Book extract: New Zealand on show: Innovation, industry and nation

Tourist Dept 1939 (Peter Alsop collection)
Tourist Dept 1939 (Boston P{rint Library)
Tourist Dept 1939 (Peter Alsop collection)
Tourist Dept 1939 (Alan Craig collection)

Reprinted with permission from Promoting Property: The Art of Early New Zealand Advertising by Peter Alsop and Gary Stewart (Craig Potton Publishing)


The industrial exhibition was a showcase for prosperous nations to display the tangible and innovative results of the Industrial Revolution.

Exhibitions signified power, prosperity and an abundance of natural resources that could be transformed into profitable consumer goods. They functioned as both a stocktake of industrial progress and an opportunity for speculative endeavour and future gazing. New Zealand was not immune and from as early as 1865 staged grand events to trumpet its development and potential.

The birth of exhibitions
The 1851 Great Exhibition of Industry in London is widely acknowledged as the first truly international exhibition, an initiative that would open the floodgates to industrial exhibitions globally on a grand scale. The success of such exhibitions would be immense, from improving product standards through international comparison and competition, through to educating an emergent consumer public and boosting regional and national identities through a combination of information and experience. Entertainment also ensured ‘fair fever’ spread rapidly across the industrialising world, and particularly within the web of Empire. And no sooner had one city raised and then lowered its flag, than others in the nation were clamouring to raise their own. Governments, too, actively participated to communicate progress in public works, encourage the development of a shared sense of national identity, and to foster economic development and improved wellbeing.

Sociologist Paul Greenhalgh coined the term ‘ephemeral vistas’ to capture the transitional and carnivalesque pop-up nature of industrial exhibitions. He also argued that they performed an important function of raising manufacturing standards by national and international benchmarking, encouraging competition through awards and prizes, and the promotion of design education to support communication and product development.

The loftier aims of exhibitions were to encourage peace, education, trade and progress. In frontier societies like New Zealand, they also provided a projective vista to imagine modern cities and nations, and new roles for citizens, producers and consumers.

Unlike their more famous ‘ephemeral vistas’ overseas, New Zealand industrial exhibitions differed in that they also made tangible and durable contributions to the built environment.

1865: Golden Vulcan of the South
It may be that in some future day, when the development of those great agents of civilisation which at present lie latent in her mountains and scattered on the sea-shores, takes place – when the coal-pit and the foundry mark the advance of industry – New Zealand may become the Vulcan of the South hemisphere, forging with her coal, her iron and steel-sands, a prosperity, perhaps more enduring, if less attractive, than that produced by the labors of gold-seekers. [NZ Exhibitions report 1865]

The first industrial exhibition in New Zealand took place in Dunedin in 1865, identifying the city as a location of gold-fuelled prosperity and emergent industry. It took place only 25 years after the Treaty of Waitangi, but most significantly four years after the discovery of gold in Gabriel’s Gully (1861). Gold transformed a coastal village of under 2000 people to New Zealand’s first industrial city of 15,000 by 1870.

One of the criteria for the Exhibition building design competition was that it would serve a longer-term public function. The winning architect, William Mason, clearly had this in mind when he designed the largest brick building in New Zealand, completely dwarfing the small wooden structures making up the city at that time. Its two 40-metre high central towers were visible from the harbour and across the town. The building remained in service as the public hospital for 70 years, until 1936.

In the central courtyard stood a 21-foot classical gold-painted obelisk, representing the total of all gold extracted from Otago (1,691,526 ounces, valued at £6,250,000, 93% of the national output). All New Zealand provinces were represented, but Otago dominated the Gallery plan by having a separate Furniture and Museum Gallery and providing 562 of the 3150 display exhibits. Australia, England, India, Canada, France, Germany, Austria and Holland were also represented. 31,250 visitors attended over the 102 days it was open.

The exhibition was divided into three sections – Raw Materials, Machinery and Manufactures. The first section was dominated with minerals, "those natural elements which are necessary for the support of commercial and manufacturing prosperity." The development of agricultural resources, particularly wool, was described as ‘the most satisfactory proofs that can be afforded of [the country’s] prosperity."

The major weakness was identified in manufacturing,  given machines and tools used in agriculture were largely imported. The jurors concluded: "The desirability of ... introducing those branches of manufacturing industry, the materials necessary for which can be produced in New Zealand, cannot be questioned." Furniture and native timbers showed considerable promise, but quality improvement was necessary to make them competitive with imports.

Nevertheless, this first industrial exhibition in New Zealand was successful in advertising the country, and particularly Dunedin, on the industrial world stage.

