History Collection 

Te Papa’s History Collection brings together widely diverse items that have been treasured in different periods by people all over the world. An Egyptian coffin, a broken tortoiseshell comb, a synagogue curtain, a motorbike, and a bowl by a contemporary glass artist are all part of this unusual collection of about 25,000 pieces. 


Many are historical artefacts, associated with the material culture of daily life or with significant historical events. A trunk that held all the possessions of an early Chinese immigrant is found here, along with a food cupboard made from packing cases during the Depression of the 1930s and a pair of shoes from World War II. The historical narrative is commemorated also by the first European object to be left on the shores of New Zealand (an anchor abandoned by Jean de Surville in 1769), one of the country’s first printing presses, and the flag from the New Zealand Company ship, the Tory.  


Other items represent aspects of design or innovation. The collection has over 7,000 costumes and textiles, the oldest of which dates back to the sixteenth century, and a wide range of ceramics from Europe, Asia, and New Zealand. The recent gift of the America’s Cup winner, NZL–32: Black Boat, adds to Te Papa’s representation of innovation in New Zealand, which also includes John Britten’s motorbike and Rob Waddell’s rowing skiff. There are historical weapons, coins, and medals, alongside the New Zealand Rail Collection, which contains the meticulous models of Frank Roberts. The New Zealand Post Museum Collection encompasses an extraordinary archive of philatelic material from the first postage stamps issued in New Zealand to those of the present day, complemented recently by material from the Great Barrier Island pigeon post and the New Zealand Wars.


The ‘foreign ethnology’ or ‘international’ collection also falls under the mantle of history and comprises some 2,000 items from Asia, Australia, Africa, and the Americas (including material collected by James Cook). Objects from other parts of the Museum also form part of the historical record, including rare books from the Carter Collection, photographs, and papers from the Archives.


Each item in the collection is a record not only of its own place and time but also of the time it came into the Museum: for example, a suit of samurai armour may speak about the intellectual climate in late nineteenth-century New Zealand, when it was collected, as well as about the values pertaining in eighteenth-century Japan, when it was made. The collection is as much a product of changing attitudes to what is worth keeping as it is a record of material and social culture. It is moulded in part by what the public has thought it appropriate to give a museum. This may encompass the donation of historical oddities and artefacts, the constructed collections of fine European furniture such as that bequeathed by Ella Elgar in the 1940s, or the accumulated treasures of an early New Zealand family such as the Guards (gifted in the 1980s). The collection is also shaped by the policies of the Museum and its staff, subject themselves to fashions in collecting and wider trends that change greatly over time. Thus, the collection and its history stretch from a fascination with ‘foreign ethnology’ in the 1880s and 1890s to pride in ‘women’s achievement’ in the 1980s and 1990s.


In the early years of the Museum, history (as opposed to Māori ethnology) was incidental to its core activities. Antiquities, decorative arts, paintings, coins, and manuscripts were collected, but the business of the Museum was largely scientific or focused on the preservation of Māori artefacts. Only gradually did the Museum begin to take more interest in ‘colonial history’. By the 1920s, material relating to Cook’s voyages, along with pioneering activities such as whaling, had begun to figure in museum business. The first public manifestation of this growing sense of local identity did not occur, however, until the mid-1950s when an exhibition hall for history and technology was opened, full of Cook-related items and Antarctic material, with ‘period rooms’ developed at the same time.


The last decades of the twentieth century brought new priorities to collecting, shaped by different intellectual and artistic prerogatives, a sharply evolving sense of cultural identity, and the museology that underpinned the development of Te Papa. This spirit has resulted in a more dynamic engagement with New Zealand’s local material and social culture, and a shift away from the international. Decorative arts and artefacts from overseas, for example, are now acquired rarely, and only when there is a particular New Zealand link, when there is a gap to be filled in a strong collection, or as part of a significant gift.


At the same time, collecting has expanded to include the lives of ordinary people and a commitment to recording change through the preservation of political and social ephemera such as protest buttons, posters, and T-shirts. This shift in priorities does not mean that the ‘iconic’ has been abandoned, or the public record diminished, but that that these notions have been extended. Curators are still concerned with those who have left their mark on New Zealand history, but have a new interest in other levels of contribution and influence.