Was Sharon Dell born to be Hocken Librarian?

by Clare de Lore / 17 May, 2017
Sharon Dell with her favourite McCahon, The Virgin and Child Compared. Photo/Robert Hanson

Sharon Dell with her favourite McCahon, The Virgin and Child Compared. Photo/Robert Hanson

The woman in charge of the Hocken Collections derives enormous pleasure from the treasures in her professional care – and those in her own home. 

Sharon Dell jokes that she was almost genetically engineered to become the Hocken Librarian. Her father, Dick Dell, was the director of the Dominion Museum in Wellington, and her mother, Dame Miriam Dell, a teacher who remains an advocate for women, was a strong role model for her four daughters. Reading, asking questions and collecting were part of everyday life for the Dell girls, and their parents instilled in them a belief that they could do anything.

Dell is at the helm of the Hocken Collections (formerly the Hocken Library), a research library, historical archive and art gallery in Dunedin. She spent more than two decades at New Zealand’s other leading research library, the Alexander Turnbull in Wellington. Fluent in te reo, Dell also spent 12 years at Whanganui Regional Museum, before taking up her current role in 2008.

The custodian of some of New Zealand’s historical and cultural treasures has her own collection of art, including ceramics and beautifully crafted tea cosies.

You’re almost institutionalised, aren’t you, having grown up in and around museums?

Dad worked at the Dominion Museum my entire childhood, so it was like our second home. I always thought that was normal. Our friends were always collecting this or that; we’d be banding birds in the backyard to help with my uncle’s bird experiments or whatever. I think that appreciation of objects in themselves – what they tell you and how they can connect with people – has always been a big part of my personal and professional life.

Miriam Dell, Margaret, Sharon, Judy, and Dick Dell, holding Rosie. In the back is Bob Falla, then director of the Dominion Museum.

What was your childhood home like?

Our home was always full of books. Dad collected them from second-hand bookshops. When I was younger, he was doing his post-graduate degree part-time and he would go into his study at night and work. When my sisters and I got older, we slipped another desk into the study and we all did our university study there. We always had great reference books and literature around. The things that influenced me include the set of the complete Transactions of the New Zealand Institute; the institute was the precursor to the Royal Society. You could pull any volume down and find out about geography or science or anthropology. Having that sort of resource around was great, but also the sense that, even when you passed your school days and became an adult, you would keep on researching and writing.

Did your parents put pressure on you and your sisters to succeed?

Mum taught part-time when we were young, and she has always said Dad was so supportive of her having her working life. She went on to become president of the National Council of Women and of the International Council of Women. There was an expectation you would make use of the gifts you were given, you would care about the world and try to make a difference. Mum always said women’s issues were everyone’s issues. She is fantastic. She lives with one of my sisters and she does daily chores, and goes into the garden. And she is still very involved in a current-affairs group in Martinborough.

And you have landed in your happy place, really, at the Hocken.

It feels like a synthesis of my two other major roles. I was at the Turnbull for 21 years and worked with manuscripts, Maori material and managing unpublished collections. I realised that what interested me about that role was the way we managed that unique material. Its physicality and materiality and uniqueness were important, and the content was also incredibly important. You have to look after things so they last. But more and more I was interested in connecting those collections with a more general audience through exhibitions.

You’ve kindly brought in the books that were stacked up beside your bed. What’s in the pile?

This little book with a red gingham cover is O Rugged Land of Gold by Martha Martin, which I read when I was about 12. It is about a woman who gets abandoned in Alaska. There is an accident and she breaks her arm. She is also pregnant and has to stay in this little hut and it is the story of how she has to survive. I want to read it again and see if it has the same impact on me as an adult as it did when I was younger. The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers, is a novel set in the Iraq war. It is my book-club book. I read them quite close to the meeting, so I remember them well. Last Friends is by Jane Gardam. I went to hear her at a writers’ festival. To hear someone read their own work makes a huge difference to how you understand the tone of what they are writing. Last Friends is the third in a trilogy: the others are Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. I have put off reading Last Friends because I want to eke out the enjoyment.

And there’s British ceramicist Edmund de Waal’s The White Road, which is a book about his lifelong obsession with porcelain. I love ceramics, and his writing is completely magical. I learnt so much from his memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes, not so much the materiality of the miniature sculptures called netsuke, but about the history of the family that collected them. That book was like an anthem to what I do with my life: the objects themselves are important and there is so much to learn from the books, the paintings or the museum objects I have had in my care. The connection they have with people’s lives – how people value them and what people can learn from their interaction with those things – is really what my professional life is about. It is also a big part of what personally interests me. I also read the New Yorker for the quality of the writing. I tend to try to read all of them, but there are some unopened ones beside the bed.

Photo/Robert Hanson

What’s the impact of the Hocken in terms of output from academics and those who most frequently access the collections?

We have Samuel Marsden’s journals and diaries, all the letters and reports of the first missionaries who came to the Bay of Islands. [Collector Thomas] Hocken went to the Church Missionary Society and said, “Can I take these back to New Zealand?” and they said yes. For the 200th anniversary of the sermon that Marsden gave on Christmas Day in 1814, we digitised 3500 pages of letters and journals, about a third of what we have, and they are available freely online.

Democratising of research is very important to us. In the introductory essays about the [Bay of Islands] mission, if you click on a name, you can look it up, and if you want to check a Maori word, you can do that too. If we’re serious about this being a collection for everyone, we have to make it accessible. A lot of my role has been trying to focus attention not just on the riches of the Hocken, but also on how people use them, so we have started keeping a record: every year, there are more than 200 things that emerge, whether they are books, websites, theses – all of the stuff that is the product of people coming here or accessing the library from a distance.

What’s an example of the reach of the Hocken into the consciousness of ordinary Kiwis?

When The Piano was being filmed, their researchers spent ages in the Turnbull photographic archive. One thing they noticed was how all the people at that time had greasy hair, because they didn’t wash it. A lot of people have no idea that everything about the look of the people in that movie came from that sort of detailed research.

You have wonderful paintings in the collection – more than Auckland Art Gallery – so what’s the difference between the Hocken and an art gallery?

We have lots of contextual material; for example, the plans for stained-glass windows that Colin McCahon did – and he’s written down the side of them saying things like “Be precise but not pedantic” and “Irregularity of line is to be desired – life rather than the more usual death.” That is what makes this collection different from an art gallery collection. It is why we have to work really hard to give people access to that rich resource.

What’s your favourite object, manuscript or painting?

McCahon’s The Virgin and Child Compared from 1948. I just loved it as soon as I saw it, and for many years, decades before I came here, I had a print of it on my wall.

What else do you have at home?

I have bookcases everywhere, just groaning with books, and I am a collector of tea cosies, jugs, textiles – everything. The house is full of things.

Do you keep up with reading for your own pleasure?

I buy a lot of books because I think I will read them, such as Anne Salmond’s The Trial of the Cannibal Dog. I have worked a bit with Anne and I am always interested in how she uses sources and how much more we learn when her mind synthesises and works.

I have never read it all the way through and I yearn for enough time to do that. I used to read a book a night but that was pre-screen days and the screen can be quite demoralising.

What do you mean by demoralising?

You can spend an evening online trawling through nonsense. Television is much the same, so I record and try to be selective. I get so much more joy from reading that I need to make that my occupation. For me, reading is an imaginative, creative process. The joy of reading is your mind creating the picture.

This article was first published in the April 29, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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