I used to enjoy our national museum. It opened not long after my arrival in the country and I knew right away what all the fuss had been about. Having grown up in Italy and visited but a handful of European countries, I had simply never encountered a museum of cultural history. The concept was entirely new to me, and in those early days – when comparing New Zealand to the old country was something of an obsessive habit – I found myself wishing that we had institutions of that sort to better understand our art as well as our history.
Of course even back then you could see the flaws in it. The ambitious design of the museum’s main art exhibition, the Parade, where politically-charged artworks such as Colin McCahon's A Grain of Wheat were displayed side by side with pieces of Kiwiana or iconic consumer objects such as the Kelvinator Foodarama 7 refrigerator, was in equal part intriguing and manipulative, and I distinctly remember recoiling a little the first time I came across that particular centrepiece. But it was ambitious, and you could see the value in it, and its potential as a teaching tool and as a text that contained elements of its own critique. What made the design daring was in fact that the displays would so obviously require an enormous amount of intellectual energy to be sustained. Those curated paths, which were themselves art installations, would need to constantly change and find ways to somehow integrate the response of the public, in order to sharpen their capacity to generate helpful contexts as opposed to ultimately closed readings as in the case of the pairing of the McCahon with the Foodarama.
This is to say that while even a supporter might concede that Hamish Keith’s disparaging ‘theme park’ comparison was not completely out of place, Te Papa nonetheless offered the promise of a more open, more inclusive museum, and that was something to hold on to, and that made you look past some of the most glaring shortcomings, such as the truly embarrassing history room above the Treaty exhibit. Over time some of these spaces – including that particular room I just mentioned – have indeed been overhauled or refined, but others have simply disappeared, while others still have suffered from remaining exactly the same. Nothing to my mind exemplifies this last category more than the Golden Days exhibit.
Inside Golden Days, January 2011
For those of you who have never been to Te Papa, Golden Days is a 10-minute montage of various New Zealand historical events shown in a small theatre resembling a curiosity shop whose wares include several animatronics artefacts that ‘come to life’ contextually during the screening. It doesn’t get a lot more 'theme park' than that, and the sense of vague euphoria generated by the piece as it segues from national tragedies to random infants to sporting victories is straight out of a handbook on postmodernity for beginners. Yet back when Te Papa first opened, in 1998, Golden Days sort of worked. To the extent that it was balanced by other, more challenging exhibits, it fit in – only just – with the overall texture of the place, and played a role.
Thirteen years later, Golden Days has become strident, irredeemably awful. The original project that it was designed to complement has been abandoned: Te Papa has lost all of its original edge, and is no longer at the forefront of international museum practices – worse, it has gradually undone as much of that work as it could short of torching the place and starting from scratch. This culminated in the closure of the Parade followed by the opening on level 5 of the Toi Te Papa section, where art is once more the thing on the wall next to a plaque with the artist’s name on it, and no attempt is made to illuminate the circumstances of its production or its possible meanings, nor is any of it is ‘lent’ to the other exhibitions where it might perform such a function. Likewise the temporary and often truly challenging exhibitions by emerging Māori artists from the Iwi charged with custodianship of the museum have been discontinued and replaced by an informative but hardly demanding long-term exhibition on pounamu.
Yet Golden Days keeps on keeping on, resolutely unchanged, stubbornly popular with tourists, and in doing so has become a museum piece of itself: visually dated, inexplicably stuck in time – the absence of anything to do with The Lord of the Rings from the montage, however merciful, is going to puzzle many an international visitor – and finally embodying everything that is wrong with Te Papa, and that was wrong from the start: its populist as opposed to popular side, its crudest, almost propaganda-like efforts to reduce the social and historical complexities of the nation to a unified and unproblematic narrative of ingenuity, achievement and seamless biculturalism.
