A Moving Document

NZTECHO Winter 2017 Issue 73 Wide Angle

Wellington cinematographer and resident sage of Ōtaki Waka Attewell has been musing on the recent relocation of the Treaty of Waitangi, and what meaning we can take from its new housing.

The film and TV business used to be just about that thing in the corner of your living room and the cinema down the road. Now there’s multi-media, which also includes museum and institutional installations.

That’s where Story Inc. has made their distinctive mark on the communication industry; recently they have inherited and completed the troubled project of installing the Treaty of Waitangi into the National Library foyer in Wellington (it’s in that white building opposite parliament, just up from the Court buildings on Molesworth Street.)

It’s taken 136 years for the Crown to apologize for Parihaka, Māori are 380% more likely to be convicted of a crime, 200% more likely to die from suicide – if the heart disease doesn’t get them first. Maori earn, on average, 18% less in wages, 34% leave school without qualifications, and Māori didn’t beat their children until told to do so by the early missionaries.

These issues and more would’ve been on the minds of Steve LaHood and James McLean when installing their recent work, and foremost in that they were certainly aware that the Treaty is still causing and continues to cause robust discussion.

This state of being when it comes to the Treaty will never change from exactly that. Somehow you get the feeling some of those who signed it in 1840 knew that this would be the case. There was a prophesy spoken that 200 years would pass before the real impact of the signing was known, and James thinks that possibly this public display of the founding document might be part of that healing.

Reconstruction of Treaty
Above: Reconstruction of the Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, Marcus King.Source: Archives New Zealand
The Treaty of Waitangi
  Te Tiriti o Waitangi – The Treaty of Waitangi. Source: Archives New Zealand.

How did Steve and James go about the thinking? (I love the way these guys do all the thinking before the camera comes out of the box) They decided that the mere telling of the history would be dull, and they asked themselves the question: What is going to make this liberating? This isn’t just about the past, so how do we make this about the future?

What is State, who is The Crown? Where does Sovereignty reside? What is nationhood and national pride? Where does democracy sit when it comes to the law of the land and governance? Does the concept of lore have a place in our present society? What’s colonialism? And is this recent display of the Treaty just another blunder down the path of tokenism, in that it’ll keep the commentators quiet? A bit like we-can-make-Māori-language-relevant for-a-week-because-we-thought-of-it-so-therefore-it-now-exists. See it has a government department and look at the bright colour poster?

The Treaty is a document that’s evocative of hope, anger and sometimes sane constitutional debate; the founding scratch to begin all discussion in a new country, an accommodation deal at its least worthy, the beginning of something more than just more punitive colonial rule… There was a moment after everyone had had their say in the project that Steve and James said that they had to lose control for the next part of the project to occur. People had to let go and then just make it happen.

‘What to do about the Treaty’ has been one of those hospital-pass questions that the new Minister of Internal Affairs has to wrestle with. And then what to do with the actual document became the new headache a few years back… This installation of it has been one of those failed projects that we’ve all heard about around Wellington for some time, so why involve Story Inc. in that level of a bureaucratic nightmare? ‘Well it does’, says James, ‘have more than a slight whiff of ‘important work’ going for it’.


Since the Treaty of Waitangi was signed it has survived a fierce fire when the Government office up north burned (rescued when thrown out the window onto the lawn); it survived a shipwreck when the government was moved from north to south when all other documents were lost, (for the simple fact that someone forgot to load it in with the other government papers) and it has been used as a door-stop (during WW11 when evacuated from Wellington during fears of a bombing from the Japanese) on hot summer days in Masterton. Besides that, the tin box it was stored in was not rat proof or water proof (hence the damage.). And then it was lost for a few years when no one knew (or apparently cared) where it was.

As you come into the first room of the display there’s a Lenin-esque dankness about it, a funereal mood.

The first thing that struck me as I approached the glass case was how much the founding document of this nation is degraded and torn. How did we let this happen? I didn’t realise how much I cared.

Apparently the original ink is actually a form of rust – you might be surprised by the brightness and the colour. After all, old should be sepia shouldn’t it? That’s the convention. The curators thought of this and looked at the brown against brown of the treaty and have created a colour temperature that enhances the text – well, a trick of colour temperature and brightness (50 lux is top.) There is also a time limit as to how much light can fall upon the document per year as not to cause more damage.

One of the saving events was the need for the newly formed NZ Railways, around the 1860’s, when the system was expanding and a blue printing plate lithograph was used to create many copies of the railway plans. Fortunately someone used this machine to photograph the Treaty before the rats had a chew and so the missing bits of the treaty are now part of the background of the display. But more recently, and embarrassingly so, this Treaty keeps losing its bits, in that the original lithographic plates are now missing and no one has a clue as to when and where this happened.


There’s an interactive map in the middle of the space which shows the journey the various pages of the Treaty took when it spent months travelling about the country picking up signatures. Your eye immediately goes to your home town (a bit like you can pick the Z of New Zealand in a foreign newspaper.) Of course, all the Māori Chiefs didn’t travel and crowd into a white sail-cloth tent at Waitangi in 1840. The signing of the document took months and this is a particularly brilliant work as it’s a most complex part of the explanation… explanation?  Yes, at its core this is what this display is, an explanation and an ongoing thought to ponder.

Or perhaps it is another case of being made relevant because someone in government thought of it?

Is the Treaty installation at the National Library part of the ongoing repression of colonial rule or a celebration of something much deeper? As they say in governmental circles these days (when referring to difficult subjects) “where does the conversation begin?” Is it no mistake that in the video room, where you can leave a personal message, there have already been three incidences of pukana (the baring of the buttocks)? Hoons off the streets or real protest? The buttock will stay in the installation. No matter what you think, there is room for every accommodation here. It’s a powerful presentation and we must keep visiting.

It goes without saying New Zealand still suffers from institutionalised racism; the stats and poverty within Maoridom don’t go away. This is New Zealand, and an echo of this hangs from the walls of this fine display. It’s important work. There’s a living wall. We hear the people of Aotearoa speak a heart-felt truth.

If nothing else this installation gives us permission to contemplate the future.



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