Friday, 6 August 2010

The Centennial Surveys: the establishment of modern New Zealand history

We're pleased to be able to make the Centennial Historical Surveys available online.

The centennial historical surveys comprise of eleven volumes (originally thirteen were intended) published between 1939 and 1942 to commemorate the 100 years since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

The surveys were a milestone in New Zealand historical publications, representing a shift from a generation of amateur enthusiasts (such as James Cowan, Elsdon Best, Johannes Anderson, and T. L. Buick) to a generation of academically-trained historians (John Cawte Beaglehole, F. L. Wood, W. T. G. Airey, and James Rutherford). As Rachel Barrowman puts it in her essay, History and Romance: The Making of the Centennial Historical Surveys, "The new historians were trained in the research practices and academic standards of the British universities of the interwar years. For them, history entailed the presentation of thesis and evidence; it had footnotes and arguments."

As well as representing a sea-change in historical analysis of our country, the Centennial Surveys were also a typographical milestone, largely the accomplishment of Beaglehole's genius. As the Surveys were a government initiative, it would have been expected that the Government Printing Office would have been responsible for their eventual printed form. However, due to some skillful negotiation by Oliver Duff, the original series editor, and Joseph Heenan, the civil servant who developed the idea of the surveys, the printing was put out to tender and it was Wilson and Horton who secured the contract.

As Sydney Shep relates in her essay about the typographic production of the centennial publications, concerning the Government Printing Office Beaglehole was particularly irked that it was more willing to spend £500,000 on a new building, than a paltry £2-3000 on replacing its outmoded, 'poverty-stricken and ugly' types and thought that there was "some question how far it is competent to print a book at all."

Initially someone who thought the centennial surveys "a series of fatuities, all of them depraved", Beaglehole became an ardent supporter and collaborator of Heenan, and, as Shep relates:
dreamed of a superbranch in Internal Affairs comprising archives, historical publications, and a historical manuscripts and monuments commission. Safeguarding the country's heritage and disseminating it through popular and accessible publications, Beaglehole's new agency was fancifully termed a 'Tolerable-Printing-and-Graphic-Art-Education-Department'. It was later called 'Historical Branch' and remains today a unique entity in the western world.

The Historical Branch (now known as the History Group, part of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage), is responsible today for publishing New Zealand history in a number of guises, including New Zealand History Online, and has a close relationship with Te Ara Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand and the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.

Although there are occasional deviations from form, the thirteen centennial surveys presented a important modern picture of New Zealand's first century of nationhood, and highlights of the series include Simpson's The Women of New Zealand (the best-seller of the series, and almost an afterthought of the editorial committee), Beaglehole's Discovery of New Zealand, McCormick's Letters and Art in New Zealand, and F. L. Wood's New Zealand and the World.

As well as the Centennial Surveys themselves, we are pleased to be able to make available the collection of essays Creating a National Spirit: Celebrating New Zealand's Centennial, which includes much interesting analysis of the Centennial from various points of view. We thank the authors of these essays, and the series editor, Bill Renwick, for their cooperation with this project.

Over time we hope to add to this collection, and future additions will include:
  • the 30-part pictorial series Making New Zealand
  • the Official Guide to the exhibition
  • the guide to the Centennial Art Exhibition
For more information about the Centennial publications, and the Centennial Exhibition itself, consult the following: