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e-mail: beth@ebcxm.com
Lower Hutt, New Zealand

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University essay written in 2003, for a Media Studies paper.   Graded A-.

Preface:

My review of The Lord Of The Rings exhibition would be best suited to a student publication (e.g. Salient).   The style of review is best described as partly editorial, in taking a look at this exhibition in comparison to several others at Te Papa at present, and I hope my comparison is objective.   The audience would need to be New Zealanders since some of the text would best be understood here.

The Lord of the Rings Exhibition @ Our Place (Te Papa)

The Lord Of The Rings, that trilogy of films by Peter Jackson,[1] based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novels[2], is now a blockbuster exhibition that has been launched at Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington.   The first thing that comes to mind, once inside the museum, is the sheer size of the exhibition, and the hype surrounding it is just as big.   The advertising banners are everywhere, just as they are around the city.   It almost seems as if The Lord Of The Rings Exhibition is the only thing going on at Te Papa.

Walking into the exhibition is like slipping into another world, another era.   “How do you create completely believable images of a world that doesn’t exist?   That was the challenge faces by the makers of The Lord of the Rings films,” the exhibition brochure states.[3]   The filmmakers, and exhibition producers, appear successful in creating these ‘believable images,’ if the awe-filled looks of the viewers of the images are anything to go on.  

The displays near the entrance take on the feel of archaeological artefacts, from some long lost civilisation, such is the impression left by the detail and layout of the objects.   The armour, weapons and clothes, all taken from the film’s characters, look so real they are impressive to see.   Display cards accompany each object explaining their significance, as well as detailing the materials used in the making, and who manufactured them.

Along one side of the exhibition, the displays consist mainly of the good characters from the story: Aragorn; Gandalf the Grey; and the Riders of Rohan, among others.   The likes of Sauron, The Dark Lord; Saruman the White, the Orcs of Mordor; and the Uruk-hai take up the other side.   In the centre, in a cave-like dwelling, the ring that “rules them all” resides behind a glass cylinder, with the elvish writings, off the ring, projected onto the circular walls, and floor, in flame-red light.

Towards the back of the exhibition there are a few interactive displays, where the viewer can gain insight into how some of the film’s special effects were achieved.   These include the effect of making the Hobbits appear much smaller than Gandalf the Grey, when in reality the actors were of similar heights.   There are also several video displays set up with clips of director, Peter Jackson, and other cast and crewmembers, talking about their parts in producing the objects alongside the videos.  

One of the most popular video clips would appear to be where the construction of Gollum is explained in detail.   While in another display the viewer can actually feel the texture and weight of the chain-mail armour used by the characters, and compare it with a closer facsimile of actual chain-mail.   At the same time the viewer can see and listen to Richard Taylor (head of Effects and Creatures at Weta Workshop) detailing how they went about constructing the chain-mail, and putting it together into the costumes worn my hundreds of cast members in the films.

Taking a step back for a moment, while I came to view this exhibition towards the end of its stay in Wellington, I was still not sure of what to expect.   Having considered all the press, and hype surrounding it, I had to wonder whether The Lord Of The Rings Exhibition really had a place in Te Papa Tongarewa – Our Place.

Te Papa states that it sets out to “ensure the Te Papa experience is reflective of the cultural identities of the Tangata Whenua and Tangata Tiriti.”[4]    The bicultural identity of New Zealand, incorporating the Maori and the Pakeha cultures, is a crucial ingredient to the make up of the Te Papa experience.  

The American film production company, New Line Cinema, has largely funded The Lord Of The Rings exhibition, as with the film.   Most people, especially in New Zealand, would have the audience forget this is really an American-made film and exhibition, but the fact of it cannot be brushed aside so easily.   So, what is The Lord Of The Rings exhibition place in Te Papa?

Returning to the interactive clips, mentioned above, it is these clips, along with those from the actors in the show, that help to show how big a role New Zealand, and New Zealanders, have in these films and, by extension, the exhibition itself.   They shows the high level of New Zealand input, from construction businesses to computer technological companies, to the many New Zealanders who were a part of the crew, and cast.   But is that enough?

Taking a look around some of the other exhibitions at Te Papa there are clear examples of Te Papa meeting their vision to “present, explore and preserve the heritage of its cultures and knowledge of the natural environment.”   In the Tuhoe – Children of the Mist exhibition the audience is given some insight into the cultural identity that makes up the Tuhoe Iwi.   There are photos and paintings detailing their past, and many Maori artefacts are on display as well, such as a large waka situated near the front of the exhibition.   This exhibition is also situated near the Treaty Of Waitangi display, which connects back to the bicultural identity that makes up New Zealand.

With the Passports exhibition the viewer is given a look into the kind of journeys taken by many immigrants on their way to New Zealand.   The pioneer stock of New Zealand’s Pakeha culture is shown through photos, paintings and interactive displays.   There are examples of the kinds of provisions these immigrants had with them on the ships.   One section is turned over to showing the viewer an idea of the conditions on these long journeys across the sea.   While yet another interactive display gives the viewer the opportunity to take a cyber journey as if they were the captain of one of the ships travelling to New Zealand.

