He Tohu: The documents and signatures that shaped New Zealand

by Sharon Stephenson / 05 September, 2017

He Tohu lead curator Stefanie Lash

In 1842, a small Auckland cottage went up in flames. If it wasn’t for the quick thinking of chief government clerk George Eliot Eliott , who managed to save the official documents stored therein, the Treaty of Waitangi – signed only two years before – would have done the same.

It’s not the only indignity New Zealand’s founding document has suffered: the nine pages (two on parchment, seven on paper) have been stuffed into leaky basements, nibbled by rodents and survived earthquakes. But with the opening of He Tohu at the National Library in Wellington, the 177-year-old Treaty – along with the 1835 Declaration of Independence of the United Tribes of New Zealand and the 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition – finally has a state-of-the-art permanent home (www.hetohu.co.nz).

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Lead curator Stefanie Lash says the exhibition is aimed at preserving the iconic and fragile documents that shaped our nation and improving access for all New Zealanders, as well as “telling the stories behind these documents and encouraging debate about how they will influence our future”.

“The name He Tohu means signs or signatures, which is appropriate because this exhibition focuses on the signatures that have shaped New Zealand,” says Lash.

The three documents were previously displayed in the National Archives’ Constitution Room, where the atmospheric environment, designed in the 80s, was deteriorating. “The upgrade of the National Library presented an opportunity for a new space that would protect these documents for the next 500 years.”

Left: The temperature-controlled cases are alarmed and quake-proof. Right: Some of the thousands of signatures on the 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition.

The $7.2 million exhibit features special light- and temperature-controlled cases, which are also alarmed and quake-proof, designed by the same German firm responsible for the cases that hold King Tutankhamun’s mummified body in the Valley of the Kings and the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum.

Surrounding He Tohu’s custom-designed document room is an interactive exhibition where visitors can chart the Treaty’s 1840 journey around New Zealand and hear from New Zealanders such as historian Claudia Orange, authors Witi Ihimaera and Eleanor Catton, and actor/writer Oscar Kightley on what the Treaty means to them.

Visitors can also trace the life stories of those who signed the documents and trace their own family connections, says Lash, who believes many New Zealanders, both Maori and Pakeha, are unaware they’re direct descendants of the signatories.

Now about to take maternity leave for the birth of her first child, Lash has spent the past six and a half years painstakingly researching the full names and biographies of all those whose names are recorded on the three documents. That includes about 540 rangatira (Maori chief) signatories and 39 witnesses (37 of them Pakeha) to the Treaty, 52 chiefs and five Pakeha witnesses to the Declaration, and the 31,872 people – many of them “ordinary, invisible, working-class women”, plus at least 20 men – who signed the Women’s Suffrage Petition.

She’s drawn on the expertise of historians, genealogists, history students, members of the public and thousands of Waitangi Tribunal documents to help fill in the gaps. While she’s managed to complete biographies of all the Treaty and Declaration signatories, it was a big ask to track down everyone on the 200m-long Women’s Suffrage Petition.  

“We have more than 800 names and bios, including for 140 of the most famous signatories that were already in existence,” Lash says. “But this is a living exhibition and we will continue to research these women. I hope to be updating this content for many years to come.”  

 

This was published in the August 2017 issue of North & South.

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