Protest Tautohetohe is exciting. To be honest, I didn’t expect that from a book which was produced by museum curators and focuses on objects. I can’t really explain my joy at seeing a pair of anti-nuclear underpants, produced by Jockey, but I laughed for at least two minutes. This new book from Te Papa press includes hundreds of objects that have stories that are sad, funny, and inspiring. Reading about social movements is one thing, but seeing the physical evidence of another time, another set of concerns, and the material culture that people produced to get their voices heard is something else.
It’s special. And each of the women who co-wrote the book has put their own perspective into the book. You can feel it, in the objects they’ve chosen and the brief but compelling stories that accompany those objects. They’re excited about these things and they want to share that with readers. It’s their energy and careful choices that make this book worth reading. I spoke to Stephanie Gibson, Matariki Williams, and Puawai Cairns about what it was like to make the book and explore Aotearoa’s rich protest history.
If there’s one thing the authors want to make clear, it’s that the book is based around material objects, not history. That’s what curation is about. “Objects hold so many stories and as curators one of the pressures we have is to make sure we can frame the stories in ways that are responsible,” Matariki said. “But despite how we frame them, the objects themselves have so much mana.”
The authors acknowledge the personal aspects of their curation journey in the preface, and admit that the book has ended up quite “left-leaning”, Matariki said. “People who are pushing against the status quo need to produce the material to get their point across,” said Stephanie. The right “don’t actually need to promote objects or material for their cause because they already hold the power.”
They made some hard choices about what made it into the book. New Zealand’s tradition of protest has shown no sign of slowing down recently. Puawai told me that “the book could have got bigger and bigger and bigger, but we’re hoping that this is a start for other to build on the material culture and history of protest.” They had to cut off the additions at some point at some point. One of the last pieces that made it into the book is a photo of a tribute to the Christchurch attacks.
There is something confronting about seeing things that people have made, maybe because of a unique connection that people have to material objects. We like things, basically. Seeing the objects is “very compelling”, Stephanie said. “It makes you remember what’s happened in the past and it make you appreciate the risks and sacrifices people have made.”
Māori protest runs right through the book and that was a conscious decision. When Stephanie started working on the book, she was a “huge advocate” for the centrality of Māori protest in New Zealand’s history. “She wanted mātauranga Māori to run the breadth of the book as opposed to just being a chapter,” Puawai told me. Readers witness the evolution of Māori protest throughout the chapters and understand objects with the guidance of Puawai and Matariki, who are the mātauranga Māori curators at Te Papa.
Other objects included in the book are designed to challenge our ideas of what a protest object is. “We did really want to vary what people would consider a protest object,” Puawai said. There are items you wouldn’t expect to see in a book about protest objects. A collection of dresses worn by Tuaiwa Rickard feature in a two-page spread. “There was a concern about the main breakout where dresses are concerned, Eva Rickard, are we reducing her story to clothing?” Matariki recounted.
But they realised, after speaking with Tuaiwa’s daughter, that her clothing was intentionally powerful. “She was deliberate about curating the types of dresses that she wore for different events,” Puawai said. “It’s like she was codifying her body to be part of the protest.” When the Queen visited Turangawaewae, Tuaiwa dressed in black, a colour she hated, to send a powerful message of protest to those who knew her.
When I asked what their favourite objects were, Stephanie decided to “promote something humble” and pointed me towards the notebook diligently kept by Rose Atkinson as she attended the trials of men who refused to complete compulsory military service for the First World War. And Matariki laughed, telling me that it would “reveal how Tuhoe-biased I am”. She pointed to the objects that were confiscated from Tame Iti after the Terror Raids in 2007 (among the objects, a single gumboot). Just those two objects demonstrate the incredible range of the book, which runs from protest against war to LGBTQI+ protest to women’s involvement in protest.
Flicking through pages and pages of these objects made me realise how much more there is to contribute to this history. The story is not finished. “We’ll keep collecting as long as people keep protesting,” says Puawai. “It’s all about making people remember that protest is critical, whether it’s comfortable or uncomfortable, hidden or visible, it’s a critical part of society to make sure we stay healthy.”
And that is why this book needs to be appreciated. The story of protest, of the people who changed our country for the better or who are still fighting to do so, is not complete. The book tells the story of the objects they used and the power those objects continue to have, whether those objects are sacred niu, posters, placards, hats, underwear, badges, or dresses. The story of protest in New Zealand is one that shows how far we’ve come, but also how far we have to go.
Protest Tautohetohe: Object of Resistance, Persistence, and Defiance will be released by Te Papa Press on November 6.Support Villainesse