These exhibitions uphold the bicultural policy of Te Papa, by displaying the cultures of New Zealand’s two cultures.   Also they do fulfil the vision of Te Papa to “better understand and treasure the past,” and by extension it could be said this understanding does “enrich the present.”   But does it “meet the challenges of the future”?

Looking again at The Lord Of The Rings exhibition there is an aspect of that bicultural policy present, in that there are both Pakeha and Maori individuals involved in the production of this exhibition and film.   For example, Peter Jackson is Pakeha; while the actor, Laurence Makoare who fills the role of Lurtz, the Leader of a band of Uruk-Hai, is Maori.

The Lord Of The Rings exhibition shows more than just the bicultural, in accordance with the Te Papa Mission Statement, it shows a multi-cultural identity made up of the other nations, and cultures, involved in the production; the American and British cast and crew involved.   It is worth noting that by virtue of New Zealand’s size and situation in the world, it has to rely on some resources from other countries, but kiwis are renowned for our ingenuity.   So while this exhibition may be, almost completely, funded by overseas interests it is an example of what kiwis can do with that level of funding.  

So it can be said that this exhibition does have plenty of New Zealand content, so its place in Te Papa becomes clearer.   And in respect to the rest of Te Papa The Lord Of The Rings exhibition takes on a different look, it seems to complete a timeline of this nation up to, and including, the beginning of the twenty-first century.  

This timeline begins at Awesome Forces, detailing the creation of our planet through the natural forces of the planet, with a distinct relevance to New Zealand.   This connection is felt through our natural history, involving earthquakes, volcanoes and the famous geo-thermal activity so prevalent in New Zealand.   Moving onto Mountains to Sea this is a very New Zealand orientated exhibition, as the birds and animals featured within the display are almost entirely New Zealand creatures, and fits the next step in the evolutionary timeline.

Continuing along the timeline is the Tuhoe – Children of the Mist exhibition, which details one aspect of Maori history, and the arrival of the first human inhabitants of New Zealand.   Stepping forward again, is the Passports exhibitions, telling of the arrival of the Pakeha in New Zealand.   Yet another exhibition that could be considered to fit this timeline theory is the NZ Made exhibits, showing various innovations of New Zealand’s recent history, and giving an idea of that famed kiwi ingenuity.

The changes within the various communities, and cultures, that make up this country are clearly seen throughout Te Papa.    As Ivan Karp states, “Every society can be seen as a constantly changing mosaic of multiple communities and organisations.”[5]   And in this way, The Lord Of The Rings exhibition situated at the end of this timeline signifies how far New Zealand has come as a nation, as a people, a bicultural people.   

Flora Kaplan argued “each country uses its museums to represent and reconstitute itself anew in each generation.”[6]   This applies here as of all the exhibitions I viewed at Te Papa, it was The Lord Of The Rings exhibition I felt connected to; the others felt distant.   The Lord Of The Rings exhibition’s place in Te Papa, Our Place, makes sense to me; since it spoke more to me, as a twenty-something kiwi living in the twenty-first century, than any of the other, more clearly, New Zealand exhibitions.

 

Notes:

[1] The Lord Of The Rings.   Dir. Peter Jackson.   USA, 2001 & 2002.
[2]
J.R.R. Tolkien.   The Lord Of The Rings.   (UK: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991).   (Subsequent references to this text included).
[3] The Lord Of The Rings Exhibition Brochure.   New Line Cinema, Te Papa, Absolutely Positive Wellington(2003)
[4]
Lecture Notes – guest lecturer: Linda Robinson.   “National Museums, Cultural Identity & Community: Te Papa.”   MDIA 201, 11th March 2003.   (Subsequent references to this text included)
[5] Ivan Karp.   ‘Introduction: Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture’.   MDIA 201 Media in Aotearoa New Zealand Reader, 2003, p.85.
[6] Lissant Bolton.   ‘The Object in View – Aborigines, Melanesians, and Museums’.   MDIA 201 Media in Aotearoa New Zealand Reader, 2003, p.217.

Bibliography:

Books:
Tolkien, J.R.R.   The Lord Of The Rings.   UK: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.

MDIA 201 Reader.   Media in Aotearoa New Zealand.   Wellington: VUW, School of English, Film and Theatre, 2003.

Lecture Notes:

Robinson, Linda (guest lecturer).   MDIA 201 – National Museums, Cultural Identity & Community: Te Papa.   11th March 2003.

Reviews:

Bowlan, Heather.   ‘Slow Release: Recent Photography From New Zealand’.   Salient, issue 4 (2003), p.44.

Blundell, Sally.   ‘Painting is dead. Again’.   The Listener, 22-28 March (2003), pp.50-52.

Films:

The Lord Of The Rings – The Fellowship of the Rings.   Dir. Peter Jackson.   USA, 2001.

The Lord Of The Rings – The Two Towers.   Dir. Peter Jackson.   USA, 2002.

The Lord Of The Rings - The Return of the King.   Dir. Peter Jackson.   USA, 2003.

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