Publication Date

November 1, 1997

Editor's Note: The two articles on this page mark the launch of a new series of essays and features that provide an international perspective on the profession. We especially welcome contributions from our foreign readers.

Public history is practiced widely in New Zealand today. The announcement of a Fulbright award to Victoria University in Wellington a year ago marked the first time that a public historian was requested to help organize a public history program in the university's history department. When I arrived in Wellington in June to teach the "one-off" or one-time introductory course for the winter term, I knew only that a professional public history group, the Professional Historians' Association of New Zealand/ Aotearoa (PHANZA) existed and at most of the government historians were grouped together in one office in the Department of internal Affairs (an agency that roughly corresponds with the U.S. Department of the interior).

There was considerably more to know, because the practice of public history in New Zealand is both similar to and very different from that in the United States, The training for most public historians in New Zealand today differs little from the academic training for public historians 20 years ago in the United States—before programs in public or applied history appeared in American universities. The places where historians practice in New Zealand are not terribly different from those where historians are found in the United States; they are in government offices, museums, historic preservation organizations, and the like. There is a large body of contract historians in New Zealand, as there is in the United States, and they work on issues ranging from land and natural resource claims research to environmental cleanups to company histories, PHANZA parallels the Society for History in the Federal Government or the National Council on Public History in the United States, The organization produces a quarterly public history newsletter called Phanzine, Many of the issues confronting the membership of PHANZA reflect those facing public practitioners everywhere: ethics and quality, training, and the question of who owns history and whose story takes precedence in the public telling of historical events and contexts.

But the differences between public history in New Zealand and the United States are worth observing closely. The practice of public history in New Zealand parallels roughly the recognition by school curricula and the broader public that New Zealand has a history of its own, Chief Historian Jock Phillips notes in "Our History, Our Selves: The Historian and National Identity" that the serious study of New Zealand history began after World War II.1 Prior to that, history taught in the schools and universities portrayed the colony solely as a part of the British Empire, Local history, “… the pattern of life we have got from our own past, as a community in this country, and so with our sense of the age we live in, in this place now,” was expressed primarily in family stories, local museums and sites, and Maori oral tradition.2

New Zealand history came into its own by the 1960s, and one outgrowth of the development of a national history was the need for professional historians to practice it in public institutions. There had been one area in national government—the Internal Affairs Department—that had focused on New Zealand history since the 1930s. This department was responsible for the National Archives, the National Museum, the Alexander Turnbull Library, and other arts and heritage matters, and organized a number of projects, including a dictionary of national biography and a historical atlas of New Zealand to celebrate the national centennial in 1940.3 The project produced A Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, but the atlas project was abandoned in the early 1950s.4 When the New Zealand government decided to produce official histories of World War II near the end of the conflict, the War History Branch was merged with the older historical section. Fifty volumes were produced over the next 20 years, and some work appeared during the following two decades.

In the 1990s the Historical Branch has turned out a large number of official government histories. A 1989 government minute—similar to a Congressional mandate—ordered government departments to use the services of the historical branch if they wanted historical work done. In a sense, the branch functions as if, in the United States, the historical programs of the military services, NASA, the National Park Service, and the Department of Labor, among others, were combined under one chief historian. The Kiwi historians write for all agencies who request their services. Business has been brisk because of a series of centennial anniversaries: for example, the Departments of Agriculture, Labour, and Valuation all were established in the 1890s, and New Zealand became the first nation to have full female suffrage in 1893; all needed commemoration.5 In addition, a number of government agencies, caught up in the economic restructuring that swept the New Zealand government in the 1980s, were abolished, and histories of their work were contracted as another kind of commemorative undertaking.

