Te Hao Nui edited by Fiona McKergow and Kerry Taylor review

by Sally Blundell / 16 June, 2012
There are rich pickings in the stories of 40 objects from Te Manawa.
How did it get here? The Maori Battalion marching drum, the Samoan ‘ie sina, the 1930s fencing outfit, the Polish army paperweight – who treasured each of these strange artefacts? Such questions lure museum curators and researchers down dark and idiosyncratic corridors into the country’s past. In a simple, compelling approach to a museum’s collection, these questions now engage readers of Te Hao Nui: The Great Catch. The subtitle, Object Stories from Te Manawa, is adequate, but doesn’t do justice to the almost forensic intrigue implicit in the essays accompanying the 40 featured items from Palmerston North’s Te Manawa museum.

They provide an intriguing insight into the articles and the work of the museum sleuth, the professional and presumably obsessional curiosity that drives research into “Bill Brown’s refractor head” (part of a collection of optometry instruments belonging to optician, inventor, herbalist, pharmacist and pioneer filmmaker William Thomas Brown of Pahiatua), Welshman Henry Coles’s moa footprint casts, and the pou from the Rangitane pa, Puketotara (its fellow carved posts are in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris).

A painting once displayed in Palmerston North’s Collinson and Cunninghame department store, for example, holds the story of Anzac Day services (“surrogate funerals”) and the symbolism of the red poppy. The unexceptional Woolpack and Textile samples take the reader into the history of New Zealand’s fl ax textile industry (and the scratchy fl oor mats of primary school); the Regent Confectionery’s sweet roller reveals the nostalgic world of the boiled sweet moulded by the hand-powered “drop roller”; the brass hand bell used by ferry man John Aitken reimagines early navigations of Manawatu Gorge – according to an 1855 English traveller, one of New Zealand’s “chiefest wonders” – and the perilous role of the 19th-century ferryman. As the title says, a great, and unexpectedly rich, catch.

TE HAO NUI: THE GREAT CATCH – OBJECT STORIES FROM TE MANAWA, edited by Fiona McKergow and Kerry Taylor, photography by Michael Hall (Godwit, $65).

Sally Blundell is a journalist and art writer.

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