Digital New Zealand recently launched a sets feature allowing anyone perusing their content — which includes holdings from museums, galleries, libraries, government departments, local councils and historical societies, universities and artists — to curate and share themed collections. There are obvious educational benefits; for instance, teachers can compile material from Papers Past to illustrate day-to-day news and life at a particular point in the nation’s history, as in this WWI newspaper timeline. Students and scholars will be able to track results relevant to their research in an easy and easily accessible way. Most (and best) of all, DigitalNZ makes otherwise hidden treasures available to interested New Zealanders. And that should be everyone. Whether you’re into 1920s fashion or excessive facial hair or Ernest Rutherford or something I cannot even imagine, you’ll find plenty to lead you along wonderfully scenic, meandering paths you will never want to leave.
There remain some kinks to be worked out behind the scenes: results occasionally repeat themselves, and, frustratingly, asking for more sometimes yields nothing at all, though the numbers promise unseen gems. My inner pedant protests at some of the OCR mistranscriptions, which, unfortunately, cannot be corrected from within DigitalNZ as their source is external. These are minor quibbles that relate more to search functionality than the sets themselves, which prompt strange wishlists: how about collaborative sets? The ability to comment on other people’s collections without involving Facebook? This newborn feature will undoubtedly continue to receive a great deal of attention and love from the very talented and capable team at DigitalNZ. Disclaimer: I am married to one of those team members and think the rest are pretty awesome.
By way of example, here’s a set I compiled this weekend in honor of Katharine Briggs’s A Dictionary of Fairies: Fairies, elves and imps. These images and texts come from Te Papa, Auckland Art Gallery, Papers Past, the Alexander Turnbull Library, Auckland Libraries and Wairarapa Archive. They date from 1796 to 1956, but most cluster around the early decades of the twentieth century. A few highlights:
First, this lovely image of Flora MacLeod (1878-1976), the 28th chief of Clan MacLeod, in January 1955. She had been made DBE two years earlier, and spent a good deal of time traveling around the British Commonwealth following the Second World War. Here we find her sharing Scottish fairy stories with the people of Gisborne. I love the dubious/amused expressions of the besuited man and women surrounding the tree.
Dame Flora McLeod telling scottish fairy stories – Photograph taken by Lloyd Cornish. New Zealand Free Lance : Photographic prints and negatives. Ref: PAColl-0785-1-106-04. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/22333931
Next, two fairies come to life. Ettie Maginnity played the role of Titania or some version of the queen of the fairies in October 1901. With her star-crown (helmet?), spear and armor-like corset, the costumed Maginnity recalls Brunhilde or Boudicca rather than some ethereal, mercurial winged girl; she commands admiration and respect. Miss Amery, my favorite of the bunch, must have been one of her handmaidens a decade or so later. In this beautiful full-length portrait, she wears a gauzy embroidered gown, small wings and a crown of flowers. Her bare feet tread lightly on the painted fabric backdrop, her face uplifted, hands tangled in her dark, wavy hair.
Miss Ettie Maginnity as Queen of the Fairies, Auckland Weekly News, 24 October 1901: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19011024-12-10. http://digitalnz.org.nz/records/29958311
Full-length portrait of Miss Amery dressed as a fairy? with wings, long hair, bare feet – Photograph taken by Herman John Schmidt: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 31-WP7300A. http://digitalnz.org.nz/records/30073565
What I find perhaps most interesting about the curation process is not the initial idea but the way the content inevitably sends set-makers off to pursue tangents: one set leads to an idea for another, images prompt research on an unexpected subject and, once shared — DigitalNZ makes it easy to post both images and sets to Twitter, Facebook or your social network of choice — these creations result in fascinating conversations. It’s a pleasure and an honor to participate in new ways of exploring New Zealand’s (digital) heritage.