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Founder Lecture 2022

Issue date: 
Tuesday, 28 June 2022
The Rt Hon Dame Cindy Kiro, GNZM, QSO

E nga rau rangatira mā, e kui mā, e koro mā, e huihui nei, tēnei aku mihi māhana ki a koutou. Kia ora tātou katoa.

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen – I’d like to begin by acknowledging: Rachel Esson, National Librarian; Chris Szekely, Chief Librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library; Katherine Baxter, President of the Friends of the Turnbull Library; Kate Fortune, Immediate Past President of the Friends of the Turnbull Library.

It is a great honour to be invited to deliver this year’s Founder Lecture. In doing so, I am aware of the esteemed company I find myself in.

My predecessors Sir Paul Reeves, Dame Catherine Tizard, Sir Michael Hardie Boys, and Sir Annand Satyanand all addressed this gathering – as well as writers, thinkers, and artists from across New Zealand’s history – talking on matters from Milton to refugees; from the nature of art to colonial medievalism.

While that last one probably isn’t in my wheelhouse, I did consider following in the footsteps of Dame Cath and Sir Michael, and using this lecture to reflect on the role of the Governor-General.

I’m now eight months into my term, and while much of it still feels new, I am privileged to have already had some quite extraordinary experiences.

I’ve visited the United Arab Emirates to pay New Zealand’s respects to the family of the late Sheikh Khalifa, and the United Kingdom to mark Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee.

I’ve been welcomed back onto my home marae at Mōtatau, and I’ve met remarkable New Zealanders from around the country who have dedicated their lives to helping others.

With each of these experiences, with every New Zealander I meet, my understanding of the nature of the role of the Governor-General continues to grow and evolve.

And while it is, in many ways, tempting to spend this time talking about my experience and evolving understanding of the role – topics I will touch on later – I thought I’d begin by speaking on a topic that rather underpins those things, and one that remains firmly at the heart of who we are as a country – and that’s New Zealand’s relationship with our past.

I do promise this is not going to be a history lecture – not being a historian myself, and acutely aware that previous Founder Lecturers include James Belich and Jock Philips: two of our foremost historical minds.

Rather, I hope to reflect on the relationship between our history and memory on both a national and personal level, on the role the Turnbull Library plays in that relationship, and on the importance of harnessing our historical wisdom for the good of our collective future.

I could think of no better place to speak on such topics, than before you, the Friends of the Turnbull Library – fierce guardians and supporters of this remarkable institution, that plays such a vital role in New Zealand’s relationship with its past.

The purpose of the Alexander Turnbull Library is enshrined in the National Library of New Zealand (Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa) Act 2003: ‘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; and to develop and maintain a comprehensive collection of documents relating to New Zealand and the people of New Zealand.’

Quite a mouthful – and no simple task, especially in an age where so much of what is being written for and by New Zealanders is now found online.

However, I know how proactive the Turnbull Library has been in increasing the reach and diversity of its collection, and in making its resources more accessible to all New Zealanders.

On that note, I wish to congratulate you on your recent publication: Te Kupenga: 101 Stories of Aotearoa from the Turnbull. It is an extraordinary piece of work: a rich and vivid tapestry of your own collection, and by extension, of New Zealand history.

I’m thrilled that much of the book will be available online through the National Library’s Services to Schools, as teachers and students from around the country embark on the new history curriculum next year. I’m sure it will prove an invaluable resource.

The Turnbull Library is lodged in the consciousness of many New Zealanders – many I suspect without realising it. Beneath any historic photograph accompanying a news article, history book, or local museum exhibit, there you will almost certainly find that same tiny text: ‘From the Alexander Turnbull Library Collection.’

Despite its place in our national awareness, the Turnbull Library grapples with the perception that it is an ‘elitist institution’ geared purely for academic use.

While this is untrue, the Turnbull Library does constitute a precious resource to many New Zealand academics – and we must remember that those users are doing us all a great service.

Through their use and study of the Turnbull collections, they are seeking new insights and creating new knowledge. They are interpreting past events so that we may understand them with greater depth and nuance. In doing so, they are making us all wiser in our understanding of the present.

Equally valid as users of this library are the many young people, from schools and universities around Wellington, who use the Turnbull reading rooms to study for their exams – young people who will go on to become our leaders, and who are our future.

Just as valid too are the family historians and genealogists, seeking insights into their own past, and the lives of their ancestors. For Māori, this constitutes our whakapapa, and it is fundamental to our view of ourselves, and our relationship with the universe.

It was Carl Sagan, that wonderful astronomer, who once said: ‘The library connects us with insight and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture, and our concern for the future, can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.’

I suspect many New Zealanders might not appreciate how the Turnbull Library’s collection is supported and grown – which is through donations and acts of generosity.

