Dray Dreaming

New Zealand and Cultural Identity

Sit beside a mountain stream, see her waters rise
Listen to the pretty sound of music as she flies
Find me in my field of grass, Mother Nature’s son
Swaying daisies sing a lazy song beneath the sun
The Beatles – Mother Nature’s Son

Imagine what someone from Ireland is like. Now imagine a German. A Spaniard. A Russian. Some countries, like the ones I mentioned, have such distinct identities. From this list, each place has an identity that’s formed by their long histories, the common traits of their citizens (stereotypes?), and of course from popular culture. But what about countries without a long history, whose inhabitants aren’t known throughout the world, and who likely aren’t frequently represented in popular culture? What is their cultural identity and how is it formed? I spent the Thanksgiving break in New Zealand this year and I was immediately struck by a distinct cultural identity that I knew nothing about.

I spent the first four days of my trip in Wellington and was told that one of the “must-see” sites of the city was the Museum of New Zealand in Wellington, called Te Papa.  I’m often somewhat skeptical about how interesting “national museums” might be. In many places, these museums are simply a collection of artifacts and don’t necessarily give visitors a sense of the nation’s true cultural identity. Granted, these historical artifacts are important in painting a picture of each society’s evolution. However, in today’s information age, these history lessons are easily found online. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather walk through a place that’s a reflection of the people. If I’m going to go to a national museum, I want to leave understanding that nation’s identity today… and not just how it was hundreds of years before.

However, having never been to New Zealand, I thought this was an appropriate place to start my trip so I headed over on my first day. The Museum is made up of four main levels:

Level 2: Natural Environment (and an exhibit on New Zealand’s role in World War I)
Level 3: People’s Impact on the Land
Level 4: Social History: Maori, Pacific, and other Communities
Level 6: Viewing Terrace

And it’s interesting, after spending 10 days in New Zealand, these levels seemed to be the perfect reflection of the country as a whole, a true national identity.

Natural Environment

Being an island nation, New Zealand has a great appreciation for life in the surrounding waters and its impact on the land. However, this isn’t just about having an appreciation for the marine life but goes a step further into understanding the geological evolution of the waters and the islands. New Zealand’s recent and tragic history with major earthquakes is absolutely part of its identity. However, rather than simply focus on preparation, I got a sense that there is a real desire to understand and the second level of the Museum is largely focused on the geological evolution of the islands and the surrounding waters, an interesting introduction into New Zealand’s identity.

Flowers from the Botanic Gardens in Wellington

People’s Impact on the Land

The next level up in the Museum has a more diverse set of exhibits but the next most distinct dimension of New Zealand’s identity (in my opinion) was their tremendous respect for the land. Two of the more exciting sites in Wellington (besides the Museum) were the botanic gardens and an eco-sanctuary called Zealandia. Here’s one of the primary metropolitan areas devoting significant land and resources to focus on the preserving plant and animal life in the area.

This conscientiousness of New Zealanders extends far beyond a few parks. The nation’s agriculture, including its famous wine region in the South Island, is loaded with proud markers promoting sustainable agriculture. Even the nutritional choices reflect this heightened awareness of human’s impact on the land. I heard some varying statistics about it, but it seems that somewhere between 10% and 20% of New Zealanders are vegetarian and these numbers may be considerably higher for the younger generations. In the end, it just seems as though New Zealanders want to integrate into the land rather than just take it over.

Just one of many markers promoting the growing vegetarian population in New Zealand
Neudorf Vineyards was one of many of the region’s wineries promoting sustainable agriculture

Social History

Moving up yet another level in the Museum, I finally got to a level that was primarily focused on the people. I was interested to learn more about the Maori people because their presence is everywhere. Throughout the level were stories about the Maori people and of their history. While there was some tension between the European settlers in New Zealand and the native Maori tribes, it seems that all New Zealanders live in relative harmony today. This level of the Museum as well as Level 5 were under some construction during my visit. A more detailed social history would be a great addition to this place.

Viewing Terrace

On the top level of the Museum was a small viewing terrace.  There are no exhibits here but I mention it as part of the cultural identity of the country as there seems to be great pride among the citizens in the stunning beauty of the land. Based on my visit there and the views from this terrace, I certainly can’t blame them.

New Zealand is rightfully known for its stunning natural beauty. However, it’s the country’s strong national identity that helps to create and sustain that. There’s great pride in preserving the land and integrating humans seamlessly into a largely undisturbed area. It’s too bad more of the world doesn’t adopt this approach.

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