Ordinary treasures, Extraordinary exhibition

Extraordinary – from the collections of Alexander Turnbull Library is an exhibition running at Te Pito Huarewa Southbase Gallery, Tūranga, Saturday 9 November 2019 to 9 February 2020.

Extraordinary exhibition introduction

Christchurch City Libraries is honoured and excited to take part in Alexander Turnbull Library's centenary celebrations by creating the exhibition Extraordinary – from the collections of Alexander Turnbull Library. The purpose of the exhibition is to promote the Alexander Turnbull Library (ATL) collection, and raise the awareness of its purpose and its national and international significance. It is also an opportunity for us to build a relationship with the ATL and the National Library of New Zealand, and also to bring collection material relevant to the history and culture of Christchurch people to Christchurch. 

Working together

Te Pito Huarewa Southbase Gallery, a specially designed exhibition space in Tūranga, offers us and our partners a place to explore how we can work together and provides potential for future collaboration. 

Curator snapping a photo during installation
Curator, Masha Oliver, during the installation of the exhibition

The Extraordinary exhibition is the first endeavour of this kind. Working together with colleagues from ATL and the National Library, we created an exhibition of taonga from ATL collections with a tangible connection to Canterbury and its community. The initial selection of items was made by curators from ATL, each suggesting items from their collections.

The list was long, abundant and wonderful. It immediately became apparent there was a potential to create at least four or five separate exhibitions. However, the idea our working group had at the early stage of the project was to offer a taste of the variety - a glimpse into the diversity - of material that ATL holds.

Exhibition themes: Creativity, Nature and Landscape, and Everyday Life

Looking at the list and browsing through collections, the curatorial approach evolved naturally. I focused on three themes, which I find extraordinary, and worthy of attentive consideration again and again: nature, the creativity of the human mind, and richness of daily life, either domestic or social. I feel these themes offer endless inspiration and interpretation and are a source of transcendant beauty. I followed these threads in the selection and curation process.

Human creativity is celebrated with taonga originating from the time of a lively revival of arts in Christchurch, in the 1930s. Exhibited on one of the walls is the library of portraits from The Group – including portraits of, or by, Rita Angus, Leo Bensemann, Douglas Lilburn, Ngaio Marsh, Denis Glover. Complementing these artworks are items in one of the cabinets – Douglas Lilburn’s sheet music, Ngaio Marsh’s production script of Midsummers Night’s Dream and printing blocks by Leo Bensemann. 

Line up of The Group portraits, Ngaio Marsh at right
Line up of The Group portraits, Ngaio Marsh at right

Human observations and recordings of nature and land are the central focus of the second group of exhibits, displayed on the video screen and the north wall as well as in one of the cabinets. Early landscape photography by Daniel Mundy, a panoramic photographic print by R. P. Moore, and one of the earliest maps of the South Island provide an epic context for more delicate items in the second cabinet: an album of watercolour landscapes, J. Haast’s topographical drawings, sketches from Mantell's sketchbooks… 

Detail from map of the South (Middle) Island, showing Christchurch and Banks Peninsula region
Detail from map of the South (Middle) Island, showing Christchurch and Banks Peninsula region

Displayed in the third cabinet are deceptively ordinary items reflecting everyday life. Sketches and paper cut-outs made for children’s entertainment from the 1880s, a recipe book from French Farm, a handwritten and decorated settler’s travelogue, and scenes from S. Webb’s and J. Pascoe's photos all evoke a sense of the extraordinary that can so often be found in the mundane. 

Recipe for "fruit wine"
Handwritten recipe for "fruit wine"

The act of collecting

Questions that were persistently resurfacing during my research and selection were concerned with the meaning of collecting, collecting as a way of creating a meaning and collective memory. Why do we collect? Where does the tendency to collect come from? What makes one object/item extraordinary? I came to this conclusion:

Collecting is an act reminding us that nothing is ordinary. Everything is significant.

Masha Oliver
Exhibitions Curator
Christchurch City Libraries

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