'New Zealand' was on display at many of the major international exhibitions of the nineteenth century, beginning with the first such event in London in 1851. During this period the emphasis was on the promotion of natural resources rather than the achievements of this country’s artists and craftworkers. By the end of the century New Zealand’s displays had begun to focus on its cultural attractions.

By Richard Wolfe

‘Native’ products at the Great Exhibition

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, held in London in 1851, was the first undertaking of its type, and set the standard for the many international exhibitions, expositions and world fairs that followed. It was housed in the cathedral-like cast-iron and plate-glass ‘Crystal Palace’ in Hyde Park and was a spectacular celebration of the technological achievements of the Victorian era. More than 40 different countries and their possessions took part, and in 5½ months the exhibition attracted over six million visitors.

New Zealand was represented at the Great Exhibition by what was described in the official catalogue as ‘a valuable and tolerably extensive collection of native and other products’. The emphasis was on natural resources, including those crafted by Māori into flax baskets, eel traps, mats, fish hooks, hand clubs and carved wooden objects. But these were heavily outnumbered by such resources as minerals and building materials, now needed by expanding industrial societies. The New Zealand display included a casting made of iron-sand from Cooper’s Bay in Northland, a model of Ruapekapeka pā (also in Northland) made by Lieutenant H. C. Balneavis who had served in this country with the 58th Regiment, and an octagonal table top veneered with eleven specimens of native woods. [1]

Recognising the benefits of international exposure, New Zealand took part in other international exhibitions in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The first of these was the Great International Exhibition of 1862, also held in London, where New Zealand displays won a number of medals and honourable mentions. Exhibits included selections of wool as well as the usual flax and timber while the richness of the latter resource was demonstrated by a collection of 39 native woods in the form of boxes containing the leaves of the trees. [2]

Anton Seuffert, writing bureau, Auckland (1867). Burr totara, kauri, kohekohe, puriri, rimu, tawa, with silvered glass mirror

© CCBY-NC-ND 4.0 Te papa, PF000206

Geological specimens and taxidermied birds

Eleven years later, at the 1873 Vienna International Exposition, New Zealand was represented by a collection of Māori clubs, mats and cloaks, as well as woodwork, gold, geological specimens and kauri gum. There were photographs of New Zealand scenery, and local industries provided examples of their flour and even beer. There was also a collection of birds prepared by a London taxidermist, but the main attraction was surely the pair of moa skeletons from the Canterbury Museum, which ‘astonished’ Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria-Hungary. New Zealand exhibitors collected upwards of 50 awards, but the moa display was not among them, apparently because of a problem of categorisation on the part of the jurors. [3]

In 1876 the 100th anniversary of the independence of the United States was marked by the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Along with natural resources, New Zealand exhibited a large collection of Māori garments and weapons, some of which had been made available by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. New Zealand also presented itself across the Tasman, and at the Sydney Exhibition in 1879 it was awarded prizes for items ranging from lead piping to lace and shell ornaments. The following year, this country’s display at the Melbourne Exhibition had a strong scientific content, with fossils and ethnological material – Māori skulls, weapons, musical instruments, ornaments and canoes – sent by the Colonial and Canterbury Museums.

Te Tākinga pātaka, carved by Te Harete Te Whanarere, 1845-1855. Exhibited at Melbourne Exhibition 1888

Photograph: John William Lindt, 1888 © All Rights Reserved Te Papa, O.022206

A fernery and frozen mutton

The Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London in 1886 was intended to strengthen the bonds of Empire. In New Zealand there was a suggestion that, further to the usual displays, the showcases should also be made of native woods. [4] The New Zealand Court included a fernery, while the bourgeoning agricultural industries were represented by displays of frozen mutton. A large Māori collection assembled by naturalist Walter Buller was dominated by a pātaka (storehouse), originally carved in the 1850s, and the tomb of a Ngāti Pikiao chief. A series of Māori portraits by Gottfried Lindauer was also shown, but within an ethnological context. The fine art section, shown in another building, consisted of over one hundred paintings, mostly New Zealand landscapes, and among them Kennett Watkins’ The Haunt of the Moa, a Scene in a Puriri Forest (1885).

Kennett Watkins, 'The Haunt of the Moa, a Scene in a Puriri Forest' (1885). Oil on canvas. 910 x 1725 mm

Auckland Art Gallery, U/332

The World of the Māori

Anticipating the benefits of advertising itself before what was predicted would be ‘the largest gathering the world has ever seen’, [5] New Zealand also took part in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Collections dispatched included the usual natural resources, such as building stones, kauri gum and a moa skeleton. But attitudes towards such displays now began to change, and with the establishment of New Zealand’s Tourist and Health Resorts Department in 1901 the emphasis would shift away from scientific subjects. The world of the Māori, as on show at Rotorua, and the nation’s sporting attractions would now be promoted in the drive to attract overseas visitors to this corner of the Pacific.

Header image:  Tomb of Ngati Pikiao chief Te Waata Taranui, as displayed in the New Zealand Court at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, London, 1886. All Rights Reserved. Hocken Library, University of Otago,  S14-290b

Crafting Aotearoa 

This article is part of a collection of 52 essays that form an online companion to the book, Crafting Aotearoa. Spanning three centuries of making and thinking in Aotearoa New Zealand and the wider Moana (Pacific), this book looks at the artistic practices that, at different times and for different reasons, have been described by the term craft. Crafting Aotearoa tells previously untold stories of craft in Aotearoa New Zealand, so that the connections, as well as the differences and tensions, can be identified and explored. This book proposes a new idea of craft – one that acknowledges Pākehā, Māori and wider Moana histories of making, as well as diverse community perspectives towards objects and their uses and meanings.

Edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai and Damian Skinner

Hardcover book published by Te Papa Press

RRP $94.00

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Richard, Wolfe. International Exhibitions, Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 11 11 2019.


1. Official Description and Illustrated Catalogue of the Great Exhibition 1851, W. Clowes and Sons, Printers, London, 1851, Volume 2, pp. 1000-1001.

2. New Zealander, 24 September 1862.

3. New Zealand Herald, 6 November 1873.

4. West Coast Times, 7 November 1886.

5. New Zealand Times, 31 August 1891.

Further Reading 

1. Various authors, Almost Forgotten: The International Exhibition of 1862, The Decorative Art Society: 1850 to the Present, Journal 38, 2014.

2. Judith Flanders, Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain, Harper Perennial, London, 2007.

3. Richard Wolfe, ‘Peculiar Beauties: New Zealand on Display in London, 1886’, Art New Zealand 162, Winter 2017.