Creating culture in a colonial context:
fine art at the 1865 New Zealand Exhibition

Rebecca Rice

Curator, Historical New Zealand Art
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
Wellington, New Zealand


The 1865 New Zealand Exhibition hosted in Dunedin was a remarkable grand-scale event, the first of its kind to take place in New Zealand, and an ambitious undertaking for a colony barely 25 years old. It typically aimed to demonstrate New Zealand’s resources, both natural and manufactured, and to assert the dramatic progress that had been made in the colony’s short life. But it also bravely included displays of fine art, which had come to be valued at such occasions for two reasons: to elevate public taste and morals; and to feed back positively into the design and production of household objects. The reviews produced in response to the fine arts on show at Dunedin Exhibition offer the first in-depth evaluation of art in New Zealand. They highlight the conditions of artistic production and reception in the colony and raise questions around the classification of “Art” in nineteenth-century New Zealand. They allow for speculation as to how the fine arts reflected, and were expected to enhance, the aesthetic taste of colonists. Consequently this paper analyses these as foundational documents for understanding the ambiguities of a colonial culture on the margins of the British Empire: one that both desired to participate in and emulate metropolitan examples, but necessarily adapted these to colonial circumstances. It argues that the discourse around the fine arts in Dunedin Exhibition provides a unique case study for better understanding the complexities of creating culture in a colonial context.

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