Hannah Owen

Picturing History: Exploring the Exhibition Archives of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

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Established and funded by John Mayo, the annual Marylyn Mayo Internship offers training and work experience for people who would like to pursue a career in the arts. Each year, interns contribute to work in different areas of the Gallery, including in curatorial, education, public programming, print and electronic publications, communications, audience research and development, conservation and collection management. Previous projects have included restoring Frances Hodgkins’ Still Life: Anemones and Hyacinths, circa 1925; researching dates for artworks in the collection; assessing and devising a strategy for documenting time-based artworks in the collection; and researching, writing and digitising material for the Gallery’s Lindauer Online Project

In the below article, 2023 intern Hannah Owen shares insights into her work documenting and assessing the Gallery’s archives of exhibitions from 1927 to 2018. Read more to see fascinating images of past exhibitions at the Gallery and how the building has changed over the last 96 years.  

<p>Visitors lining up along the corner of Kitchener and Wellesley Streets to see <em>Claude Monet: Painter of Light</em> in 1985.<br />
E H McCormick Research Library, RC2015/5/3/482</p>

Visitors lining up along the corner of Kitchener and Wellesley Streets to see Claude Monet: Painter of Light in 1985.
E H McCormick Research Library, RC2015/5/3/482

For my internship, I continued a project begun by the 2022 intern, Hélena Lunt. Working in the E H McCormick Research Library, I have assessed and documented the Gallery's archives of exhibitions from 1927 to 2018. The project aimed to create a full inventory of the content and to identify exhibition installation photographs for eventual digitisation, with the objective of enhancing the discoverability and accessibility of this remarkable collection for a wider audience. In due course, we will upload the digitised installation photographs to the Gallery's website, allowing audiences to explore and engage with these captivating visual records.

<p>The first installation photograph found in the front page of the <em>Graphic Art in New Zealand </em>catalogue, 1930. RC2015/5/3/4</p>

The first installation photograph found in the front page of the Graphic Art in New Zealand catalogue, 1930. RC2015/5/3/4

The earliest exhibition archive dates to 1927, when the Gallery held its inaugural loan exhibition featuring an assortment of old and modern etchings from Auckland private collections. It is worth noting that this loan exhibition marked a significant milestone as it represented the first major change of artworks on display since the Gallery's establishment in 1888. Delving into these early archives, I uncovered a treasure trove of original correspondence, including telegrams and typewritten and handwritten letters between the then director of the Gallery and artists, collectors and other galleries, as well as catalogues and artwork checklists.

The first installation photograph I came across was reproduced inside a catalogue from the 1930 exhibition Graphic Art from New Zealand. However, it wasn't until the 101st exhibition archive, for the 1954 exhibition Object and Image, that I stumbled upon the first set of original installation photographs. These provided fascinating insights into the Gallery's early exhibitions and appearance, and how much it has evolved since then. 

<p>The earliest original installation photograph found, depicting the exhibition <em>Object and Image</em>, 1954. RC2015/5/3/101</p>

The earliest original installation photograph found, depicting the exhibition Object and Image, 1954. RC2015/5/3/101

Another discovery of an early installation photograph was from the 1955 exhibition Pottery by Len Castle and Weaving by Isle Van Randow. What caught my attention were the hand-painted signs within the exhibition space, reminding visitors not to touch the exhibits. These signs bear a resemblance to the distinctive lettering style of Colin McCahon, suggesting his involvement in the exhibition display.


<p>A sign that is reminiscent of Colin McCahon&rsquo;s distinctive lettering, in <em>Pottery by Len Castle and Weaving by Isle Van Randow</em>, 1955. RC2015/5/3/107</p>

A sign that is reminiscent of Colin McCahon’s distinctive lettering, in Pottery by Len Castle and Weaving by Isle Van Randow, 1955. RC2015/5/3/107

Another noteworthy highlight was the discovery of an original handwritten letter penned by Rita Angus. The letter, pertaining to the 1958 exhibition Five New Zealand Watercolourists, in which Angus was featured, provides a fascinating glimpse into her exhibitions and what was happening in her life at the time.

From this point onward, there was a noticeable increase in the number and frequency of photographs of exhibitions. I encountered a diverse range of negatives and transparencies, including 35mm, 120, and larger sizes, along with various photographic prints of different dimensions. These photographs encompass a wide array of subjects, ranging from reproductions of artwork to exhibition openings, public programmes, and, of course, installation images.

<p>An original handwritten letter from Rita Angus, relating to <em>Five New Zealand Watercolourists</em>, 1958. RC2015/5/3/130</p>

An original handwritten letter from Rita Angus, relating to Five New Zealand Watercolourists, 1958. RC2015/5/3/130

Photography serves as a window into the past, allowing us to witness the attitudes, emotions, and zeitgeist of a particular era. The images contained within the Gallery's exhibition archives are no exception to this – they provide invaluable information about the legacy of the arts in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. It is crucial to preserve them in order to ensure the longevity of the history and cultural heritage of the Gallery and Auckland City. By doing so, we ensure that future generations can continue to explore and gain knowledge from these visual time capsules.

One of my favourite things to do was to look at the back of original media clippings and read the articles, comic strips, advertisements, job listings and more. It put the exhibitions at the Gallery into a wider context, from which you could start to form a picture of how the world was at the time. I also discovered that, coming in with an academic background in design, I was particularly drawn to the New Gallery logo design from 1995. Looking into this more, I learnt that it was created by the local contemporary artist John Reynolds, who drew 100 different iterations of the word ‘New’. I was drawn to the colours, the hand-written style and the variety. It was very contemporary, which was fitting for the concept of the New. The Gallery holds an archive of the original New Gallery logos by John Reynolds and you can view some of the original drawings online.


By the end of the project, I had recorded 1020 exhibitions, itemised 875 installation photographs for digitisation, and removed over 3000 staples from documents. This collection assessment was an enormous undertaking and I feel privileged that I was able to spend this time with the exhibition history of the Gallery, a place which I have always loved. I hope that my contributions enable and encourage a wider audience to engage and explore this fascinating collection too.

I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to John Mayo for his role in facilitating my internship at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. This experience has undeniably been transformative, leaving a lasting impact on both my personal and professional life. I am immensely grateful for the knowledge I have gained, the meaningful connections I have formed, and the invaluable insights into the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) sector.