Turning back time


When a fascination with the stories that can be revealed by historical archives takes hold, it can be hard to shake.

In the case of Emil McAvoy, an Auckland based ‘artivist’ – an artist and activist – his archival source of choice since winning an Archives New Zealand scholarship several years ago has been the National Publicity Studios (NPS) collection.

His findings from that collection – “I rapidly figured I’d stumbled on a huge goldmine” – received another outing this year as part of the popular This Is New Zealand exhibition mounted at the Wellington City Art Gallery.

This is NZ

As described by co-curator, Robert Leonard, the exhibition's purpose was to tease out “connections between images, ideology, and identity” – taking a critical look at the stories we’ve told ourselves, and promoted to others, about this notion of a nation called New Zealand.

The National Basement was the title of McAvoy’s section of the exhibition – a body of work consisting of 19 full-frame, digitally revived black and white photographs that lift the lid on some unfiltered aspects of the NPS’s outputs.

Established in 1945 the NPS was a manufactory of image production and also held responsibility for advising government departments and state agencies on the provision of photographic, art, and display services.

McAvoy’s selection of “found photography” takes viewers around the often mundane behind-the-scenes activity that went into this business of nation-building. At the same time as exposing how idyllic scenes were set in place, McAvoy also sparks thinking about undercurrents such as the appropriation of Māori culture.

When I visited The National Basement the first thing to catch my attention was a photo of a carved wooden shield that once upon a time occupied a wall-space of the Lambton Quay office of the Government Tourist Bureau or GTB.

The GTB sat within the Tourist and Publicity Department back when official tourist bureaux could be found “in each of the main cities of the Dominion”. It’s where people would go to have their tours of New Zealand mapped.

The GTB ceased its existence a long time ago, while the NPS briefly became Communicate New Zealand in 1987 before being privatised for a mere $200,000 a few years later.

In my case the rotating cycles of public service organisations have always held a certain fascination. Back in the day (30 years ago) I was employed at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research at Gracefield, Lower Hutt, as a library assistant.


At the time I wrote an article for the PSA journal of the time about moves to restructure the science sector. Sure enough the DSIR was gone by 1992 after a proud life of 66 consistently productive years.

Not everyone remembers DSIR, or the GTB or NPS for that matter, yet nor have they completely disappeared from the collective memory, as brought out of the basement by exhibitions like This Is New Zealand.

  • If you have memories of government organisations you’ve worked at which haven’t survived the passage of time please share them with editor@psa.org.nz

LastWord July2018Contributed by Stephen Olsen