1889: Switzerland of the South Seas
As an advertisement it seems to me that exhibitions are very good indeed. Our Exhibition has been the means of drawing to our shores from the other colonies and from abroad a very large number of people who have come to see and then gone away delighted. [Official record, 1891]

Inspired by recent Adelaide and Melbourne exhibitions, including their source potential for exhibits, a second international exhibition was proposed in Dunedin to celebrate the 50th jubilee of New Zealand as a British colony. It was a bold move given that the country was experiencing a long economic depression, but financial support from the local Chamber of Commerce eventually saw the Government support it with a subsidy of £10,000. As its name – the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition – suggested, the main aim was to develop closer trade and cultural relations with Australia and the Pacific Islands.

The Harbour Board made a vacant area of recently reclaimed land available free of charge. The site comprised 121 acres with the buildings covering 10 acres. Rather than the imposing scale of the 1865 building, the exhibition buildings were built to the strictest economy. The only concession to theatrical architecture was the northern entrance facade, which featured 4 turrets flanking a domed entrance 80 foot high and 50 foot in diameter. According to one historian,"‘the whole looked something like a cross between St. Peters and the Taj Mahal."

Along with a wide range of other countries, all New Zealand provinces were represented, but again Otago and Southland dominated. The main courts featured Fisheries, Minerals, Education and an Art Gallery. The Natural History court was organised by Dr Hocken and featured a large display of the country’s flora and fauna. The Early History, Māori and South Seas Courts presented an anthropological view of Māori and Pacific Island life. A new addition was a Tourist Court, which encouraged the Governor-General to suggest that New Zealand could become the "Switzerland of the South Seas."

The exhibition ran for 125 days (November 1889 to April 1890) with 625,478 paying to attend. The exhibition made a small profit – the only New Zealand international exhibition to do so. As the Minister of Education concluded at the closing ceremony: "I think you will agree enterprise of the kind, undertaken at a time when the sun of prosperity is shining, betokens a certain amount of boldness, but when it is entered upon under a black cloud of depression it betokens a faith in the future which is indicative of the building up of a great nation."

Jules Joubert, spurred by his part in the success by helping manage the exhibition, lobbied the Government to send "a collection of the very best samples of the very products that are to make New Zealand so well known" to London as a colossal advertising scheme for the colony. However, this didn’t occur; perhaps one exhibition was enough for the Government to invest in. While the buildings were all dismantled, the harbourside area that the Exhibition occupied soon filled permanently with the very industrial producers the Exhibition sought to promote.

1906-07 NZ International Exhibition
The New Zealand International Exhibition in 1906-07 was Christchurch’s second such event. Its first, in 1882, organised by entrepreneurs R E N Twopenny and Jules Joubert, had attracted 226,360 visitors, but resulted in a substantial loss. However, this one was a national initiative, championed by Premier Richard Seddon, after having authorised a New Zealand display for the St Louis Exhibition in 1903. For Seddon, its aim was to promote trade and tourism and be ‘a milestone on the way pointing out the colony’s prosperity’. More pragmatically, the official historian described it as ‘a solid advertisement for New Zealand products and manufacture’.

The United States, England, some European countries, South Africa, the Straits settlements, Canada, Fiji and Australian states also contributed, although it was more imperial than international in nature.

Seddon’s plan was to provide government assistance of £20,000. Initially conceived to be locally managed, the Government took over to guarantee against losses – which turned out to be substantial (£81,000).

Given the Government’s strong oversight, a number of departments were represented, including Education, Agriculture, Labour, Mines, and Tourist and Health Resorts. The Labour Department exhibit showed New Zealand workers and their conditions, and compared them to those outlined in the 1906 London English Sweated Industries Exhibition, which shocked locals and grew support for New Zealand’s innovative labour laws and arbitration system developed in the 1890s.

An accompanying booklet outlined the measures taken by the Government to prevent such exploitative industrial practices.

A large temporary building was constructed in French Renaissance style; its elegant front facade stretching for a quarter of a mile, and the whole building covered 14 acres of North Hagley Park. Twin towers and a dome again adorned the entrance, with the words Haere mai written above the entrance. The effect was more substantial than Dunedin’s 1889 exhibition building, even if the buildings were similarly temporary in nature. The products of industry, agriculture and commerce filled its halls, but were coordinated by the newly formed Department of Industries and Commerce (set up in 1901). Around the back by Lake Victoria was Wonderland, a privately operated amusement park on 12 acres. Alongside was a model Māori pa, a concept imported from the 1904 St Louis Fair, and an artificial Rotorua ‘Scenic Wonderland’ complete with mechanical steam-powered geysers.

