Book Review: Ten x Ten: Art at Te Papa, edited by Athol McCredie

Available in bookshops nationwide.

ten_x_ten_cvr_loresThis is a beautiful book covering the broad and diverse range of art at Te Papa as they prepare to renew their gallery space. 

 

In this book, ten of Te Papa’s art curators have each picked ten pieces from Te Papa’s collection of over 16,500 works and explain why they are drawn to them and why they believe they matter. The collection is truly diverse, balancing international and New Zealand art, and with pieces dated from circa 1300 to 2015. Each curator gives a short commentary on the painting, drawing, photograph, applied art object or sculpture. 

 

Curators responses vary from historic influences to emotional connections, with the tone very casual and conversational. These commentaries translate well creating a more informal, casual approach to art that I think most readers will enjoy. It’s enough to guide the viewer to certain elements or aspects in an informed approach but still allows the viewer to draw their own response. I recognised quite a few artworks featured but knew very little else and it was nice to learn more. 

 

The passion and delight of several curators shines through as they share the piece with the viewer. I found Rebecca Rice’s commentaries particularly compelling and I enjoyed pausing between paragraphs to look at the opposite art, consider what she had highlighted or identified before absorbing more.

 

I also cannot finish this review without mentioning the wonderful introduction by editor, Athol McCredie, who gives an overview of how Te Papa’s collection developed, how it acquires art and how it grew the diverse collection to what it is presently. This was surprisingly comprehensive and interesting, with a great insight from McCredie. ‘Art with depth and strength may speak to people in different ways, but speak it does’. 

 

This book is great start for anyone even just a little curious about art or planning to visit Te Papa’s renewed gallery space.

Reviewed by Sarah Young

Ten x Ten: Art at Te Papa
by Athol McCredie
Published by Te Papa Publishers
ISBN: 9780994136251

 

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Book Review: Risking their Lives: New Zealand Abortion Stories 1900-1939, by Margaret Sparrow

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_risking_their_livesDame Margaret Sparrow, since qualifying as a doctor in the 1960s, has played a significant role in promoting the availability of reproductive health services in New Zealand. She openly states that it was thanks to her own ability to access contraceptives, and on one occasion a mail-order abortion drug, that she finished medical school at all. A prominent member of groups including Family Planning and the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand, she still makes appearances at pro-choice protests. Recently named Public Health Association champion for 2017, Dame Margaret has been speaking at various events recently, continuing to promote her causes and occasionally startling younger women with frank discussions about masturbation.

She has lent her collection of historical contraceptive devices to be exhibited at Te Papa. She displays a golden speculum-shaped trophy in her living room. In short, Dame Margaret Sparrow is a bloody legend.

Risking their Lives is the third in a series recording abortion history in New Zealand. The earlier books covered the periods 1940 to 1980, and the 1800s. Compiled from coroner’s reports, newspaper reports and some biographical information about key figures who instigated change, the book intersperses historical context with the sad stories of many women whose circumstances led to their deaths from abortion-related causes. This book covers the section of time in between the previous two, during which increasing awareness of deaths from septic abortions led to changing political priorities about women’s health. Eventually.

As shown in the book, women who were pregnant and did not want to be were really between a rock and a hard place: strong social disapproval of childbearing out of wedlock led people to desperate remedies that could kill them. Married couples also feature in these stories; some women who died from abortions already had young children and felt they could not afford another.

Unsurprisingly, this is pretty grim reading. Margaret Sparrow acknowledged as much at the book launch, thanking Victoria University Press for committing to publishing her work despite knowing that abortion death is hardly bestseller material. As she read out one of the narratives, in which a woman on her deathbed was being quizzed by police about which drugs she and her friend might have procured, I suddenly remembered the words on a painting about illegal abortion from 1978: This woman died, I care. This, I thought, must be part of the purpose: to tell the stories of these 90-odd women, who didn’t need to die like that. To show, however belatedly, that someone cares.

After a setting out of historical context, the book divides its stories by the themes of medical causes of death, contraception, the law, then the professions of people most commonly caught up in abortion-related trials and scandals (doctors, nurses, chemists and others). I eventually found this layout slightly confusing, as with each new chapter the stories would start back in the early 1900s and progress on to the late 1930s. Given the evolution of social and medical perspectives being shown throughout the book, I might have found it easier to follow a more strictly chronological arrangement.

The chapter on contraception provided a surprise highlight. Following discussions of contraceptives in the media of the day (disapproving editorials on the one hand, euphemistic newspaper advertisements for “remedies” on the other) the chapter goes on to describe and contrast three pioneering women in the field of birth control: Marie Stopes in the UK, Margaret Sanger in the USA and Ettie Rout in New Zealand. They come across as fascinating characters: they knew each other and had at various times collaborated then strongly disagreed. They all seemed, in their own way, to be rather eccentric. But given the strength of conviction needed to keep pushing their work through, against prevailing social norms, a touch of unconventionality might have been helpful.

The most obvious audience for this book might be students of social and medical history. The book is however a stark reminder to any reader about how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go. It certainly made me grateful to be living with a female reproductive system now rather than 100 years ago. Abortion back then was dangerous, certainly, but naturally-occurring miscarriages could also kill women, and childbirth carried far more risks before modern medicine cut down the rates of fatal infections.