One of the key differences between the Historical Branch and government history offices in the United States lies in the nature of their assignments. The branch has chosen a much broader mandate for its work Partly because the historians who work for the government of New Zealand do not report to the agency they write about, they have no need to reflect an agency loyalty in their work. Nor are they required to be solely agency-specific in the histories they write. For example, they might write not just a history of the Department of Labour, as the DOL historian in Washington would, but might write a history of the working class as well. Or a New Zealand government historian would produce not just a history of the Department of Housing but a history of housing in New Zealand.6 The agency, because it is a super-agency office, has considerably more leeway to produce broad, reflective studies of the context of agencies than in the federal agencies of the United States.

There are other differences that grow out of the interagency status of the Historical Branch. For one thing, there has been more regular peer review with a panel of public and university-based historians convened to keep track of ongoing projects and to review them for quality and independence of focus. While some federal historical offices, such as the NASA historical office, have such panels, others do not.

In New Zealand's neoconservative economic climate, there is also a greater focus on cost-recoverable work, where agencies pay for the histories that the branch produces, and the branch contracts out to work for clients other than the government itself. In agencies in the United States, the notion of working for another agency is often very difficult, even among agencies in the same administrative organization, such as the Department of Defense. The idea of working for nongovernmental clients on projects that have either a national or more local focus is not one that has been explored in depth by U.S. offices. Under the rules of U.S. federal government contracting, it might well be perceived to a conflict of interest for agencies to take on outside work of this sort.

In addition to organizational differences between New Zealand and U.S. public historians, public history in New Zealand also practiced in the context of a society trying to work out ways to reflect honestly the bicultural history of a Pacific nation that was colonized fairly recently. The attention given to Maori history, often preserved by the tribes in oral form, is a cultural imperative in New Zealand practice today. Because so much Maori tradition is told through nonwritten forms, particular efforts have been made in public history projects to include those stories. The soon to be published Historical Atlas of New Zealand, edited by Malcolm McKinnon, takes Maori geographical information from the time of the first arrivals and, using sophisticated computer technology and a good deal of imagination, maps those ancient stories in a format compatible with more recent mapping techniques. The methodology of research and writing required by the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (Claudia Orange, general editor) for its entries is substantially modified for Maori biographies; decisions are made by tribal groups as to who should be included, and the process of gathering the information reflects Maori ways of preserving those stories. In addition, the publication of the Maori volumes of the dictionary have raised important questions about contemporary Maori language development. These volumes will represent the largest Maori-language publication ever when they are completed in a few years.

The biculturalism reflected in these printed historical undertakings is reflected as well in some contemporary museum practices in New Zealand. The new Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Tongarewa, scheduled to open in February 1998, was designed as a building to reflect the two cultures, Maori and Pakeha. A research statement issued by the museum, "Speaking with Authority: Scholarship and Matauranga at the Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Tongarewa—A Strategy," builds on the museum's four corporate principles:7

  • We will be a bicultural museum.
  • We will be consumer focused.
  • We will speak with the authority that arises from scholarship and matauranga Maori.
  • The museum will be a waharoa to New Zealand for all people.8

The museum's statement adds, "It follows that two cultural philosophies of knowledge will permeate scholarship and matauranga Maori at Te Papa. There is already established a strong research tradition based on western concepts of scholarship. The museum now makes a commitment to developing matauranga Maori as part of its scholastic culture. The two traditions will be both independent and codependent."9 While discussion about the inclusion of the experiences of various classes and ethnic groups has characterized museum practice in the United States for some time, relatively few publicly funded American institutions have committed themselves to such a clearly articulated statement of powersharing. In that sense, those historians who practice at Te Papa must be committed to a public bicultural agenda as a central tenet of their professional work.

