When I worked at the V&A museum of art and design in London, people talked of objects with the WOW factor. The blue and sea green chandelier by Chihuly, with its entwined glass tentacles, was one of them. It hangs pride of place in the V&A’s main lobby in South Kensington.
The giant squid at Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum of New Zealand in Wellington, certainly has the WOW factor. Even its eyes – the largest of any known animal, are the size of a soccer ball. With a little remodelling, and in the hands of an expert glass blower like Chihuly, it would make a splendid chandelier.
You might think that a gallery on natural history would not be relevant to my research on migration but I’m not so sure.
In Australia rabbits, introduced by a British settler, still plague Australia. New Zealand, too, is susceptible.
‘Foreign animals and plants have successfully invaded New Zealand and outnumber native species in most places…. The animals and plants who’ve settled here for millions of years often can’t cope with these pushy new arrivals.’
The chamois, brought from Europe, spell trouble, munching on endangered plants and breeding faster than hunters can shoot them. The takahe, eaten by the Māori, is an easy target for non-native cats, rats and stoats, also brought from Europe. But at least it survives, unlike that other flightless bird, the moa, that was eaten to extinction. Then there is the possum that was brought over from Australia and eats native trees and shrubs to death.
And the plants. The common gorse, introduced by settlers to bring colour to the landscape, is now a curse in New Zealand. Even the lupin, sedate and contained in our English cottage gardens, runs wild along riverbanks, across fields and up mountains.
I enter the gallery, Passports about human migration, a subject I know a little more about. A succinct, punchy time- line informs me that the Māori sailed from Polynesia about 1000 AD and in 1800 numbered about 100,000. From 1800 men came from the US and Australia to kill whales and seals. In 1814 the first missionaries landed on the Bay of Islands in North Island. Then British immigrants, ‘Boatfuls of Hopefuls,’ arrived on passages paid by the New Zealand Company who sold on land bought cheaply from the Māori. ‘Gold Fever’ (1861 – 1870) attracted, ‘ rougher types,’ in the eyes of more established Scottish settlers, from Australia. Farm labourers and domestics from Britain and the rest of Europe followed during the ‘Great Migration’ of 1871 – 1885. The Māori were outnumbered.
For the next 80 years periods of depression, unemployment, disaster and war alternated with other periods of wealth, sunshine, milk and honey. At the end of the 19th century more people left New Zealand than arrived but by the 1950s it had the highest standard of living in the world, attracting people from Italy, Greece and the Netherlands as well as England and Scotland. Pacific Islanders arrived between 1968 and 1975 to meet labour shortages. In the early 1990s a new immigration law opened up the country to all migrants, many arriving from Asia.
I approach the test for my eligibility for a free ride in 1840 with the New Zealand Company with some confidence. But, although I am a single and female, I am too old as I am over 40.
I try again in 1996 when a points system has been introduced. Again my age, over 45 in the skills category, prevents entry.. Perhaps I’d be eligible if I had 2 million dollars to invest. But, as the text suggests, in reality and without too much explanation, it is a little more complicated.
It is people’s experiences, as always, which bring the immigration story to life.
One of my favourite stories is that of Betty Parker, a Sydneysider, who, aged 15, married an ex convict, Jacky Guard, who’d set up as a whaler in South Island. Betty was the first Pakeha (European ) woman on the island. ‘The Guards were tough and their adventures in the lawless whaling community are legendary.’ One of their ancestors now works in whale preservation.
A panel on ‘Small Survivors,’ captures my interest. 700 Polish children arrived in New Zealand after World War 11, having spent two winters in Siberia. On release from the labour camps they travelled thousands of miles, often on foot, to Tehran. Those that survived spent the next 18 months in hospitals and orphanages, many having lost their whole families. One panel hardly seems sufficient!
I glean a wealth of new information in the gallery Tangata o le Moana – the story of Pacific people in New Zealand. I learn that Kupe was the first Māori explorer, using his knowledge of the stars and sea to reach Aotearoa, which, in Māori language, means a long white cloud. Kupe’s wife gave the country this name on first sighting. I learn that the Cook Islands, Samoa and Nieu were once colonized by New Zealand, that the discovery of phosphate, used for farming in New Zealand, rendered the island of Banuba almost inhabitable and that tinned corn beef, called pisupo, is now, unfortunately, part of the Pacific Islanders’ staple diet.
As I move between talking heads I trigger recorded memories of the Polynesian Black Panther Party, Pan Pacific women’s activism, Polynesian Congregational churches and youth gangs. Life wasn’t always easy for those, ‘fresh off the boat and New Zealanders were not always welcoming.’
I select an object from a cabinet and learn about the importance of a rugby club in helping Pacific Islanders settle into their new home. I listen to young people mixing Pacific sounds on a music deck.
Pacific influences and people are everywhere,’ reads the bilingual text in Māori and English, ‘But do Kiwis accept their ‘Pacific-ness’ as a part of themselves? Do they see Pacific Island as a Pacific place?’
In an adjacent gallery the carvings of the Māori storehouses and meeting houses are just as beautiful as those in Auckland Museum. But here the text suggests more active involvement of the iwi (tribes). The bilingual label describing the store house of the Ngati Pikiao, one of the Arawa tribes from Rotorua, reads, ‘Our elders planned this display ….. Therefore our people researched the history of this house, we renovated the carvings, lashed together the traditional house in the traditional way and rethatched the roof.’
It is in the 20th century gallery that the impact of migration on the Māori becomes clearer. At the beginning of the century, ‘European diseases, war, land confiscation and discrimination have wreaked havoc. Many Māori live in poverty and the overall population has plummeted.’ In the 1950s there is a move to the city, contributing to alienation from each other and their iwi (tribe).
The Māori have not succumbed. They have petitioned, protested, worked through their parliamentary representation and taken legal action including through the Waitangi Tribunal Process established in 1970s.
“So how parallel is this situation with Indigenous people in Australia?” I ask. “In Australia they stole children and went on killing expeditions,” say my hosts. But they and others agree that there is no reason for complacency. “It just played out differently here.” There is still poverty, discrimination, land disputes and over representation in the criminal justice system.
The sun is out and I am hungry. Even though I haven’t visited what I came thousands of miles to see – the exhibition on Stories of Young Refugees in New Zealand in the Mixing Room, I must leave Te Papa. For the moment at least.