Antipodes to Sydenham: Showcasing New Zealand at the Festival of Empire
conference contributionposted on 16.09.2021, 05:25 by Robin SkinnerRobin Skinner
Coinciding with the coronation of King George V, the 1911 Festival of Empire at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham aimed to increase mutual understanding and goodwill across imperial Britain. For many, it would have provided their first insight of the extent their nation’s empire. This paper focusses on the representation of New Zealand on this imperial stage. The dominions were represented by stand-alone pavilions that were modelled as two-thirds scale versions of their respective parliament buildings. These timber and plaster simulacra presented imposing exteriors that enclosed large interior exhibition spaces. An electric railway journeyed around the pavilions passing static dioramas showing aspects of colonial life, while in the afternoons a Pageant of Empire presented successive scenes of English and imperial history. One instalment of these re-enactments included the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840 and a finale showing peoples of empire paying homage to Britannia. Despite good intentions, things did not run smoothly; New Zealand’s exhibits were late arriving, and its interior display within the pavilion and the exterior dioramas provoked criticism. A Te Arawa performance group from New Zealand’s central North Island, led by Makereti, Maggie Papakura, journeyed to Britain to take part in the show. After British officials declared their village on the Crystal Palace grounds to be a fire risk, they walked off. Nevertheless, of all the features associated with New Zealand at that time in London, these Māori performers appear to have attracted the greatest interest. Events at the festival reveal a complicated attitude towards the empire and inter-colonial relations. To a large extent this was set aside when the empire joined as one in the First World War; however, despite this unity of purpose, traces of this ambivalence would persist.