Almost two million people attended the exhibition over six months. Along with the fun of the fair and a mass of souvenirs (hand-tinted photographic postcards and colourful chromolithographic prints abounded), visitors were exposed to a greater quality and range of local manufactures, where advances in design education were evident. However, the Government ensured the focus remained on social progress and the development of a less provincial national identity.

1925: Lasting legacy of sport and art
The last and most successful international industrial exhibition in New Zealand again fell to Dunedin and promised big things. As noted at the time, "[t]he mechanical revolution has been accompanied by social and mental revolutions which has made the world of 1925 a new world. It is this new world that is on view at the New Zealand & South Seas International Exhibition." The New Zealand Government Pavilion was a considerably expanded expression of the emergent nation state, and featured elaborate and extensive Departmental displays for everything from Agriculture to Tourist and Health Resorts.

The popular exhibition was undoubtedly a resounding success. It opened on November 11,1925, and closed six months later. Focussing the attention of the whole country, over 3.2 million people attended (yes, over 3 million) at a time when the national population totalled only 1.3 million.

The exhibition covered 65 acres with seven main pavilions: British, Machinery, Provincial Courts, British Dominions, New Zealand Government, New Zealand Secondary Industries, and a Motor Pavilion. There was international representation from the United States, France, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, Finland and Denmark.

The story of Dunedin’s second New Zealand & South Seas Exhibition cannot be told without reference to its architect, New Zealander Edmund Anscombe. At the age of 14 in 1888, he attended his first exhibition in Melbourne, which sparked a lifelong passion for industrial exhibition design. In 1901 Anscombe moved to America to study architecture, where he worked as a builder on the 1904 St. Louis Exhibition.

As David Brain has argued: "The success of the Fair brought public recognition to the architect as the guiding intelligence in a division of labor among experts concerned with the urban environment, and established a place for the expert practice of design near the center of Progressive-era urban reform" – a position ardently held by Anscombe himself.

Returning to Dunedin in 1907, he was appointed University Architect for Otago. In 1922, he travelled to 50 cities in Canada and America to research gallery and exhibition design. He returned, convinced that an industrial exhibition would reverse the city’s decline and play an important role in promoting New Zealand-made goods. Using a pragmatic argument that an exhibition would attract capital and boost production of buildings and industry, and fuel further national pride (‘Let it be the symbol of New Zealand’s Spirit’), Anscombe wrote an open letter to this effect to the Evening Star in 1923. In January the following year, he was appointed official exhibition architect.

He designed the layout and supervised the construction of all the pavilions, which occupied 15 of the 65 acres of the site.

The building construction was standardised along ‘Fordist’ lines, with each pavilion designed differently to ensure they retained architectural individuality. The Festival Hall and the Art Gallery (the latter still standing today) were designed to create a ‘wonder’ experience, externally in the case of the domed Festival Hall and water feature, and internally in the state-of-the-art Art Gallery.

Anscombe also advocated for the commercial importance of a modern amusement zone, ‘made so complete and so attractive that it cannot fail to pull the people through the exhibition gates day in, day out’. The seven main rides imported from America were hugely popular, with 2.4 million tickets for the rides issued in six months, resulting in a net profit of over £7000. The complement of interactive entertainment, where visitors actively engaged with technology in a less socially restrictive way, provided a popular counterbalance to the more serious side, and weightier claims, of the wider exhibition.

There is another important local legacy of this exhibition: where the exhibition was built. Two years earlier, the ‘land’ was Lake Logan. A massive and rapid reclamation occurred, along with a new highway, in a coordinated effort by the Council and Harbour Board. "The accomplishment of the reclamation was one of the wonders of the exhibition." Beyond the exhibition, the Otago Daily Times commended and predicted that "Dunedin … [has] secured a fresh asset that will be a source of great civic pride in the future." By 1930, it had been developed into 41 grounds for rugby, league, soccer, hockey, cricket, tennis and croquet – and Logan Park is now arguably the most diverse sporting complex in New Zealand.

Edmund Anscombe was well aware of these long-term possibilities. He had written to the Evening Star in 1924, that the sportgrounds "can undoubtedly be made the finest and most completely equipped athletic arena in the dominion." He also predicted (correctly as it turned out) that the Art Gallery building and sports stands would be kept for use after the demolition of the Exhibition. Curators McCarthy & Findlay have argued that Anscombe viewed exhibitions not as ephemeral vistas, but as "urban redevelopment schemes which would impact on each city long after." Due to the quality of his design, the 1925 Exhibition Art Gallery remained in use for its original purpose until 1996, far beyond what he, or anyone, had envisioned.