Carving on the entrance gate of the NZ Woolpacks and Textiles factory, Foxton
A little over one hundred kilometres north of Te Papa along State Highway One, straddling the boundary between the Horowhenua and the Manawatu districts, lies the town of Foxton. With a population of 2,700 souls (not counting the adjacent resort of Foxton Beach), it too seems stuck in time, or rather in multiple times, its several layers of early colonial and industrial pasts looming in murals or trompe-l'œil form outside its buildings and replaying themselves inside of an almost baffling number and variety of small specialist museums, including the National Museum of Audio Visual Arts & Sciences (or MAVTech), the Trolley Bus Museum, the local history museum (naturally) and my personal favourite, the Flax Stripping Museum. In the midst of all this, the town’s undisputed landmark: De Molen, a full-size working windmill built in the 17th Century Dutch style and inaugurated in 2003.
To find so many attractions in a town of this size – and that’s not even counting the erstwhile dolls museum and the Little Theatre on Main Street – almost smacks of tacky excess, but then you don’t have to explore Foxton very long before its plight becomes apparent. Behind the counter at the café in the main square, a 6x4 group photograph of Feltex workers (not dissimilar from the last image on this page) serves as a clue, as do the large empty smoke-blackened buildings of the NZ Woolpacks and Textiles complex on Duncan Street, and the For Lease/Sale sign on the more modern adjoining facilities on Robinson Street. Back in the main square, the panels of Foxton’s Fantastic Festival of Murals remind you that the town was originally a bustling river port. In one of these ‘temporary murals’ (the artworks exhibited at the festival are for sale), this past is conflated with the present by incorporating the windmill in the old cityscape, in a confoundingly plausible anachronism.
Elsewhere the outside of buildings is made transparent to reveal past lives within.
While the flank of a commercial property recalls the fire that destroyed the hotel that stood in its stead.
Inside the Flax Stripping Museum, you’ll find this relic:
Whilst another temporary mural blames the factory effluents upstream and the associated commercial interests for the ailing state of the Manawatu river by the time it loops towards the town.
I hope that this will suffice to make it apparent that the history made visible and variously glossed upon almost everywhere you turn in Foxton is a far more challenging text than the clockwork performance of nostalgia at the Golden Days exhibit. It too relies on fictions – of which the ersatz antiquity of the Dutch windmill is the most obvious – but they soon become lived realities, further dimensions in which to appreciate and evaluate the social project that is the transformation of Foxton from an industrial town into a historical playground. And it is a grand design: plans are afoot to establish a fully-fledged museum, Te Awahou Nieuwe Stroom, dedicated to Dutch settlements in New Zealand and the Māori and Pākehā history of the town, and to restore the river loop to its former glory. These plans are on display at the local library and in the windows of a former carpet showroom on main street, along with an appeal to interested parties to share their skills and join a project team. In a town where most attractions are currently staffed by volunteers, the visitor gets the sense that the community will be deeply involved in how these stories get to be told – which incidentally reflects how some of the best exhibitions, notably the ones on immigrant groups, come together at Te Papa.
None of this is to say the living museum that is Foxton is uncomplicated, or wholly transparent, or immune from critique. Indeed the ease with which the old town overlays itself onto its slightly dejected post-industrial shadow is troubling, as it always is when the past can be read too readily into the present. A quick glance at the two-part historic walk up at Kete Horowhenua might confirm this, but then visiting the website will also highlight the deeply sympathetic philosophy that informs that work of memory that is undertaken at Foxton.
Kete Horowhenua is an initiative of the Horowhenua Library Trust that offers a very appealing model – based on the idea of the basket of knowledge, or kete – for researching and presenting local histories through the involvement of local individuals and groups. It’s like the Wikipedia of social history, if one may draw so bold a comparison, and like on Wikipedia the entries are open to editing, which allows for this history to remain contestable. So too walking around Foxton one doesn’t get a sense of pre-packaged, artificial nostalgia for unspecified and questionable golden days, but an echo of the tensions and the hardships, of the painful loss of jobs and livelihoods, of the resilience of those who made the difficult decision to stay and who continue to work so that the community can remain viable and carry forward its heavy past. There is a lot to be admired and a lot to learn from in that.
Detail from the mural dedicated to Rangimahora Reihana-Mete
There is a wealth of entries on Foxton at Kete Horowhenua, for instance on its murals or the history of the flax industry. A stroll through the postings tagged under Foxton Historical Society can also be instructive.
Oh, and naturally if you get the chance do visit Foxton.