Of course, Alexander Turnbull’s own foundational gift was one of extraordinary proportions, and famously called: ‘the most generous bequest to the people of New Zealand ever made by a New Zealander since the beginning of New Zealand time.’

Turnbull’s extraordinary gift aside, the scale of a donation is not always necessarily proportionate to its significance, and I understand one thing the Turnbull Library is not, and that is New Zealand’s attic.

Turnbull librarians must constantly make difficult decisions about what to include in the Turnbull collection, and what to omit – for, of course, the library simply cannot, and should not, hold everything.

I was very moved to hear of the donation of 19 letters to the Turnbull Library, handwritten by a First World War soldier to his wife back in Wellington, kept for many years by their family, tied up with a pink ribbon.

That thin volume of letters constituted something of immense value to that family, and it was an act of great generosity and courage to pass them into the Turnbull’s care.

Now they are available for all New Zealanders to access for all time – giving us an intimate glimpse into the experience of the First World War soldier, and the deep sense of devotion, concern, and love that kept the flame of that New Zealand family alive.

The Turnbull Library has a legislative and, I would argue, a moral prerogative to preserve the history of this country in a way that is reflective of who we are – of all our rich diversity, and our defining moments, both good and bad.

I know this is a role that is evolving, as our modes of communication and publication rapidly change through the internet, and, of course, social media.

I do wonder what the equivalent of that slim bundle of letters will be in fifty years’ time, but I feel confident the Turnbull librarians have already turned their minds to such knotty questions.

If the Turnbull Library preserves records of formative moments from across our history, it can also help us to right historical wrongs.

This comes, not only in the recognition and acknowledgement of those wrongs, but through their careful, sincere, and proper indemnification.

Since the Waitangi Tribunal was established back in 1975, the Turnbull has played an important role for iwi in making Treaty Settlement claims, as a place where substantiating evidence is stored and accessed.

I know the Library will continue to fulfil this function with transparency and integrity, as we as a nation continue to strive for cultural redress that goes beyond words and promises.

Sometimes the Turnbull’s contribution to our national story manifests itself in less immediately tangible ways. The 15th of March 2019 is a date that no New Zealander will forget. 

Each of us has a story of where we were when we heard about the attacks – stories that will be passed on through generations.

Following the Mosque attacks, we remember the words of our Prime Minister, who guided us with such grace and wisdom through those terrifying times: ‘They are us’, she said. We grappled with how best to express our own feelings of grief and solidarity. And, in turn, some of us may have made our contributions to the piles of flowers and tributes left outside the Wellington Islamic Centre and the two Mosques in Christchurch, and against the boundary wall of Hagley Park.

Following that potentially fracturing moment in New Zealand history, the Turnbull Library played a quiet, but hugely important role in our response.

I haven’t yet been for a thorough tour of the Turnbull Library, but it’s something both myself and Dr Davies are greatly looking forward to. And I understand that sitting within Turnbull collection is a selection of those tributes left by the people of New Zealand in response to the tragedy.

In selecting and preserving these precious artefacts, Turnbull librarians were implicitly asking the question: how should we remember this horrific event?

The answer, in the end, was quite clear: the way in which New Zealanders responded – which was not with fear or further violence or increased division, but rather, with outpourings of love and hope and support.

And so, in time, as historians of the future come to write about the Mosque attacks, they won’t only find the written accounts in newspaper articles and books of what happened on that terrible day. They won’t only read the transcripts of our Prime Minister’s speeches. They will visit the Turnbull and see the response of a nation that went beyond words – in the folded flowers, artworks, and paper-chain links dusted with glitter.

If history is about recounting and interpreting the past, memory is how that past makes us feel. And this is something the Turnbull Library helps us as New Zealanders to do – that ineffable and precious and most human of things: it helps us to remember.

It was Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who said: ‘Life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.’ Kierkegaard’s sentiment is mirrored in the whakataukī – ‘kei mua, kei muri’ – which says we can only understand the future by understanding the past.

When considering this question of our ‘national memory’, I’ve always found it helpful to think in terms of personal memory, as I see that the two have much in common: that many of the things we can say of a nation’s history, we can also say of our own.

Our lives are made up of a series of moments we experience and decisions we make, each with their own sets of consequences. Memories, ultimately, are the stories we tell ourselves of our past – the filter through which we come to know ourselves, our place in the world, and the impact we’ve had on the lives of those around us.

Memories are precious, and constitute a great part of the richness of life – but they also possess great potential for self-deception. And, as humans, we are experts at constructing and reconstructing our own personal narratives.

While we can often practice self-deception with great skill, and while in some cases it can help us to cope with mistakes and pain in our past, self-deception is something we must generally take great care to guard against.

