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An outsider's guide to public oral history in New Zealand

At the beginning of this century, public history in New Zealand was considered a ‘new term’ in historical practice, described as crucial in both ‘the emergence of professional history writing’ and the assertion of ‘cultural nationalism.’¹ In the past decade, scholars here have highlighted its breadth and significance in ‘the employment of historians and the historical method outside academia; in government, private companies, the media, historical societies and museums, as well as those working in private practice.’² Oral history has also become a significant part of public history’s nation-making, key in the collecting of exceptional and ‘ordinary’ public voices.³ For Māori, current definitions of oral and public history are problematic because, as this essay suggests, both are constructed within Pākehā-centric perspectives of history, tradition, orality and what counts as ‘public.’ Public history has been called a ‘slippery process’, often shaped in a contrast between ‘people’s history’ and a ‘search for social cohesion’.4 This search for ‘cohesion’ is a familiar colonial refrain that fuels a healthy native scepticism of public history as yet another settler-centric invention that keeps us on the outside. This essay considers the ways in which public oral history in New Zealand is articulated, noting how this is done within narrow definitions and binaries that displace, ignore, or distort, indigenous perspectives. It suggests a rethinking of oral history as a movement beyond current binaries in the field, and advocates a widening of the meaning of oral sources, methods and politics, in order to include indigenous definitions as legitimately oral and public. This analysis is decolonial, not because it seeks an eradication of nationalism, but because it seeks to disrupt colonial-centric meanings of oral and public history by recentering Māori perspectives as legitimate to the New Zealand public oral history vernacular.
Journal Article
Type of thesis
Mahuika, N. (2017). An outsider’s guide to public oral history in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Public History, 5(1), 3–18.
© 2017 The New Zealand Journal of Public History