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Butterflies, Boffins & Black Somkers – Two Centuries of Science in New Zealand

Thomasin Sleigh

Visual Arts


Do you know what is a great word? Boffins. Good word. Nice solid vowel sound. Yup. Anyway, a lot of people don’t actually know that the National Library has a gallery. But it does, and it is a space that holds a wide variety of shows created by a number of different curators. The exhibitions range from contemporary visual arts to more ethnographic, historical exhibitions. Butterflies, Boffins & Black Smokers falls into the latter category, being an exhibition that highlights and explores science in New Zealand by picking out individual scientists and projects from the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.
There are heaps of words in this show. Heaps. I’m just preparing you for the fact that you will need to read a lot. I would say almost too much. It would take hours to get round the whole thing and read everything. It is kind of like walking through a National Geographic article. My legs got tired. But it is quite easy also to pick and choose; select parts that seem interesting. For me, this was definitely the earlier photographs and collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library.
The exhibition showcases early pioneers of science in New Zealand, replete in their stuffy black coats and thick moustaches. These are the collectors and the classifiers; organising and naming an unknown land. I particularly enjoyed the case of stuffed birds on display. It brought very quickly to mind the current show on at the Adam Art Gallery, Archiving Fever. In this exhibition contemporary artists subvert and examine this very urge to arrange and archive, which these nineteenth century scientists saw as their vocation.
Besides the interesting creepiness of the earlier Victorian scientists, I’m not sure how easily all this scientific subject falls into exhibition format. There are just a few too many words, and not enough interesting things to look at. The curators haven’t really utilised the space and the opportunities that exhibition format has to offer, to their full extent. And the result seems a little dry and wordy. However, there are some interesting sections and it certainly highlights the richness of New Zealand’s scientific community. It struck me, after reading about some of the work of these scientists, how unfair it is that these incredibly intelligent people spend their lives unsung in their own country.
5 September – 26 November