibition about life in New Zealand after the death of Queen Victoria and before the unnecessary panic of Y2K (‘Year 2000’). It’s closing on 23rd January to make room for the new art gallery spaces that are opening at the end of 2017.
I’ve selected, as a souvenir of Slice of Heaven, 20 essential objects from the exhibition.
These are, I hope, potent or beguiling reminders of some of the century’s defining moments.
But this isn’t a trip down Kiwiana Lane; you won’t find any jandals, swandris, or Buzzy bees. Like the sign above, this take on Slice of Heaven is occasionally unsightly and reveals last century somewhat warts ‘n’ all.
My compilation is kind of like a 3D version of the solid gold hits LPs that were around in the 1970s and ’80s.
When I was growing up, I coveted these albums of chart-topping pop hits. (This was well before digital technology came along and gave everyone the means to customize endless soundtracks to their own lives.)
The low-fi DIY versions of the solid gold albums were mix-tapes, laboriously and lovingly recorded onto cassettes usually from vinyl but sometimes, if you were desperate and had no shame, from the local AM radio station.
More often than not they were made for sharing. (Mixtapes are after all as much about the mixer as they are about the mixee.)
The ‘A’ side: tracks 1-10
Like most mixtapes, my 3D history has its own internal, slightly off-kilter, kitsch logic.
Here’s the ‘A’ side track list of my ’20th century history mixtape’. Watch out for the ‘B’ side coming soon.
By the way, my mix is entirely debatable so feel free to comment on it – and let me know what you would put in or leave out in yours.
1. Queen Victoria’s South African (Boer) War gift chocolate tin
In December 1899, small tins of chocolate like this one were was distributed to the British Imperial forces that had been fighting the Boers in South Africa since October.
Recipients of this ‘personal gift’ from Queen Victoria (a year before she died) included a contingent of 215 New Zealanders – the first to participate in an overseas conflict – which arrived in South Africa at the end of November.
It’s a small object that could easily have been thrown away, but it’s a reminder of the geo-political heft and cultural reach of the British Empire and its sovereign, Queen Victoria – down to the personal and the edible.
2. Plunket pram
This ‘ventilated perambulator’ dates from the 1940s but it’s more or less the same model as the one designed by Lady Victoria Plunket in 1913.
The pram had many features, including the vented hood, to promote infant health. You can see that the hood can also be flipped around to either front or back.
Lady Victoria, a former nurse, was the wife of New Zealand’s Governor and patroness of the Society for the Promotion of the Health of Women and Children, formed in 1907.
Popularly known as Plunket, the Society was an early 20th century response to anxieties about the rates of infant and maternal mortality.
While pram designs have changed dramatically over 100 years, Plunket continues to play a significant role in New Zealand today.
3. HMS New Zealand dinner gong
Who uses a dinner gong these days? A century ago, this one hung in the wardroom of the battlecruiser HMS New Zealand and was used to summon naval officers to meals.
HMS New Zealand was funded entirely by patriotic New Zealanders for the Royal Navy and was part of its fleet during World war One.
It was struck by a German shell during the Battle of Jutland in 1916.
The gong is made from the vessel’s damaged armour plating.
I imagine that every time the gong was struck, diners were audibly reminded of the vessel’s lucky escape – and perhaps that Britannia still ruled the waves.
4. Frances Rolfes’ change purse
Another object from World War One, but this one is more personally resonant than the dinner gong above.
Public war memorials were not the only means of consolation for bereft New Zealanders after the war.
For every civic or community memorial, there were countless individual touchstones of memory, like this change purse, held in private hands.
It’s very small – 4.5 x 6.3cm – and tucked inside it is a tiny photograph of Frances Rolfes’ solider son, Hermann, who was killed in action in August 1918.
Using it for many decades after the war, Frances would have glimpsed her son while on her daily rounds, every time she went shopping.
5. Zinc-sulphide pressure-sprayer
This industrial-strength brass and copper inhaler was used in vain to combat the ‘flu during the 1918 pandemic.
