Thanks Alex, 100 wonderful years, kia ora koutou katoa

Thanks Alex, 100 wonderful years, kia ora koutou katoa

Chief Librarian Chris Szekely on the legacy set by Alexander Turnbull's bequest over a hundred years ago and the generations of New Zealanders who have helped continue building the Turnbull Library collections.

Celebrating a centenary

Just before Christmas, a new banner was mounted on the side of the National Library building in Wellington. The message celebrates the Turnbull Library’s centenary, acknowledging Alexander Turnbull’s founding gift and the generosity of the many New Zealanders who have helped build the Turnbull collections as a research legacy.

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‘Thanks Alex’ banner hanging outside the National Library in Wellington. Photo: Mark Beatty


Thanks Alex

Alexander Turnbull was just 49 years old when he died. He spent the greater part of his lifetime (and his inheritance) growing his Library. In 1893 he famously wrote:

Anything whatever relating to this colony, on its history, flora, fauna, geology and inhabitants, will be fish for my net, from as early a date as possible until now….

True to his word he set about acquiring books, manuscripts, sketches and other formats, mainly through purchase but also through exchanges with other collectors, and as a recipient of research papers gifted by scholarly contemporaries.

At the time of his death, the scale of his collection far outstripped those of other collectors, notably Thomas Hocken, John MacMillan Brown and Robert McNab.

The New Zealand Times announced:

The greatest, most intelligent, most successful collector in our history has made to his country the greatest, most far-reaching, most valuable gift in the record of bequests.

In a codicil to his Will signed a few weeks before his death Turnbull bequeathed…

to His Majesty the King all my Library comprising my printed books pamphlets engravings charts manuscripts sketches maps photographs plans and pictures as… a Reference Library in the City of Wellington… as the nucleus of a New Zealand national collection.

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A new banner mounted on the side of the National Library building in Wellington celebrates the Turnbull Library’s centenary and acknowledges Alexander Turnbull’s founding gift and the generosity of the many New Zealanders who have helped build the Turnbull collections as a research legacy. Photo: Mark Beatty

Thank you New Zealand, kia ora koutou katoa

The New Zealand Times assessment of Turnbull’s bequest was prescient in describing his gift as far-reaching.

Following his death successive generations of New Zealanders have continued to build the Turnbull holdings through bequests and donations of collection items. We estimate over 50,000 individuals, families, community groups and organisations have contributed materials to the Library; truly a research resource developed by New Zealanders for New Zealanders.

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Members of the Scott whanau gifting the archives of architect John Scott to the Turnbull at a ceremony in 2020. Photo: Llewelyn Jones

Turnbull collections held and accessible — forever

This tradition of gifting is premised partly on the statutory promise that the Turnbull collections will be held — and made accessible — forever. This goes some way to explaining why the Turnbull collections are treated differently from other National Library collections.

The Turnbull became a part of the National Library in 1965. The legislation governing the National Library states that one of the key purposes of the Turnbull is…

... to preserve, protect, develop, and make accessible for all the people of New Zealand the collections of that library in perpetuity and in a manner consistent with their status as documentary heritage and taonga...

This applies not only to Alexander Turnbull’s founding gift but to every item subsequently acquired by gift or donation and deposited into the Turnbull Library’s care.

While the Turnbull continues to be distinguished by name and function, it is very much a part of the National Library of New Zealand. To ensure that it remains true to the National Library Act, the Turnbull is led by a Chief Librarian, a statutory role that reports to the National Librarian. These roles report annually to Parliament and are monitored by a statutory group called the Guardians Kaitiaki appointed by the Minister of Internal Affairs.

Perpetuity is a long time. The statutory process aims at maintaining accountability over time, transcending organisational changes. Fifty thousand donors trusted the Turnbull Library when they deposited their treasures into the Library’s care, just as Alexander Turnbull trusted the Crown when he made his bequest. This trust has endured for a hundred years and can never be taken for granted.

100 wonderful years

The Turnbull Library centenary offers a platform to celebrate a century of donor generosity and say thank-you. But how long can a centenary celebration last? In our case, quite a long time. Alexander Turnbull’s bequest came at the time of his death, 28th June 1918. Two years later the Library was opened to the people of New Zealand. We, therefore, have a centenary ‘period’ that spans 2018 – 2020.

The centenary celebration was to finish in 2020. However, the coronavirus pandemic, along with confirmation of philanthropic funding, pushed some of our celebratory activities into 2021. Here are some key initiatives to look out for in the coming months:

  • Mīharo Wonder, 100 years of the Alexander Turnbull Library — is an exhibition of wonderous collection items. Jointly funded by the Turnbull Endowment Trust and Te Puna Foundation the show will open in the National Library Gallery 26 February and run for six months.
  • History 101 — is the working title of a book co-published by the Turnbull Endowment Trust and Massey University Press featuring over 100 items from the Turnbull collections. The book is scheduled for launch in November with a commitment to gifting a copy to every secondary school in the country.
  • Pūkana on tourPūkana, te ihi, te wehi, te wana | Moments in Māori performance was the first of the Turnbull’s two centenary exhibitions that ran in Wellington from September 2019 to August 2020. Thanks to support from a Lotteries grant via the Turnbull Endowment Trust, the show will travel to Aratoi in Masterton in May 2020.
  • A Century of Wondera mini-documentary about the Turnbull that was launched late last year. Again, made possible by Lotteries through the Turnbull Endowment Trust.

Caring for documentary heritage and working together

Anniversaries are more than milestones. They are crossroads at which we decide to live in the past or use our experiences to inform and empower our future. — John Gray, Director, National Museum of American History

Over the next several weeks I will be on tour in different communities around the country using the Turnbull centenary as a platform for public talks about documentary heritage and why it matters.

With a New Zealand history curriculum becoming compulsory in New Zealand schools from 2022, there is a tremendous opportunity for heritage groups and institutions large and small to work together, to strengthen community connections and shine a light on the challenges, benefits and value of what we are about.

I have a personal belief that in New Zealand we can reasonably expect that the documentary heritage of our communities, cultures and country will be kept, cared for and available when New Zealanders want it.

The Turnbull has had a good run for a century or so because there has been outstanding generosity, strong support and good work by many. It is the next hundred years that now counts.

In the meantime, thanks Alex for 100 wonderful years, and thanks everyone who has had a hand in getting the Turnbull to this milestone. Kia ora koutou katoa.

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From the Turnbull team in 2020: Thanks Alex. Thank-you New Zealand. Kia ora koutou katoa. Photo: Mark Beatty


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