Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Public history

by Nancy Swarbrick

Government support for public history projects has waxed and waned, but the demand for useful historical information has remained constant. Public history includes books, websites, museum exhibitions, heritage trails, walking tours, Waitangi Tribunal reports and more.

What is public history?

Public history is a term that has been used in New Zealand since the 1990s to describe the creation of a broad range of historical products, including book-length histories, reference works, websites, museum exhibitions, heritage trails, walking tours, conservation and policy advice, film and television scripts and Waitangi Tribunal reports.


The definition of public history has been much debated.

  • It is often suggested that public history aims to interpret history for a non-specialist audience. This may be small, for instance conservation and management plans are usually read only by those who approve or implement them, but it invariably includes people without much or any knowledge of history. As a result, public history is typically accessible in style.
  • Many public history projects are funded by public or private institutions, which often set the research agenda and parameters.
  • Public history projects may directly involve the public by soliciting information or comments.
  • Often public history projects are produced by interdisciplinary teams, including members with experience other than historical training.

Public vs academic history

Once, public history was defined as history created outside universities, by people other than academics, for public use. This is now seen as problematic, because both types of history call on skills in research, analysis and writing that are taught in universities; can be produced by professional historians working either inside or outside universities; and often appeal to both academics and non-academics.

Public history in universities

In the early 2000s Victoria University of Wellington offered a Masters in Public History, and in 2009 the Waikato University Centre for Public History was established to facilitate and promote public history projects. However, in 2014 the Victoria degree course had lapsed and the Waikato Centre was about to change its name and focus.

Professional standards

PHANZA, the Professional Historians Association of New Zealand/Aotearoa, was established in 1994 to represent historians both inside and outside of universities. Most of its members are public historians. PHANZA restricts entry to those with a research-based degree or demonstrated research experience or publications.

By any other name

The title ‘historian’ is only sometimes given to those people employed across government to do historical research, writing and editing. Some alternative titles include ‘research analyst’, ‘curator’ and ‘technical advisor’.

Government support for public history

In New Zealand local and central government have sponsored many public history projects since the late 19th century, when interest in both Māori and Pākehā history burgeoned in response to milestone anniversaries of the arrival of British settlers, and study of Māori origins and culture. Government support grew from the 1930s, and flourished in the 1980s and 1990s. It has provided numerous opportunities for public historians.

Government publications, 1900–1970s

One of the first historical projects to receive government funding, in the 1880s, was John White’s collection of Māori traditions, The ancient history of the Maori. Government also supported Robert McNab to produce two volumes of Historical records of New Zealand in 1908 and 1914, and James Cowan to write his two-volume history, The New Zealand Wars, in the early 1920s. Lindsay Buick, an expert on the Treaty of Waitangi and pre-1840 period, was employed by the Department of Internal Affairs from 1934–38 to compile historical material.

History at the Turnbull

From the start, research libraries were havens for people studying history. Some – for instance Johannes Andersen, the first Turnbull Librarian – were also library employees. The libraries were meeting places for other government employees: Elsdon Best, the first ethnologist employed by the Dominion Museum, wrote many of his works at the nearby Turnbull Library in the 1920s. James Cowan and Lindsay Buick, the first paid government historians, were based there in the 1920s and 1930s.

Centennial publications

From the late 1930s major anniversaries and war commemorations inspired greater government interest in history. In 1937 the Centennial Branch in the Department of Internal Affairs was established to initiate projects marking 100 years of nationhood. By 1941 it had published 11 commissioned surveys of New Zealand life, and 30 smaller pictorial studies under the title Making New Zealand.

Champion of history

The Under-Secretary for Internal Affairs from 1935, Joe Heenan, was the driving force behind the centennial publications programme. A voracious reader, his cultural interests were coupled with enthusiasm for popular sports. He was adept at persuading politicians, and astute in his choice of advisors. For guidance on historical matters he went to eminent scholar J. C. Beaglehole.

Early reference works

Because of their scale and national significance, reference projects received government endorsement. In 1937 parliamentary librarian Guy Scholefield undertook to complete a two-volume Dictionary of New Zealand Biography for the centennial, and work on a historical atlas began. Plans to finish the atlas after 1940 prompted the creation of a permanent Historical Branch of around five historians led by J. C. Beaglehole. In 1950, following a review, the branch disbanded. In 1959, however, new parliamentary librarian A. H. McLintock and two staff started preparing An encyclopaedia of New Zealand. The three-volume work appeared in 1966.

War histories

Government’s intention to record New Zealand’s efforts in the Second World War began with an archiving project from 1941, and in 1946 Major-General Howard Kippenberger became Editor-in-Chief of the War History Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs. Its staff peaked at 40 in 1947. Eventually 43 books and 24 booklets on the war effort were produced.

