176 months at Te Papa: Haere rā to history curator Kirstie Ross

176 months at Te Papa: Haere rā to history curator Kirstie Ross

Since 2004 Kirstie Ross has curated at least six Te Papa history exhibitions (including Gallipoli), published over 100 blogs, wrote numerous chapters and conference papers, made many media appearances, presented countless floor talks, and written two books, Going Bush and Holding on to Home. She’s also made significant acquisitions for Te Papa’s collections, particularly around the experienced of war and modern New Zealand life.  

Today is Kirstie’s last day with us – we’d like to thank her for everything she’s done for Te Papa and wish her all the very best for the next exciting phase of her life and career. She’ll be deeply missed.

Kia ora and haere rā.

Day 1

When I started in February 2004 it was still shameful to admit if you used Google as a research tool, Te Papa didn’t have its all-powerful collections database, and podcasts hadn’t been invented.

I started on an 18-month contact to work on the exhibition that’s still open today – Blood, Earth, Fire – and I’ve ended up staying for 176!

Kirstie Ross on her first day
Kirstie Ross on her first day, 2004. Te Papa

What’s your favourite project you’ve worked on?

An exhibition called Road to Recovery. I’d been researching the collection and I found these amazing large-scale photographs of Kiwi amputee soldiers from WWI. We had no details about the dozens of individuals or who took them.

Five unidentified WWI soldiers posing in front of piles of sheep fleeces
Five unidentified WWI soldiers posing in front of piles of sheep fleeces at Oatlands Park, Surrey, England, 1918, England, maker unknown. Te Papa (O.031486)

I did heaps of research around them, including attitudes towards masculinity, rehabilitation, economic productivity, citizenships, etc. I started collecting rehabilitation craft. We even identified some of the men and I spoke to their family members.

I was interested in who these men were, what they did, how they felt about being ill and damaged by war.

I wanted to be able to display these photographs in some way so I developed a tiny exhibition in 2014 which included 10–12 of the photographs. I was so pleased to be able to do that and show a different side of the WWI experience, particularly because at the time I was gearing up to do Gallipoli: The scale of our war.

Road to Recovery is currently at the National Army Museum – which is great.

Road to Recovery exhibition
Road to Recovery: Disabled soldiers of World War I exhibition, 2015. Photo by Kate Whitley. Te Papa (73695)

Watch Adam Savage interview Kirstie about Gallipoli: The scale of our war.

Is there an acquisition you’re most proud of?

I’m not always interested in collecting the most beautiful or iconic things. I’ve actually collected some pretty hideous things including a state house hot water cylinder and extracted human teeth used by dental nurse trainees to practice filling cavities.

If I have a politics around collecting it’s around telling history in unexpected ways or through objects and collections that don’t necessarily seem to be what they are – it’s about digging deeper.

One of the acquisitions I’m most proud of is Carmen Rupe’s collection. I went to visit Carmen in Sydney. She had a tiny flat in Surry Hills completely plastered in images of herself and pictures from magazines.

Framed photograph of Carmen Rupe
Framed photograph of Carmen Rupe, 1986, Sydney, by Jill Carter-Hansen. Te Papa (GH011926)

Carmen had thought very carefully about what she wanted to sell to us. She was very savvy about herself and her image. It was really interesting from my perspective to see how someone was curating themselves for the national museum.

Before she died, she briefed her friends on which other objects she wanted to donate to Te Papa and what went to charity.

I worked with some of her closest friends to get those objects into the museum and we had a pōwhiri to welcome the items. It was a big celebration for the LGBTQI community and I was so proud to be involved in that.

Items belonging to Carmen Rupe on display
Carmen Rupe cabinet display, 2015. Te Papa (56159)

Have you got a ‘bizarre museum moment’ from your time at Te Papa?

When I first started I was working on an exhibition about the 1970s. One of my jobs was to go and find toys based on television shows – Chips (Californian Highway Patrol) dolls, Wombles dolls, all of that ‘merch’ from the ’70s.

70s exhibition
Out on the Street exhibition, 2005. Photo by Michael Hall. Te Papa

Someone had found a collector so all I had to do was drive out to Tawa, look at the toys, assess them, measure them, etc. I was new to Wellington so it was a big adventure.

The toys were in a collector’s basement – and it was chocker! I found Donny and Marie Osmond Dolls amongst other things. But the Donny doll didn’t have any shoes. Whether it was ok to display him barefoot was a big question we had to ask ourselves for the exhibition.

I was not prepared for this sort of activity during my MA in history. It’s amazing the detail that goes into exhibition making.

