Evoking memories

Senior Curator Diane McAllen reflects on her work on our current exhibition and the memories we wish were recorded.

In our exhibition Rust + Restoration – He Waikura He Whakauka we invite visitors to respond to the question “Tell us about someone, some place or an event you wish you’d recorded and why?”

The answers can be added to the comments board at the exhibition or taken home on the postcards provided.

So far the responses have fallen into three broad categories:

  1. An important event of shared national significance
  2. Something or someone of personal significance
  3. A physical object or place

In curating the content for the exhibition, I wanted to select collection items that might resonate with the personal experiences of our visitors and evoke their own memories. In making these selections, I also drew upon my own memories of collective events, and in this blog I explore a few of the connections I made between my own memories and our collection.

One wall in the exhibition has a projection of videos from our collections. The Royal Visit of the Duke and Duchess of York (1901) provides a glimpse of the ceremonies that happened during the New Zealand tour of the future King George V and Queen Mary of Great Britain. This was New Zealand’s second British royal visit and would have been a very significant event at the time. Though no one alive today will recall the actual event, it comes to life through the moving image. Watching the footage of a large kapa haka performance filmed at Rotorua, I notice the details of dress and performance. The crowds running to get a better glimpse of the royal couple on Lambton Quay in Wellington is reminiscent of subsequent royal tours. The awarding of medals to surviving soldiers who fought in the South African War adds a sombre tone. That these images were recorded in the dawn of cinematography and survived is wondrous, as so many others are now lost forever.

Visitors at the Rust + Restoration | He Waikura He Whakauka exhibition

A major focus of the exhibition is footage of the Hawke’s Bay earthquake of 1931. This footage came into the collection in a recent deposit from the family of Thomas H Whetton. The images of the aftermath of the earthquake – buildings half destroyed, the band rotunda crumpled by the waterfront, the dentist’s office exposed as the front wall has fallen, the restaurant with dining tables all set for the morning tea, the stacks of makeshift coffins – are eerily reminiscent of the destruction caused by the 2010 and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes. The theme of earthquakes and their effect continues in some archival audio also featuring in Rust + Restoration. This audio includes a radio interview of a woman recalling the 1855 Wairarapa earthquake, a seismic event that lifted the Wellington foreshore out of the harbour. Another audio clip documents RNZ reporter Bridget Mills conducting a telephone interview just as the 2011 Christchurch earthquake struck.

Dramatic events resonate through the exhibition: a military style drum starts, protestors wearing motorcycle helmets and placard shields, chanting “hoo-hoo”, storm down MacAlister Park towards Athletic Park in Wellington… This scene appears in Merata Mita’s documentary PATU! I am personally too young to remember much about the Springbok Tour of 1981, portrayed in PATU!, but I am very familiar with the geography in this scene. As a university student in the 1990s I used to hang out with my boyfriend on the small knoll overlooking the park. Nowadays MacAlister Park is a frequent location for sport activities and dog walkers. After being a resident of Newtown for around 15 years, the scenes of protestors cutting through the barbed wire barricade on Rintoul Street, the police twirling their batons like samurai warriors and a scared old lady looking out from her window, are particularly moving. It can be strange to reconcile dramatic past events that took place in such pleasant surroundings – but audiovisual archives remind us of this past and illuminate the history of familiar landscapes.

“What memory do I wish had been recorded and why?” I once interviewed my grandmother about her experiences during the 1930s Depression for a high school history assignment. This was recorded on an audio cassette via a Sony Cassette Walkman. Coming from an established farming family in the Catlins region, she didn’t have much to share about the Depression, as they always had enough food to live on. She did recall the odd swagman coming to stay, though. At the time of the interview my grandmother was in her nineties, and was perhaps not wearing her false teeth on the day. Though this event was recorded, the quality wasn’t particularly good and the tape has long been mislaid. I regret not keeping the tape so that I could still hear her voice. I also regret not asking her many other questions about her life while I had the opportunity. As I listen to the women remembering the suffrage petition of 1893, also featuring in the exhibition, it helps remind me of how my grandmother used to enunciate her words.

Visitors at the Rust + Restoration | He Waikura He Whakauka exhibition.

In the Ngā Taonga collection we take care of the voices and images of many people’s tūpuna. One of our most requested titles for viewing is the Waka Huia series. This ongoing series was first broadcast in the late 1990s in te reo Māori and contains many unique interviews with important individuals within te ao Māori. Sonny Riini of Tūhoe recounts the making of wooden spinning tops as a child. To see an older man whipping the top made from tōtara along the ground, as if he was a boy of eight, brought back memories of the toys and games I remember. As a child of the 1970s most of my recollections are dominated by mass-produced plastic products, glow-in-the-dark eggs and the much-desired Barbie doll. I also remember other playground games such as “elastics”, skipping ropes and clapping rhymes.

Childhood is also the subject of a charming tightly-edited short home movie, Double Trouble, in which Hilda Brodie-Smith tells the story of the arrival of her adopted twin children to her home in Porirua. “You’ve heard of instant pudding and instant coffee, well now we have instant children.” What comes through strongly in this home movie is the familiarity of the domestic scenes. The film was made in Porirua in the 1950s, revealing a startlingly different suburban landscape.

There are also a number of intriguing objects displayed to help bring the story of the exhibition to life. In the centre of the room stands a 16mm film projector dating from the 1930s. In one of the display cases is the hand-cranked 35mm projector owned by Thomas Whetton. Its design gives a tangible sense of the simplicity of film technology – each image captured on a frame of film, processed and then projected through the use of holes and sprockets, reproducing the effect of a moving image. In another cabinet is a display of examples of magnetic video tape formats, both professional and consumer, such as 1-inch, Betacam, Mini-DV and VHS. The technology of capturing images on video formats appears more magical than film: the black tape reveals nothing. Housed within the cassette could be significant treasures revealed only through playback.

Audiovisual media has an immediate way of connecting us with past events and people. Through listening and watching we can increase our understanding and knowledge of the issues of the past. We can reflect on what has changed and what has remained the same. Each format presents its own preservation concerns for the audiovisual archivist – you can learn more about this here.

Before the material even gets to an archive, however, there’s a long journey. The individual owner needs to see value in the item, decide whether to keep it, document why it’s important, and decide whether to act and ensure that it is accessible for future generations. It could be about considering what to do with the stack of grandad’s old films in the garage, whether to digitise the audio cassette of your grandmother’s story or whether to delete those images of your child’s school production from your smart phone. Read more about the services Ngā Taonga provides.

Please tell us about someone, some place or an event you wish you’d recorded and why.

Perhaps it’s already discoverable in our archive?

Ngā Taonga newsletter

Sign up for our regular newsletter about projects we're working on and fascinating items from our collections.