Scraps of fabric they may be, but flags can broadcast powerful messages. The Museum's collection includes flags used for a variety of purposes, each a statement waiting to be interpreted.
Power of flags
Flags have a potency that few of us ever think much about. We may be moved to fly, wave or hang a flag or to wrap one around ourselves in honour of a specific event, or we may respond strongly against a flag. But we may not always know or wonder what has caused us to act or feel the way we do.
Flags are a symbol of the human need to belong, to identify with a group and to be recognised and respected as worthy and valued members of that group.
Effectively flags are highly concentrated messages, code for a set of attitudes, values and beliefs that we associate, rightly or wrongly, with the related group. Our responses to flags spring from our perceptions of these messages based on our own deeply ingrained needs and values.
New Zealand national flag
New Zealand's flag debates have been consistent with the process of maturing as a nation. The New Zealand Ensign, the royal blue national flag, was proposed by Premier Richard John Seddon and adopted in 1902.
This was the third flag to become our national standard following the Flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand (1834), and the Union Jack (1840). A national Māori flag was launched in 1990, and since Waitangi Day 2010 this flag, Tino Rangatiratanga, has flown from key public buildings alongside the New Zealand Ensign. There are good summaries of the country's flag development published by NZHistory and Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
Variety of purpose
However, flags have wider application than declaring the sovereignty of nations. Other groups with shared beliefs and goals, whether cultural, social, commercial or political, announce and celebrate those common bonds with flags. Regimental colours, naval ensigns, royal standards, corporate flags, club banners and other similar emblems all serve that same purpose. These flags can be the focus of feelings as strong as those evoked by national standards.
Regimental Colours, for example, are revered as a source of pride for a regiment. While in the past they served to locate a unit on the battlefield, their significance today lies in the regiment's battle history emblazoned on the flag. Retired colours are never destroyed but 'laid up' in a place of safe-keeping.
Auckland War Memorial Museum has a large and varied collection of flags including examples not only of the above but also flags used for decoration (bunting), for signaling and for fundraising.
The Museum collection includes a significant set of Māori flags, including tribal flags, those associated with prophetic movements, and ensigns gifted to chiefs and tribes in the years following the New Zealand Wars. A replica of the Māori flag flown at Gate Pa during the battle of 1864 hangs alongside the Union Flag at the Museum's memorial for those who died in the New Zealand Wars.
On 22 August 2014, the Museum returned the historic Maungapōhatu flag to Tūhoe, as part of the Tūhoe-Crown Settlement ceremony. The flag had been taken in evidence when Tūhoe prophet Rua Kenana was arrested in 1916 on multiple charges, including sedition, and later found its way to the Museum.
Cite this article
Flags. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 6 November 2015. Updated: 13 November 2015.