Friday, August 14, 2015

The Lives of Colonial Objects - Edited by Annabel Cooper, Lachy Paterson and Angela Wanhalla

Around my house I have a selection of objects from my grandparents and my parents.  Like my mother's whistle.  She was a teacher who began her career in the outback of Australia.  The whistle was for a number of reasons, including if your were caught in a sand storm.  Blow the whistle to attract the rescuers attention. It's objects like that that have these amazing stories about real people, and their adventures that I love.  Historic objects invite us into the past through their very tangible and immediate presence.  What they have say sheds a thousand beams on how we lived, how we related to each other and how we respected and treated the natural environment.

This utterly brilliant book, The Lives of Colonial Objects, is a series of biographies, of fifty objects from our collective past.  They are explored, thought about and ultimately revealed.  At the very beginning we meet Te Haupapa, the last of 12 canons from the Maketu.  Paora Tapsell traces the history of this little cannon and the adventures of its materials, its brothers and the destruction it cause in the Maori wars, it also the legacy it leaves - including a park, now in memorial to the people of the region.  Also another early taonga, a putorino (nose flute) that currently resides in the US' Peabody Museum, is the possession of an early colonial trader who collected objects from all over the Pacific to take back to Salem, of all places  How it got there is the tale of the artefact, and only one example of the amazing stories in this sumptuously illustrated, and highly readable collection.

Each artefact receives its own chapter, written by a wide raft of historians and journalists and a companied by a full-page colour photograph and a short essay.  Every  author, historian, archivist, curator and Māori scholars has some kind of personal link to the object and that makes their writing both personal and alive. 

Apart from canons and cloaks, the more obvious choices, there are also everyday objects, like billies, children's toys, diaries and scrapbooks - all with histories quite distinctively different from their initial intended purpose.

The only regret is that these are pictures and the delight to be had from touching and holding these things, sucking in the power of their past, smelling their aura, is denied.  Alas, they are catalogued and off limits.  But not all, like the cannon, which lives with the elements in a park, for small boys to play with.  And I like that.  Like Rome's Black Peter hands and time will distort the shape and definition. 
Some of the objects featured are treasured family possessions such as a kahu kiwi, or a stunning music album or a grandmother’s travel diary.  I have my own mother's diary around somewhere, so I know how these collections a really special insights into such feats of travel.  Then, on a grander scale there's the tauihu of a Māori waka, a Samoan kilikiti bat and, believe it or not, a flying boat - all telling their secrets of travel, a common thread in the book.  Not housed in a museum are a cottage and a country road (yes, a road), Katherine Mansfield's Hei Tiki from her trip to the Urewera's, slippers with a Maori flax pattern and my favourite, a home made brass plaque of dog wonder Rin Tin Tin, crafted by a Japanese prisoner of war.  These artefacts are all poignant reminders of our unique past.  
I absolutely loved delving into this book.  The Lives of Colonial Objects offered me a creative, innovative approach to history and not only a rich resource but a brilliant conversation starter, too.
Annabel Cooper is Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Gender and Social Work at the University of Otago. Her edition of Mary Lee’s The Not So Poor and her contributions to Sites of Gender: Women, men and modernity in southern Dunedin explored gender, place and poverty in nineteenth-century New Zealand. 

Lachy Paterson is a Senior Lecturer at Te Tumu: School of Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies, and a member of the Centre for Research on Colonial Culture at the University of Otago. He has published the only monograph on Māori-language newspapers, Colonial Discourses: Niupepa Māori 1855–1863

Angela Wanhalla teaches in the Department of History and Art History at the University of Otago. Her most recent book, Matters of the Heart: A history of interracial marriage in New Zealand (Auckland University Press, 2013), won the Ernest Scott Prize for best book in Australian and New Zealand history in 2014.

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