Today we are publishing a review of the new He Tohu exhibition at the National Library by historian Jock Phillips, written especially for this blog. Jock has been New Zealand’s Chief Historian and editor of Te Ara Encyclopedia, among many other achievements, and we are grateful he took the time to write this for us.
Last month saw the opening of He Tohu, the new long-term exhibition in the National Library, displaying and interpreting three key documents of New Zealand – the 1835 Declaration of Independence, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, and the 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition.
A couple of weeks later once the crowds had died down, I paid a visit. I confess that I came a bit grumpy. All three are documents about governance which properly belong at Archives New Zealand, and I share the view of those who think that displaying them in the National Library will only harm people’s understanding of the role of Archives. I had also long believed that the huge empty space on the ground floor of the National Library following its rebuild was an unnecessary luxury. Putting this exhibition there seemed, perhaps, a way of covering up what was close to a national scandal.
But I swallowed my grumbles, and began by getting the thrill of meeting the real documents themselves. It was a rewarding and uplifting choice. The room in which they are housed is a magnificent space – a large waka huia carved in delicate curves of polished West Coast rimu. The moment you enter you feel you are in a sacred site, a treasure house, which is both warm and enclosing, yet with a sense of dignity and antiquity. The lighting is floor-lit and dim, and to look at the documents themselves you need to press a button which illuminates each. This gives you a sense of a personal interaction. The treaty or the declaration are showing themselves off just to you. In all, a stunning beginning. I was cheered enormously.
Around this diamond-shaped centre are five smaller ‘rooms’- an introduction of moving images, an interactive map to which I will return and three areas committed to the interpretation of the three key documents. The aim is to communicate to a younger audience, an admirable intent. One wonders if that was entirely fulfilled by the somewhat lengthy panels of text; but it is hard to avoid this if you want to tell with any accuracy the story of why these documents were drawn up in the first place. On the whole the accounts are accurate and reasonably clear. I would have liked a little more about the tribal affiliations and motivations of those signing the Declaration of Independence, but most of the essential background is there presented in simple direct prose.
In each room there are four excellent interactive experiences which serve two purposes – they attract younger users with buttons to push or screens to touch. And they allow a layering of the information, so that those who have a particular query or are interested in the detail can keep pushing. In each room the first interactive is a large screen featuring faces. Some are historians, some are public figures, some are relatives of those who signed. When you push the relevant button, these people make short, lively and highly pertinent comments. They help to turn dusty documents of history into words which have an on-going and personal meaning. A second interactive in each room offers a menu of topics about the background of each document. All introduce the ‘cast of characters’ who played an important role in the creation of each document. The answers are again largely accurate and enriched with good images. Third there is an interactive where you can explore particular names of those who signed, or follow hikoi which link the names around particular themes. For example in the treaty room this interactive allows you to learn how Lieutenant-Governor Hobson’s illness affected the places that the treaty was taken for signing; another looks at the place of animals in the treaty story.
I did find this interactive a little hard to navigate and I suspect that there is much enlightening information hidden in places that the user will rarely visit. Finally there is also in each room an interactive aimed at younger visitors, which explores the act of signing itself. In the declaration space you can try a quill pen; in the treaty space you can rub a seal; but what exactly you are meant to do with the animal glue in the petition room is not obvious. But most of these devices are clever, and combine a lightness of touch (literally) with a depth of information.
There is also the fifth room positioned between the treaty and petition spaces which features a large interactive map of New Zealand. The user can explore topics covering all three of the documents. Under a heading ‘a Māori land’ you can watch, for example, the arrivals of the great waka, the migration of iwi around New Zealand, the major pre-European trade routes. Moving to the treaty, there is a wonderful sequence showing, as the days tick over after 6 February 1840, the voyages of the different treaty sheets; or you can watch horrified as progressively with the years ticking by Māori land becomes European land. Similarly the section on women’s suffrage shows the numbers signing the petitions in each of the provinces. The map is large, the graphics are very clear, and the timing is spot-on. This really is a great learning device which could be used for many other topics besides the three documents presented here. Lets hope it graduates to the web.
So there is much to admire in the new exhibition, and I have no doubt that for younger visitors it will turn potentially boring subjects into fascinating ones. This achievement makes all the more disappointing that there remain considerable areas of sloppiness and unprofessionalism in the exhibition. There are various factual internal inconsistencies – in one place we are told there were 25,519 signatures on the suffrage petition, in the accompanying broadsheet the figure is 25,520 and in a third text the figures is ‘about 24,000’. There are also inconsistencies of grammar (such as lower case and upper case) and a couple of misspellings. I found it annoying that some images were out of chronology with the text. For example in a panel on the Declaration of Independence is an image of Te Heuheu’s pa at Taupō, but Te Heuheu, indeed no-one from that part of the country, signed the declaration. Some images such as the rolling suite at the entrance are not captioned at all. Too often there is a vagueness about dates where they might have been accurate – we are told that ‘The first parliamentary elections in New Zealand were in the 1850s’. Why not say ‘the first parliamentary election was in 1853’? And while it is admirable that the big screens of talking heads are supported both by sign language and te reo Māori versions, elsewhere the two language policy is chaotic. Sometimes an English text is translated into Māori; sometimes it is not. Occasionally a Māori text, such as a biography of Hone Heke, is not translated. In places where the full text is available in both languages, the captions to the images are only in English. One longs for a consistent policy – all texts should be available in both langauges. So much money has gone into this exhibition, you are tempted to ask why the whole exhibition did not get a thoroughly detailed edit before going into expensive production.
But don’t let the petty grumbles of a scholarly pedant put you off. In general visting He Tohu is a hugely enjoyable experience, which will both inform you and entertain you. The larger interpretations are sound to my mind. And the real impact of the exhibition is to elevate these three sets of documents into national taonga which we must treasure and continue to explore. This is especially important for the women’s suffrage petition and the Declaration of Independence which previously were very much hidden by the shadow of the treaty.
In the United States it is said that every American needs to visit the National Archives in Washington and see their three key documents – the Declaration of Indpendence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The promoters of He Tohu have a similar message for New Zealanders. Few Kiwis will be disappointed if they follow that suggestion.
Thanks so much to Jock for contributing this assessment of the exhibition. For the purposes of full disclosure, my partner is an architect who helped design the room containing the original documents, but that didn’t influence Jock’s review. Elizabeth Cox
Text copyright: Jock Phillips / Images copyright: Elizabeth Cox