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Securing the Past

Book Review
Making History: a New Zealand story
 by Jock Phillips (Auckland University Press, 384 Pages. $45)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

jp-cover-001Over the last half century there has been a growing interest in New Zealand history. Books on all aspects of history are popular, supplemented by films, TV, the internet and exhibitions in museums and galleries around the country. Jock Phillips is a pioneering public historian who has sought new ways to communicate history to a wide audience. His autobiographical memoir is a fascinating account of how perceptions of history have changed through his career.

At the outset, I must make it clear that this is not a fully objective review. I worked under Jock at Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, and have a high regard for his dedication and management skills. In reading this book, I was keen to find out more about his background and motivation.

As the son of two history graduates who studied together at university, it was almost inevitable that Jock would become an academic. He won a scholarship to Harvard, immersed himself in US politics in the Nixon era, and returned to Victoria University to teach American history. At that stage he had never studied New Zealand history – in those days a poor relation in the academic world – but he gradually came to be fascinated by the social history of his own country. His understanding grew as he worked on two books – the first on domestic stained-glass windows with friend and collaborator Chris Maclean, and the second on Kiwi male stereotypes which eventually became his best-seller, A Man’s Country.

After ten years teaching American history, Jock had become impatient with aspects of academic life, and “was beginning to have ambitions of leadership”. He developed the concept of an interdisciplinary institute of New Zealand studies, and pitched the idea to VUW vice-chancellor, Ian Axford, who was immediately enthusiastic. Thus the Stout Research Centre at Victoria University was born, and Jock was its first director. He soon built up a community of scholars working on New Zealand cultural issues, with weekly seminars and annual conferences as well as a steady stream of publications.

During a chance meeting in 1988, Michael Bassett, then Minister of Internal Affairs, invited Jock to apply for the position of Chief Historian in the Historical Branch of his Ministry. Earlier books from the Historical Branch have a distinctly old-fashioned look, but Jock revelled in the opportunity to recruit new staff, modernize publication, and reorient the work towards social and cultural history.  For the next 25 years he worked in managerial positions, with the overall aim of “making history meaningful in the community”. He was an early supporter of the oral history movement, and set up a system of grants for historical research and publication which has provided critical assistance to many freelance writers outside the universities and government departments. He was involved in the conceptual design of the initial historical exhibitions in Te Papa, including the design of interactives and computer games. The 1990s were the early days of the internet, and Jock oversaw the development of an online version of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, initially intended to be only in book form, as well as a New Zealand history website, now http://nzhistory.govt.nz.

A selection of publications from the Historical Branch used to illustrate the 1999 strategic plan

A selection of publications from the Historical Branch used to illustrate the 1999 strategic plan

All these varied strands gradually led Jock to develop the concept of an internet-based encyclopedia of New Zealand, providing credible and up-to-date information that was instantly available to anyone with a computer. It was a project that would require secure, long-term funding, and Jock made a Powerpoint presentation to Minister of Finance, Michael Cullen, himself a traditional book-based historian, ending with a sample entry about whaling that included text, maps and images, film and oral history clips, and hyperlinks to biographies of whalers. It did the trick, and the online encyclopedia was a goer. Jock stepped aside from his other responsibilities, and from 2002-2014 he led a team that created and built Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand (www.teara.govt.nz).

The project seemed almost predestined and he recorded that,

“Much of my previous experience paid off in this work – my experience in managing a small team; my training in how to budget and project-manage; my growing enthusiasm from the time at Te Papa and in television work about the value of multimedia communication; the insights I gained at Te Papa about the benefits of user testing; my hard-won lessons about developing bicultural projects; my growing fascination with computer games and digital communication; and my love of exploring New Zealand.”

Te Ara has become a national taonga – an instant source of reliable information about New Zealand, used widely both locally and internationally. When it was conceived, readers needed to sit down at a computer, but the development of smartphones means that most people have access to Te Ara at their fingertips. It probably would not have happened, at least in digital form, without Jock Phillips as the visionary and driving force.

Several times through the book, the author comments that he was “lucky” to secure funding or support for projects. Perhaps there was an element of luck, but one thing that becomes clear to the reader is that he was always thoroughly prepared as an advocate, and then able to work through the financial and administrative issues that are needed to get any project underway.

This book is aimed at those with an interest in history and the cultural scene in New Zealand over the last few decades, but it deserves a wider readership. If you want to understand some of the issues and obstacles that arise in planning and carrying out large  projects, this is a good place to start.