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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.