Friday, 17 October 2008

Typefaces and Te Papa

Question for the day - what was the first typeface designed in New Zealand? When? And by whom?*

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This week's post about the Vogue typeface kicked off some comments, including Cheryl Bernstein's note about the history of graphic design in NZ receiving more attention, what with The National Grid and the Joseph Churchward show at Te Papa.

I saw the Churchward show during the weekend. Normally, I visit Te Papa in a hold-your-nose fashion: I take a deep breath, I go straight to what I want to see, and then I get the hell out. On this occasion, I'd gone back for another look at the Dashper/Mrkusich/Driver hang - which I liked even more the second time round.

After that though, I did something unusual - I went for a bit of a wander. First I saw the Churchward show in the Illott room (and I stick to my guns - any sense of modernism that attaches itself to this roomlet is accidental) . Prompted by the note that one of Churchward's tyepfaces was used in the re-design of Tangata o le Moana: The story of Pacific people in New Zealand, I went to check that out.

First up, while the selected font is nice as display text, it doesn't work on the wall labels. But far more important is this observation: the re-design of this Pasifika exhibition seems to demonstrate the slow sea-change that's coming over Te Papa. Sure, it's still expensively kitted out. But it seemed to me that in this rendition collection items were given precedence over interpretation and design - a turn-around from the earlier version that was in place for Day One.

After wandering through TOLM, I headed for what might be my favourite thing in Te Papa. You can have the Northland Panels - I'll take the Captain Cook cloak.

One of the things I've always loved about this cloak is that it's so bloody hard to find. Conceptually, I can totally see what the Day One crew was doing. The cloak is a signifier for a moment of contact between cultures, with Cook as its fulcrum. Cook here sits symbolically and physically at the interstices between the tangata whenua, European arrival in Aotearoa New Zealand, and people of the Pacific.

Which is all fine and dandy conceptually, but as an experience for the viewer? The cloak is obscured behind one of the dullest parts of the floor (the talking Treaty poles - I mean, WTF people? these are still here?), concealed by opaque glass panels, unconnected to either of the flanking exhibitions, and in the dark (admittedly, for conservation purposes, and I do like the way you get to turn the little firefly lights on for your personal viewing pleasure).

My next part of my wander exemplified for me how the conceptual ambitions and experiential realities of Te Papa so often part company. After the Cook cloak, one of my most favourite parts of Te Papa is the space behind Te Hau ki Turanga in the Mana Whenua exhibition. Partly, it's the honey-sweet smell of the thatch. But mostly it's the way this spot demonstrates how exhibitions and architecture do battle in Te Papa. Behind Te Hau ki Turanga a wooden palisade fences off an oddly-shaped, obviously un-usable, lumpy section of wall, window and floor. It's always seemed to me like someone said "Oh shit, what are we gonna do with that completely useless part of the floor? Stupid building design. I know, we'll fence it off and hope no one notices. Phew. Crisis averted.".

But, you know what? Overall, I enjoyed my wander, and the crowd of 200 people on the Marae watching a demo by the Royal NZ Ballet left a good taste in my mouth, not a sour smell in my nostrils. You never know, what with City Gallery about to shut down for a year, maybe I'll be spending more time at Te Papa.

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* So - there is a tangential-ish relation between this question and the rest of the post. A website tells me that Churchward "self-published a handful of original fonts in 1978 becoming the first and only company in New Zealand to publish original photo-lettering." I'm an amateur, and don't expect this means he was the first person to publish a font in NZ. But who was?

1 comment:

artandmylife said...

That's cool - if we both survive the apocalypse and are on a raiding mission of Te Papa, we won't be fighting over the same stuff...(I WILL take the Northland panels thx)