Centennial Exhibition 1940: Health and happiness
By the 1930s, the educational function of international exhibitions had been overtaken by mass media. Cheaper and more accessible international travel also meant competition had overtaken cooperation as an international meeting ground for prosperity.

An international convention was drawn up in 1928 to govern the running of international exhibitions, but because New Zealand did not subscribe to the convention, the 1940 Centennial Exhibition could not claim to be international. However, its focus was clearly national in terms of commemorating the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Prime Minister Peter Fraser stated its aim was "to arouse in our people a proper sense of national pride" – a celebration that would become even more poignant in the international shadow of escalating world war.

After initial reluctance, the Government allocated £75,000 of its £250,000 centennial budget to an exhibition in Wellington. Edmund Anscombe was again appointed architect, and seized the opportunity to bring his ambition and experience to bear on an integrated, centrally-located national exhibition premised on modern town planning methods. The buildings covered 17 acres at Rongotai, and provided 750,000 square feet of floor area (almost the same as the 1851 Great Exhibition in London).

The ratio of open space to buildings was 70:30, which provided a spectacular coastal canvas for Anscombe’s grand plan utilising a classical axial cross plan. The main central Centennial Avenue was a quarter-mile long, narrowing progressively along its length, thereby enhancing the perspective of depth. At its conclusion was a 52-metre tapered Art Deco tower that became a modernist national symbol.

Resembling a power generator ‘its massive lines and well-proportioned height symbolised the progress and ambition of the young nation’. At its base, a 100 x 8 foot frieze by sculptor Alison Duff charted the symbolic achievement and prosperity of New Zealand people. Elsewhere, a decorative horizontal streamline device covered up the cheap asbestos cladding, but changing coloured lighting of the buildings, combined with the reflective pools and fountain that lined the avenue, created a fairyland – all of this quite a change from a formerly barren and unprepossessing site. In all, over 2.6 million visitors, a million more than the entire national population, paid their 10 pence to enter over the year-long exhibition.

The New Zealand Government Court involved all 26 departments of the State, arranged in four sections: Industrial Development, Transport and Communication, Defence, and Social and Cultural Services. The development of the various departments was presented as a progressively integrated whole, and the effect was to demonstrate the coordinated integrity of a centralised nation state. A cinema located within the Court also showed films to 150,000 people about New Zealand achievements over the previous century.

Outside, 5ZB broadcast "Heigh ho, come to the fair" to the nation from a railway carriage that had previously toured the North Island in the Exhibition’s lead-up. The focus of the Government Court was on the social necessity of health and education for a modern nation state, and how an integrated approach would lead to a ‘highway to health and happiness’ in the future.

Education focused on the whole child – physical, mental and emotional – while health was firmly located in the family home. A robot, Dr Well-and strong, toured 12 exhibition bays every 30 minutes, focusing on different aspects of health promotion and prevention. The encouragement of a healthier and happier family was a major theme as a strong foundation for national prosperity.

The Dominion Court placed all the provinces together, with four entries, corresponding to the four major city ports. Twin pylons outlined the decades of each region’s development. However, attention was mostly centred on the largest relief map and diorama ever built in New Zealand, taking 90 workers nine months to construct and costing £45,000 to build. The result was detailed scale models of all the major cities in their geographical location, with carefully blended country backgrounds behind. Beneath the huge model, visitors could descend through a great modelled labyrinth of the Waitomo Caves with flowing water and coloured light.

The Centennial Exhibition laid a platform for New Zealand’s participation in World Expos from 1970. Anscombe’s architectonic vision for an integrated, professionally-designed exhibition received the full support of the Government’s Tourist Department. Part of the results was a colourful explosion of professional graphic design providing a vibrant and cohesive image of New Zealand to the world.

Productive and projective vistas
Unfortunately, Anscombe’s idea for continuous utility from his final exhibition design did not eventuate. The Centennial Exhibition would be symbolic of the close of a golden age of exhibitions in New Zealand.

Begun with provincial and commercial interests in mind, the various exhibitions culminated in a strategy for advertising a coherent image and brand for the nation, and along the way had exposed New Zealand manufacturers to international developments in design and industry. Where New Zealand differed from the cornucopia of international exhibitions around the globe, was that, from the beginning, they sought not ephemeral vistas but remarkably tangible, productive and projective vistas that would sustain the industrial and social infrastructure of cities, regions and the nation well into the 20th century.


Reprinted with permission from Promoting Property: The Art of Early New Zealand Advertising by Peter Alsop and Gary Stewart (Craig Potton Publishing)

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