Out on the Street exhibition toys, 2005. Photo by Michael Hall. Te Papa

What’s your favourite object in Te Papa’s collections?

My favourite objects include some hatpins made with military uniform buttons. A women called Dorothy Broad made them. She also made this very cute soldier doll made out of a chicken bone – for fundraising during WWI.

Soldier doll made from a chicken bone
Soldier doll, 1916, by Dorothy Broad. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (GH016401)

They’re small objects that tell really big yet intimate personal stories. They feature in the book I co-wrote, Holding on to Home.

Dorothy’s fiancé Wyville was serving in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force but died just before the end for the war from the flu.

His military uniform buttons are attached to the end of the hatpins. They were a patriotic sign, but became mourning items.

Hat pin made from officer's rank insignia
Hatpins made from officer’s rank insignia, 1919. Made by Dorothy Broad. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (GH016804)

We don’t know how long she wore them for. You have to speculate a little.

With objects you don’t always have text that gives you the meaning or context. So, to propose or think about the meaning that these objects could have had, you have to put fragments together and make informed imaginative leaps.

That’s what I like about being a history curator – it’s not only about knowing the facts, it’s about understanding human nature, how people act, what it means to be human, and where objects fit in.

How do you feel about your next adventure?

Going to Tasmania means I have to let go of WWI a bit. But this is an opportunity to experience a different place and be immersed in quite a ‘dirty’ problematic history I think. But I’m looking forward to the challenge of bringing some light and dark to these stories – that’s the way I roll.

Watch Kirstie talking about a 1930s caravan in our collections.

Watch Kirstie talk about one of the soldier dolls that Dorothy Broad made.

11 Comments

  1. Haere rā, Kirstie
    It was a real pleasure working alongside you during my time at Te Papa, seeing the awesome work you put into Gallipoli and your eager approach to the collections and curiosity about the stories within them. I can still picture the assortment of old toys by your desk that you referred to in the blog. You should be very proud of the contribution you’ve made to the big place and the impact your work has had on countless visitors. Sad I wasn’t still there to say goodbye, but happy knowing you’ll have been given a warm and grateful send-off by the staff. All the best in Tassie! Michael

    1. Hi Michael
      Great to hear from you and thanks for you kind words. I hope that you still doing wonderful things in publishing.
      all the best Kirstie
      PS Those particular toys you remember were part of educator Rebecca Browne’s collection – which was just as nostalgia-inducing as the collection from which I sourced the (barefoot) Donny and Marie Osmond dolls!

  2. Hello Kirstie, I’ve really enjoyed viewing your work at Te Papa over the years. I’m a social historian and a kiwi currently living in Hobart and lecturing in history at UTAS. I worked on part of a WWI exhibition with some TMAG colleagues a wee while ago, too. It’d be lovely to catch up when you’re in Tasmania. Kind Regards, Kristyn Harman.

    1. Hi Kristyn
      Thanks! Your most recent book is on my Tasmanian history reading list. It would be great to meet you in Hobart.
      Best regards
      Kirstie

    2. Excellent, Kirstie, that sounds like a plan!

  3. Tena koe Kirstie, I am sad to have missed your last day at Te Papa. You have been a pleasure to work with, and entertain on the odd occasion haha.. Your projects were always very interesting and you will be greatly missed from Te Papa’s exhibition’s and publications. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog tribute, and I wish you all the best for your adventures in Tasmania. I cannot wait to see the stories you curate. Kia pai te haere, Go well 🙂 Tx

    1. Kia ora Te Arikirangi.
      And you are missed here – thanks for commenting. I hope you are going well way up in the north.
      take care
      Kirstie

  4. Haere rā and all the very best Kirstie! Appreciate all your work, talent and above all the diversity of your contribution to New Zealanders’ understanding of their social history. ONWARD!

    1. Hi Stephen
      thanks for your kind words – and the tweet! Sad to be leaving a great community here but I’ll be keeping an eye on things from Tasmania!
      all the best
      Kirstie

  5. Kirstie Ross made a big impression on me as a museum studies student. She was supportive and curious, and enabled me to see deeper into Te Papa and the acquisition process. I love this statement from Kirstie in this article: “That’s what I like about being a history curator – it’s not only about knowing the facts, it’s about understanding human nature, how people act, what it means to be human, and where objects fit in.” What a wonderful, humble, thoughtful approach. Go well Kirstie x

    1. Dear Siren
      So nice of you to read and comment. You made a big impression on me too, and made me review my practice – so thanks! It’s great that we have ended up being colleagues in the sector at large. All the best for your future projects.
      Kirstie

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