The War History Branch was renamed the Historical Publications Branch in 1963, suggesting a broadening of its mandate, and in 1969 the Ministry of Defence began employing a historian. Publication of war histories continued, examining other conflicts including the Korean, Vietnam, South African and First World wars.

Government publications, 1980s–2000s

The 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s witnessed another flowering of government support for history publishing.

Historical Branch expands

After the appointment of new Chief Historian Jock Phillips in 1989, the Historical Branch (previously the Historical Publications Branch) of the Department of Internal Affairs began to expand. As well as war histories, staff and contractors wrote departmental histories on a cost-recovery basis. Historians also answered queries, gave advice to government, and administered grants for historical research and publication and oral history projects. From 2000, when it was transferred to the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, the branch was known as the History Group and members continued this work, as well as developing an innovative history website, (later known as NZHistory), launched in 1999.

Who were the historians?

The government history projects of the 1980s and beyond were edited by prominent scholars, but employed many junior historians, including both permanent staff and contract workers. Some – James Belich, Angela Ballara, Charlotte Macdonald, Rachel Barrowman and others – went on to forge independent academic reputations.

Dictionary of New Zealand biography

From the 1980s interdisciplinary teams produced some landmark reference works. A new Dictionary of New Zealand biography project began in 1983, headed first by W. H. Oliver and later Claudia Orange. The project was innovative: it used a computer database for selection, involved the public through regional working parties, and aimed for significant representation of Māori and women. Between 1990 and 2000 the project, employing nearly 20 contract editors, researchers, translators and other staff to prepare commissioned entries, produced five English volumes and five volumes in Māori, as well as subsidiary books. In 2001 the text, enhanced with portraits, was published as a website.

New Zealand historical atlas

The New Zealand historical atlas project began in 1990 under the editorship of Malcolm McKinnon, drawing on the expertise of archaeologists, architectural and urban historians, cartographers and Māori historians. The atlas, published in 1997, broke new ground in its spatial representation of history.

New dimensions

History on the web has a number of advantages: for instance it can be quickly searched and easily updated. One of the benefits is that, in the best traditions of public history, readers can respond to entries with their own stories. This adds richness to a brief account. For example, the Te Ara entry about country schooling includes fascinating personal accounts by people who went to country schools in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, developed this visual potential while exploiting the possibilities of the internet. It was the world’s first born-digital national encyclopedia.

It began in 2002 under the general editorship of Jock Phillips, and its staff expanded to include writers, resource researchers, editors, copyright experts and web designers. Publishing 10 ‘themes’ sequentially, its ‘first build’ was completed in 2014, and comprised close to 1,000 entries – about four million words in total – and 30,000 resources (photographs, artworks, sound files, film clips, maps, graphs, diagrams and interactives). Te Ara also incorporated and added to the 3,049 biographies originally published in the Dictionary of New Zealand biography, and published a digitised version of An encyclopaedia of New Zealand (1966).

Historic places and objects

Identifying and classifying

From the 19th century some people began urging that places and objects significant in New Zealand history should be kept for future generations. Historic reserves were created from the 1890s, and from 1906 were cared for by the Department of Lands and Survey. Some notable buildings received government protection, and after the Historic Places Trust (later called Heritage New Zealand) was set up in 1955, more sites and structures were identified and protected, sometimes by purchase.

The Colonial Museum (later the National Museum) began systematically collecting Māori artefacts from 1903, and in the 1920s and 1930s it and the growing number of regional museums also expanded collections of objects relating to both Māori and Pākehā history.

Most identifying and classifying of sites and objects was originally done by unpaid historians. For example, many members of Historic Places Trust regional committees researched sites. In museums volunteers often cared for the history collections.

Historic reserves

Former Surveyor-General S. Percy Smith, amateur historian and co-founder of the Polynesian Society, and Hoani Tunuiarangi, Rangitāne and Ngāti Kahungunu leader, were members of the Scenery Preservation Commission of 1904–06, responsible for identifying many early historic reserves under the Scenery Preservation Act 1903. These reserves included ancient pa sites, and places connected with the history of colonisation including sites of battles of the New Zealand Wars. Many were located in Taranaki, where Percy Smith lived. However, as the name of the commission implied, natural heritage was valued above historic heritage – an attitude that persisted.

Analysing and understanding

Museums began to employ trained historians from the late 1960s. At the Dominion Museum the impending Cook bicentennial led to the appointment of the first ‘curator of colonial history’ in 1968. Other museums followed suit, and the numbers of history curators grew. As well as building and researching collections, curators answered public queries and advised government officials on objects protected by legislation.

