Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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"We Never Knew": The Differences between Museum History and Academic History Explored through an Exhibition of the New Zealand Wars

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posted on 2023-03-14, 23:30 authored by Hocking, Elspeth

Public history and academic history have been viewed both as opposites, two practices related only by their concern with sharing the past, as well as conceptualised as similar fields with close connections to each other. Museum history exhibitions are an obvious example of public history in action. However, is the history that exhibitions present all that different from what is produced in the academy, or is this history academia in another form? Initially this dissertation aimed to explore the relationships between academic and public histories as discipline and practice, assuming a relationship rather than divide between the two fields as suggested in some of the literature. However, the eventual results of the research were different than expected, and suggested that in fact public histories manifest very differently to academic histories within a museum context. Using an adapted ethnographic research methodology, this dissertation traces the development of a single history exhibition, "Te Ahi Kā Roa, Te Ahi Kātoro Taranaki War 1860–2010: Our Legacy – Our Challenge", from its concept development to opening day and onwards to public programmes. This exhibition opened at Puke Ariki in New Plymouth in March 2010, and was a provocative display not only of the history of the wars themselves, but of the legacy of warfare in the Taranaki community. Other methods include partially structured interviews which were conducted with ten people involved in creating this exhibition, who outlined their roles in its production and provided their views on its development, and also a brief analysis of the broader social and historical context in which the exhibition was staged. Through tracing the creation of this history, the findings suggested that the history produced at Puke Ariki is a history in its own right, with noticeable differences from academic histories. The strongest correlation between public and academic history in this instance was the shared aspiration to be rigorous in conducting research and, as far as possible, to create an accurate portrayal of the past. Otherwise the history created by Puke Ariki through the exhibition proved to be different in that it was deliberately designed to be very accessible, and it utilised a number of presentation modes, including objects, text, audiovisual and sound. It was interactive, and had a clear aim of enabling the audience to participate in a discussion about the history being presented. Finally, it was a highly politicised history, in that decision making had to be negotiated with source communities in a collaborative fashion, and issues of censorship worked through with the council, a major funding source. The dissertation concludes that producing history in a museum context is a dynamic and flexible process, and one that can be successful despite not necessarily following theoretical models of exhibition development.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Museum and Heritage Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Museum and Heritage Studies

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies


McCarthy, Conal; Phillips, Jock