Culture and Heritage Chris Finlayson has announced that thirteen of the
seventeen scholars who have been labouring on Te Ara, New Zealand’s internet-based encyclopaedia, will shortly lose their
jobs. After thanking Te Ara’s
employees for researching and writing thousands of entries over the past few
years, Finlayson explained that the website had now been successfully built,
and that only a skeleton staff of four will be required to maintain it.
In a press release
issued after Finlayson’s announcement, Public Services Association National
Secretary Brenda Pilott lamented the job losses at Te Ara, pointing out that ‘history
does not finish, but rather is constantly being made’. Te Ara’s employees should be kept on, Pilott suggested, so that
they can write about new events in Kiwi history.
point is reasonable, but it doesn’t address the most serious misunderstanding
of history implicit in Finlayson’s treatment of Te Ara. Finlayson sees the past as a large pile of
facts, and believes the task of historians is to gather and describe the most
important of these facts. Now that Te Ara’s staff have created entries on a
large number of significant events and personalities in New Zealand history,
from the Treaty of Waitangi to the Christchurch earthquake and Te Kooti to John
Key, they have, as far as Finlayson is concerned, completed their task. The facts
they have collected are like bricks in a building which can stand indefinitely,
with the help of a little low-cost maintenance.
Finlayson’s plan for Te Ara ignores
is the importance of interpretation to the study of the past. Every historical
fact, no matter how insignificant or portentous, comes to us wrapped in
interpretation. Just as actors and theatre directors reinterpret old plays, excising
or emphasising certain scenes and lines and promoting and relegating different
characters, so historians decide which events and characters from the past must
be emphasised, and which can be downplayed or passed over.
select the facts that fill their essays and books on the basis of their
interpretation of the past. The Rubicon River has been crossed millions of times, but it is Julius
Ceasar’s crossing in 49 BC that attracts the attentions of historians. The labels
that historians give to the facts are also unavoidably interpretive. When a
scholar describes the eastward movement of some German tanks across a few
hundred metres of waste ground into Poland on the morning of September the 1st,
1939 as the beginning of World War Two, he or she is offering an interpretation
of history, as well as a fact.
are partly subjective – because they are made partly from our preoccupations,
as well as from the material of the past – historical interpretations are always
open to challenge and revision. Some historians, for instance, argue that the
fascist uprising against Spain’s democratic government in 1936 should be
considered the real starting point of World War Two, while others question the
value of searching for a starting date, and suggest that World Wars One and Two
would be better treated as a single conflict, separated by a fragile peace.
events which were regarded as insignificant by one generation of historians are
emphasised by the next. The establishment of a Maori community at Parihaka, and
the destruction of this community by colonial forces in 1881, were for a long
time treated by historians as curious but insignificant parts of the aftermath
of the New Zealand Wars.
James Cowan, the author of a massive, meticulous, and melancholy history of the conflict between Maori and Pakeha, regarded Parihaka as a
late, doomed act of defiance by nationalist Maori – one of the last embers of
the fire that had been lit by men like Wiremu Tamihana and Te Kooti in the
middle decades of the nineteenth century. Cowan was working at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Maori had been greatly reduced in numbers
and influence. In the second half of the century, when Maori
nationalism reemerged as a political force, the peaceful occupation of disputed
land at Parihaka began to seem less like an ending and more like a precursor of
epic land rights battles at places like Bastion Point/Takaparawhau and Raglan/Whaingaroa.
It is not surprising that Parihaka is given careful attention by contemporary
past comes to us wrapped in interpretations, and interpretations are open to
change, any thorough account of an historical event should include a record of
the various explanations that event has received over decades or centuries.
Many of the longer entries at Te Ara possess this sort of historical
sophistication. The entry on Maori canoe traditions, for example, acknowledges
that nineteenth century scholars bowdlerised many old stories about canoe
journeys to and around Aotearoa to create a myth of a ‘Great Fleet’ of seven
waka, then explains the gradual debunking of that myth in the twentieth
century, and the development of new speculations about the early pattern of
Maori arrival in Aotearoa.
surviving employees of Te Ara will
struggle to do much more than keep the vast website online and free of viruses. They
may be able to add a few entries on important new events, but they are very
unlikely to have the time to give old entries the benefit of new scholarship
about the past. With just a handful of curators, Te Ara will not be able to reflect twenty-first century thinking
about events like New Zealand Wars or the Treaty of Waitangi or the Great
Depression. The encyclopaedia will quickly become dated.
Finlayson is Treaty Negotiations Minister as well as Minister for Culture and
Heritage, and he has talked of his desire to make Te Ara representative of New Zealand’s Polynesian as well as Pakeha
cultures. But Finlayson’s view of the past as a set of self-evident facts is acutely
Eurocentric, and finds no echo in Polynesian culture.
saw history as a one-way road towards apocalypse and judgement, early and
medieval Christian scholars wrote histories filled with lists of noble and
ignoble people and events. History was the working out of God’s plan for
humanity, and that plan needed to be known in as much dry detail as possible.
Older religious and intellectual traditions, which had imagined history as
cyclical and the details of the past as mutable, were marginalised.
attachment to fact-hunting and linear, predictive narrative acquired a new ferocity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when generations of scholars inspired by the Industrial Revolution and advances in
the natural sciences tried to make history as precisely rigorous as physics.
They hoarded facts and figures, and attempted to formulate general laws that
would explain the past and predict the future.
middle of the twentieth century scientific history was in decline, and in the
early ‘60s EH Carr’s book What is
History? reminded the English-speaking world of the necessity of
interpretation and subjectivity to any study of the past. Today the notion that
historical research consists of the accumulation of self-evidently significant
facts is not taken seriously inside the academy, but retains a strong popular
appeal amongst Pakeha New Zealanders.
suffers from the widespread view of the past as a collection of dead facts.
History is too often seen as something remote and irrelevant, except as a source
of picturesque backdrops and exotic costumes for films and TV dramas.
When I lived
in Tonga last year I was impressed by the ways that history suffused
everyday life, informing the simplest everyday decisions of individuals and
communities. Tongans share songs and stories about both distant and recent
ancestors at kava circles, feasts, and church services. Often the characters of
the songs and stories are archetypal, and their feats are apocryphal. The details
of a song or story may be altered according to the context and purpose of the
singer or storyteller.
traditional mode of Tongan history-telling is not ideal for all purposes – it is
not necessarily a reliable guide to historical chronology, for example – but it
does succeed brilliantly in bringing the past into the present, and emphasising
the connections between the living and the dead. And, because it encourages the
living to appropriate and creatively interpret the details of the past, Tongan
historical discourse is a good deal more sophisticated, and a good deal more in
line with contemporary academic practice, than the piling up of dead facts that
Chris Finlayson equates with the study of the past.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]