It sprayed a fine mist of zinc sulphate into people’s throats but did little to keep the deadly virus at bay.
This device did more harm than good: muslin face masks were a more effective way of fighting the ‘flu that killed almost 8600 New Zealanders around the time that the Armistice was declared.
6. Depression-era money-box
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, teenager Mervyn Hubber (1915-1985) made money boxes like this one to sell door to door, but many people didn’t have spare loose change to buy such items, let alone pennies to put away for a rainy day.
Being poor at this time was still considered a personal failing of character rather than the result of over-arching and impersonal phenomena such as the economy.
Social welfare barely existed, so individuals like Mervyn, as well as families and communities improvised ways to support one another and to save face.
7. Souvenir weather house
This weather-house could be described as Kiwiana – or more pointedly as ‘Iwiana’, as one curator I know calls it.
It’s a novelty barometer sold during the 1940 Centennial.
If the man (tane) was outside then rain was on its way; if he retreated indoors and was replaced by the woman (wahine), then fine weather was forecast.
Pakeha celebrated the centennial as 100 years of British government in New Zealand – and a century of social, cultural and economic progress.
The weather house as a souvenir of this anniversary is apt – but also ironic. At this time, many Pakeha declared that New Zealand had the ‘best race relations in the world’.
But in reality, Maori suffered official and unofficial discrimination and the centennial, like this weather house, largely trivialised their culture.
8. State house hot water cylinder
This ugly, hospital-green hot water cylinder was first installed in a state house built in the Wellington suburb of Karori in 1940.
Besides its colour, I love the manufacturer’s attention to detail, with lightening bolts jazzing up the trade-marked name ‘Hotshot’.
Hot water cylinders represent the best and most admirable aspirations and realities of mid-twentieth state housing and a plank in the first Labour Government’s vision of social security: the right for all New Zealanders to affordable, comfortable well-built homes with mod-cons (electric power points in every room, meat safes).
Fast forward to today and, besides record homelessness, thousands of New Zealanders are crowded into the same sorts of unaffordable, cold, damp, poorly maintained dwellings that prompted the government to start supplying rental accommodation in the 1930s.
Is the shift in political rhetoric from ‘state’ to ‘social housing’ a factor that has contributed to this emergency?
9. WWII recruitment poster
This World War Two poster which appeals to Maori in te reo Maori to support the war financially, with a focus on the Maori Battalion, is extremely rare. A translation follows:
‘Stop! We appeal to you. The Maori Battalion calls to you to help. Food, uniforms, guns – ammunition – and other war weapons. These are needed by our soldiers – that they may prevail and not perish through lack – that the victory may be theirs and ours. Money alone can provide the weapons – without weapons we shall perish. Read the notice about National Savings. Go to the Post Office and lend your money. (Even a shilling week by week will help.)’
Many Maori saw participation in the New Zealand’s war effort both at home and overseas as an expression of citizenship. They also hoped this would be the means to actively shaping New Zealand society at the war’s conclusion, equal to that of Pakeha.
However, these goals, guaranteed to Maori by the Treaty of Waitangi, were not attained through war-time actions.
10. Land girl’s killing knife
War is bloody and bloody hard work. During the Second World War, New Zealand women (38,000 of them) were ‘manpowered’ by the government into essential industries.
This contradicted the prevailing ideology that the proper place of women was in the home.
But with over a hundred thousand New Zealand men absent serving overseas, needs must.
Besides, this was always seen as a temporary measure.
Inevitably, with New Zealand’s agricultural production critical to the war effort, over 2,700 women became ‘Land Girls’.
Their working kit included three pairs of overalls, and a knife like this one (used by Doris Whiting) was essential when it came to slaughtering stock.
This is the end of the ‘A’ side – please rewind back to start for next person.
Slice of Heaven: The Curators’ Cut – Thu 19 Jan, 5.30pm–7pm
Join the history curators in sending off Slice of Heaven as they reminisce about their favourite collection items, topics 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 and the thinking behind them.