Reading these women’s stories may be an act of bearing witness: This woman died, I care. But we are also reminded that for any progress to be made, people like Margaret Sparrow needed to care. As she notes in her epilogue, we still have abortion in the crimes act, and while so much has improved for women’s health, there are still barriers. The connections between these kinds of stories and the present day need to be heard, because people need to keep on caring enough to keep pushing for change.

Reviewed by Rebecca Gray

Risking their Lives: New Zealand Abortion Stories 1900-1939
by Margaret Sparrow
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561636

Book Review: The Curioseum: Collected stories of the odd & marvellous

What a fantastic idea for a book.cv_the_curiousem Museums are hives of story, both real and imagined. Things in museums all have something different to communicate, and these 22 authors have created new stories surrounding some intriguing objects from Te Papa Museum.

I am envious of the carte blanche the authors were given in the museum archives. I still remember being able to explore the archives of Coaltown, where my mum worked in Westport. I used to love going exploring in the attic – of course nothing was clearly archived, so it was really dusty and grimy, but there was magic up there.

Realistic dialogue between children is one of the major strengths of several of the stories in this book, with Anatonio Te Maioha writing about a disaster in a lift, and John McCrystal writing about two kids bickering as they go through the museum with their mum, learning about a dog-skin cloak whose owner remains a mystery.

The authors chosen have put their own recognisable imprint on their story, with Kyle Mewburn writing about a fold-up boy who is a bit of a dunderhead, Phillip Mann invoking the supernatural Sa-Li, James Brown giving us an acrostic poem about Britten’s bike, Joy Cowley writing a caper story featuring an errant cat, and Raymond Huber writing one of the most memorable stories in the collection, of a unique breed of humans who mature into insects (a highly original allegory for puberty).

While my children are too young for most of these stories, I still attempted the launch at Te Marae at the beginning of the month. I enjoyed the wonderful Jo Randerson reading her story, and so did my 3-year-old, but the 18-month old is a bit over-active for that sort of immersion in words!

The cover and the interior illustrations are all by Sarah Laing, who is a fantastic artist, and has some really neat interpretations of the stories. I am enjoying this trend at the moment of using cartoonists for cover illustration – Sarah has done several cartoon covers recently, and Dylan Horrocks also: both have an eye-catching style of lettering and illustration. The weight and feel of this book are also well-considered.

This is a wonderful collection for children aged 8-12. Both world wars and the holocaust come up in the book a couple of different times, as well as several Maori myths, so be prepared for some chances to explain Maori mythology and European history if they aren’t yet aware of it. I look forward to the next children’s book from Te Papa Press, especially if they collaborate with Whitireia Publishing further.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Curioseum: Collected Stories of the Odd & Marvellous
Edited by Adrienne Jansen
Published by Te Papa Press
ISBN 9787877385926

 

Book review: 100 Amazing Tales from Aotearoa by Simon Morton and Riria Hotere

cv_100_amazing_tales_from_aotearoaThis book is in bookstores now

I suspect the challenge of writing a book about a museum is nearly as hard as designing the museum itself. There is a tricky pathway to tread between inspiration and boredom, and always way more material than will fit into the confines available (in this case 225 pages). The authors of 100 Amazing Tales From Aotearoa have solved this by choosing 100 short stories featuring terrifically interesting exhibits. And Simon Horton and Riria Hotere bring a fresh approach to the book that allows their quirkiness and sheer fascination with the oddities of our cultural and natural history to emerge.

Museums are odd concoctions of competing interests at their very best and Te Papa, our national museum, has the challenge of capturing who we are in a single building. Capturing and preserving stories and artefacts of history, art, culture, and natural history (and more) is a noble pastime. But for the museum staff, this is serious and passionate work. It includes serious research and often years (lifetime careers) of commitment. And I think both the (television) series and this book celebrate this work well.

This is not simply a fact-filled book – although there are plenty of those and the supporting photographs are fabulous – it presents the serious information in a fun and enjoyable way. It’s a book that will appeal to adults and children because the mix of information and entertainment is spot on.

I particularly liked the way the important information (e.g. cultural history, modern art, sport, natural curiosities, etc) is presented largely from the perspective of human interaction. The stories are as much about the weavers as they are the weaving; about the soldiers as the war; and about the researchers and their work. And that’s why this book is so accessible.

There is a wonderful story about the restoration of a samurai suit and the individual layers of cloth, leather and hair that took over two years to complete.  The researcher (or should I say detective) used modern X-rays to detect small pieces of metal embedded in the leather suit in the mask. Vital pieces that would, otherwise, remain unseen by the uninformed viewer.

Viewers of TV7 will remember the short bites (Tales From Te Papa) that used to appear from time to time on New Zealand’s free public TV network. This new book covers some of the same areas, but is different enough that the two included DVDs enhance the stories not detract. I suspect our family will dip into this book for many years to come.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

100 Amazing Tales from Aotearoa
by Simon Morton and Riria Hotere
Published by Te Papa Press
ISBN 9781877385797