Those Who Shaped New Zealand Make an Impression.

An interview by Emma Beer, published in ‘The Wellingtonian’, 24 November, 2011.

Keywords: Literature and Culture; Political Economy & History;

What begins with Michael Joseph Savage and Gordon Coates and ends with Rob Muldoon and Roger Douglas?

A new exhibition that catalogues 60 of the most important makers of modern New Zealand, curated by Wellington economist Brian Easton. Makers of New Zealand 1930-1990 opens at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery this week.

Easton is also the author of the book The Nationbuilders, which covers much the same period. “It told a story of how New Zealand had developed over that period.” He was commissioned to compile a list of 60 names, which he said was no easy task. “I started with the people from Nationbuilders, but not an exact overlap.

“One of the rules [about The Nationbuilders] was you had to be dead to be in it. At that time Allen Curnow wasn’t dead so I’ve switched Denis Glover [who is in the book] for Allen. Although, I’m extremely fond of Denis as poet, Curnow is another step up on that.”

The process of culling the names involved sitting down and deciding what was important, and then discussing it with friends, he said.”In an obvious sense Hillary’s going to be there, but there’s going to have to be somebody reflecting rugby, as a part of New Zealand.” Various names were put to him, but often they were players or stars, rather than people who helped shape the game, he said. “I eventually hooked on to Fred Allen. I knew I was right when I found one of the quotations by him. “He was asked how his great Auckland team would compare with a modern team, and he said, `The modern team would be fitter and more skilled and they’d win, but we had a lot more fun’.”

Easton said he tried to get a notion of development over time, and an important aspect of that was the development of women. Women in the exhibit include authors Elsie Locke and Janet Frame, women’s advocate Sonja Davies, and anthropologist  Joan Metge. “I wanted to talk about the change in dining over the period, which is a women’s thing if you think about it.

So Alison Holst is probably the first of the modern cooks. She was one of the later additions.”

Easton said he did not want celebrities in the mix.”There was a trick to that. If you ask people they will invariably talk about celebrities after 1990, because people have forgotten who the celebrities before 1990 were. People will say Kiri Te Kanawa, but her great achievements were after 1990. So who have I got instead? The person who trained her, Sister Mary Leo.”

Easton said the exhibition was not a triumphalist account of New Zealand. “One way of thinking about the country is one triumph after another, but as I’ve tried to explain, we should really ask how successful the period was. “We finish up [the exhibition] by focusing on Muldoon and Douglas, who are both quite problematic politicians in their own way.