New Zealand has gone through its own cycles of denial and dishonesty in our relationship with our national history – the hurt of which we are still grappling with to this day.

But I remain hopeful for our future, and I am sure the teaching of New Zealand history in schools will be another powerful step in the journey of facing our past – in all its complexities and richness – with honesty and courage.

As dawn breaks on the 25th of April, every year since 1916, we have stood at war memorials around the country, and we’ve said: ‘me maumahara tātou’ – ‘we will remember them.’

Vietnamese-American academic and author Viet Thanh Nguyen has said: ‘All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in the memory.’

More and more, our remembering extends not only to those who gave their lives at Gallipoli and the two World Wars, but also in the New Zealand Wars of the mid-to-late 19th century.

And so it should. As James Belich said of those conflicts: ‘They were not, as is sometimes suggested, storms in a teacup or gentlemanly bouts of fisticuffs, but bitter and bloody struggles, as important to New Zealand as were the Civil Wars to England and the United States.’

By commemorating these events in ways that are true to what happened – to the profound hurt, loss, and injustice – we enhance the mana of our history, and allow ourselves to forge a future based on greater respect and understanding.

I believe the Governor-General has an important role to play in the ways we, as a nation, commemorate and remember, and it’s one of the duties of this role I take very seriously.

Applying wisdom from our past, and from experts in their chosen fields, will be at the heart of everything I do in this role – as it has been throughout my career.

I’ve spent my professional life straddling academia and the public sector – I’ve worked in leadership roles at universities in Auckland and Wellington, and as Children’s Commissioner. It’s perhaps not your typical academic’s career path, but then again, I have never considered myself an especially orthodox academic.

I do, however, share the staunch belief of the academic community that knowledge is sacred. But for me, that pursuit of knowledge has never been enough. I’ve always been driven to ask the question: how do I apply this knowledge in a way that does the greatest possible good – that has the greatest possible impact on the wellbeing of my fellow New Zealanders? This is a mission I will continue as Governor-General.

In her Founder Lecture of 1993, entitled The Crown and the Anchor, Dame Cath said: ‘I have come to believe that the chief role of a New Zealand Governor-General is more and more one of affirming things, certain ideas, and ideals.’

I think there is truth in Dame Cath’s words, and I have three ideals that will underpin my time this role.

The first is kaitiakitanga: that we are temporary guardians of things that are precious to us, and have a responsibility to look after them for future generations. Second is oranga: preserving the health, vitality and wellbeing of living things. And the third is manaakitanga: and that is our duty of care for others – to uphold their mana, respect them and look after them.

Holding fast to these values, I will fulfil what I believe to be the chief role of a New Zealand Governor-General: and that is to serve New Zealanders – to reach across boundaries, to celebrate excellence, and acknowledge those committed to helping others.

When I swore my oath to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on the 21st of October last year, I become New Zealand’s 22nd Governor-General, and will fulfil those obligations to the absolute utmost of my abilities, with all of myself.

I chose the topic I did today – the way we relate to our past – because I believe it is a question that will underpin our future as a nation, whatever that might look like.

The whakataukī that forms the title of this lecture – ‘Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua’ – ‘I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past’ – speaks to the Māori metaphysical understanding of the universe in which the past is inextricable from our present and future.

In approaching our past with curiosity and courage and compassion, and considering how we can use those precious, precarious gifts of wisdom and memory, we are better equipped to shape our present, and work towards a future worthy of who we wish to be.

I want to conclude by thanking Katherine and the Friends of the Turnbull Library: for your steadfast support of this extraordinary institution, and for inviting me here today. It truly has been a great honour and a privilege.

To Chris and the staff of the Turnbull Library, I wish you all the very best in your work. Through your meticulous curation and care, you provide touchpoints into the psyche and spirit of Aotearoa: a truly priceless gift to all New Zealanders, that will last well beyond all of our lifetimes.

The current exhibition of William Harding’s photography, Between Shirt & Skin, seems to me perfectly emblematic of the Turnbull Library.

Those figures from New Zealand’s past gaze out at us with such piercing clarity: instants of time and spirits captured without judgement or embellishment. They just are – and we, the viewer, are left with a heightened awareness of what we all share across boundaries of time and space, and richer for having spent time in their company.

In no uncertain terms, the Alexander Turnbull Library is, in itself, a taonga. It preserves our history so that we, as a nation, may better remember. And in remembering, we come to see ourselves more clearly. And with that clarity, we are reminded that what matters most is not what we are given, but what we give; how much patience, understanding, and humility we show; and the sacred responsibilities we each bear as members of our whānau, community, and society.

No reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.

Last updated: 
Tuesday, 28 June 2022

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