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The State Collections of Colonial New Zealand Art: Intertwined Histories of Collecting and Display

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posted on 15.11.2021, 02:36 by Rice, Rebecca

This thesis explores the collecting and exhibiting of colonial art (before 1908) by New Zealand's state institutions: the Colonial (later Dominion) Museum; the Alexander Turnbull Library; and the National Art Gallery. It recovers evidence of the provenance of works of art within the state collections and accounts for acquisitions in terms of the ideological interests they serve, interests which reflect the intellectual concerns of the key individuals and the historical and political circumstances within which they worked. It examines how works of art were displayed in the institutions themselves, and in other exhibitions, including international exhibitions, both locally and abroad, from 1865 to 1940. This allows for analysis of the 'use' to which colonial art was put by the state, while investigation of the related contemporary discourse provides evidence of its reception and interpretation by critics and audience. This study employs a variety of analytical strategies, including: the place of class in relation to the colonial art world; the aesthetics of 'space' and the practicalities of exhibition in the colonial period; the shifting ground of what constitutes 'art', in particular 'New Zealand art', in the period under study; and the fluctuating, often problematic, status of much colonial art as both 'information' and as 'art'. Consequently, while informed by international scholarship, this thesis needed to adapt models formed for the explanation of metropolitan museology to accommodate the unique nature of the colonial experience in New Zealand. It concludes that, in contrast to many European institutions, the state was largely content to use New Zealand's art as information - as illustration of the colony's natural wonders and resources - and that no real attempt to define a national art history was initiated until the centennial celebrations of 1940. Significantly, this thesis does not just consider the evolution of one state institution. Rather, it recognises that the histories of New Zealand's cultural institutions - Museum, Gallery and Library - require a consideration of their development in relation to one another. This reveals a history of interconnectedness that reflects the complexity of colonial culture, and which ironically prefigures the challenge posed by colonial art to the postmodern descendent of the Museum andGallery - the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Art History

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies


Blackley, Roger