Law changes governing historic places and reserves from the 1970s prompted the employment of more professional historians – often on short-term contracts or employment schemes – to do in-depth historical research and assessment. From 1977 the Department of Lands and Survey was obliged to produce management plans for historic reserves, and the Historic Places Trust had to keep a register of pre-1900 archaeological sites from 1975. From 1980 the trust’s role in classifying buildings was formalised, and from 1993 its regulatory powers were extended and it was required to keep a consolidated register of both buildings and sites.

With the introduction of the Resource Management Act 1991, regional and local authorities had heavier obligations to identify and protect historic places with reference to the Historic Places Trust register, so they often employed historians to help assess the significance of sites and buildings.

Different points of view

Conflict between experts from different professions has been particularly noticeable in the field of historic heritage. Assessments of a building’s significance can be quite different, depending on whether an architect or historian is viewing it. Historian Ruth Ross, who was on the New Zealand Historic Places Trust classification committee in the late 1960s, insisted that judgements should be based on ‘intrinsic historical, architectural and environmental merit’1 to ensure they were properly balanced.


From the 1970s the importance of historical interpretation became accepted. This contrasted with the old practice of putting brief markers on sites and labels on objects. Now visitors to historic places or museums were encouraged to engage with the past in a more imaginative way. Historians at the Department of Lands and Survey (and after 1987 the Department of Conservation) began to use illustrated signs, leaflets, displays and videos in ‘visitor centres’ to explain the significance of sites. Similar methods were used by Historic Places Trust (later Heritage New Zealand), which placed increasing emphasis on authenticity in the restoration and furnishing of its properties.

In museums interpretation became even more sophisticated. The recreated colonial room or street, common from the 1940s, had by the 1990s given way to exhibitions that combined disparate items, including artworks, objects, film clips, sound and interactive elements. The history curator now worked with other museum staff to create these layered exhibitions. From the 1990s websites and digital resources became important in helping to interpret places and objects.

    • Quoted in Gavin McLean, ‘Where sheep may not safely graze.’ In Common ground? Heritage and public places in New Zealand, edited by Alexander Trapeznik. Dunedin: Otago Unversity Press, 2000, p. 37. Back

Treaty of Waitangi history

While from the 1980s academic historians re-examined the broad significance of the Treaty of Waitangi, public historians began researching the minute details of how it had been ignored or breached in the past.

Waitangi Tribunal

The Waitangi Tribunal was set up in 1975 to hear present-day claims under the Treaty of Waitangi. It had a low profile until 1984, when it was granted the power to hear claims dating from 1840. From this time the tribunal acquired administrative, research and report writing staff, including historians, both as permanent staff and contractors.

Further legislation in 1988 gave the tribunal more powers and staff. By 1993 there was a backlog of several hundred claims and there were several attempts to streamline research. Historical claims (dealing with Crown policy or practice prior to 1992) ceased to be registered from 2008, but contemporary claims continued to be made.

In 2013 there were around 30 tribunal staff engaged in historical research and report writing. This work involved historical research and writing, liaison with claimants and presenting evidence at hearings. Freelance historians also worked directly for claimant groups.

Two types of historical reports were produced by the tribunal:

  • those designed to assist claimant groups in putting forward a case to the tribunal
  • those produced by the tribunal at the end of hearings as a summary of the evidence.

Hidden history

It has been asserted that, as a result of work carried out in New Zealand for treaty claims, no other country boasts such a comprehensive body of research into its colonial history. But despite the effort, expertise and money put into assembling them, many of the reports are read by a few hundred people only. Historians have expressed concern that the mass of research compiled by the Waitangi Tribunal and its associated bodies is not accessible to the wider community.

Office of Treaty Settlements

A policy unit set up in 1989 within the Department of Justice to examine treaty settlements became the Office of Treaty Settlements (OTS) in 1995. OTS had the power to negotiate settlements without first requiring a Waitangi Tribunal report. However, like the tribunal, it employed a small team of historians to research and evaluate claims.

Crown Forestry Rental Trust

The Crown Forestry Rental Trust (CFRT) was established in 1990 to collect fees from Crown licensed forestry lands and redirect this funding to assist iwi groups to prepare and present treaty claims involving such lands. By 2014 CFRT employed historians as research facilitators and also contracted out research to freelance historians.

Crown Law Office

Treaty teams, including historians, within the Crown Law Office provided advice to government in relation to legal and historical issues affecting the interpretation of the treaty. They represented the Crown before the Waitangi Tribunal, and provided advice to other government departments on their obligations in relation to treaty settlements.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Public history', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 September 2021)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 22 Oct 2014