This national commitment to biculturalism, which is due to the tenets of the Treaty of Waitangi (1840), reveals itself most clearly in New Zealand professional practice in the historical work undertaken by those associated with the Waitangi Tribunal. This tribunal was established by the Labour government in 1975 to hear claims brought by Maori against the Crown relating to breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. The treaty was signed by Governor Hobson, the representative of the Crown, and some, but not all, of the Maori chiefs. Although the original tribunal legislation allowed for land and resource claims that occurred after 1975, a 1985 act extended the period of investigation of claims back to the signing of the treaty. The claims relate to all aspects of land ownership and use of natural, cultural, and intellectual resources. Historians are involved in research and appear as expert witnesses before the tribunal. The tribunal employs historians because the institution has the power to commission research. So many historians have worked at the various institutions concerned with the negotiations that the whole operation is sometimes referred to as the "treaty industry." There are similarities here between New Zealand and the United States: historians do similar research in land and other natural resource issues for Native American tribes across the United States and perhaps enough professional historians are involved in those undertakings to deserve a designation of "claims industry."

But the New Zealand effort is on a nationwide basis, a scale unthinkable in the United States. It is as if the U.S. government decided to honor the notion of compensation to Native American groups for past injustices and the taking of land and resources without payment or consent, set up a commission to hear claims and adjudicate settlements, and then actually settled up by transfer of money or resources back to the tribes. New Zealand is about the size of California, Oregon, and Washington put together, and has only about 3 million inhabitants. Yet it has taken on a large-scale role among nations concerned with indigenous rights because New Zealand is approaching seriously the notion of making amends. The tribunal makes recommendations to the sitting government on any particular claim, but the government is under no compulsion to accept, the findings. Successive governments since the 1975 and 1985 acts have, however, honored the efforts being made to address ancient grievances and as the first settlements are made, the work of the historians involved on all sides-tribal, Crown, and of various government departments-will help shape the account being addressed.

In sum, although the practice of public history in New Zealand looks quite similar to its practice in the United States, the differences are ones that may present new possibilities for professional practice. The nationwide commitment to practicing within a bicultural context is a particularly striking difference, although there are places in public history in the United States where similar attempts are being made. The links between historians who teach in universities and those who practice outside of universities are considerably closer than they are in the United States, but a smaller pool of professional historians may enable more regular interaction and common cause. The role of historian as historian in public practice is clearer and more distanced from agency and bureaucratic difficulties than such jobs are in the United States. Where the U.S. National Register of Historic Places asks historians to review a bureaucratic document outlining the ways to establish the eligibility to the National Register of public housing sites and structures, New Zealand preservationists go to Gael Ferguson's Building the New Zealand Dream, the history of public housing policies in New Zealand. Written by a historian in the Historical Branch, its application to public history and policy, as well as to preservation, is clear.

Some of the differences may disappear shortly as the Historical Branch is reorganized into a Heritage Office that will include the National Archives, the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, and some historic preservation activities of the Department of Internal Affairs. just as historians in universities in both the United States and New Zealand are beginning to be forced by state governments and boards of regents to be teachers at the expense of their own research work, government historians in New Zealand, like their U.S. counterparts, may find themselves becoming bureaucrats at the expense of their historical production. Over the past 10 years public history in New Zealand has been the beneficiary of bold attempts to do quality history work in the public arena and such a change would be a real loss to the wider historical community.


1. Jock Phillips, “Our History, Our Selves: The Historian and National Identity” The New Zealand Journal of History 30, no. 2 (October 1996), 107.

2. J. C. Beaglehole, “The New Zealand Scholar,” 1954, quoted in Phillips, 107.

3. Phillips, “The Quest for Scholarly Independence—the Example of the New Zealand Government’s Historical Branch,” mss. p. 17.

4. G. H. Scholefield, ed., Dictionary of NewZealand Biography, 2 vols. (Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1940).

5. Phillips, 19.

6. Gael Ferguson, Building the New Zealand Dream (Palmerston North, New Zealand: The Dunmore Press, 1994).

7. Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Tongarewa, “Speaking with Authority: Scholarship and Matauranga at the Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Tongarewa—A Strategy,” February 1996. “Matauranga” means “knowledge.”

8. “Waharoa” means “entryway.”

9. Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Tongarewa, “Speaking with Authority,” Preamble, 3.

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