Redefining history in New Zealand

New Zealand’s unique position of having strong historical legacies from European settlers, the Mãori and others has led to diverse and exciting history programmes, as Professor Giselle Byrnes explains.

History is the study of what happened in the past. It is also the study of how we know what happened in the past. It therefore involves exploring the nature and status of historical evidence and the ways in which aspects of the past may be reconstructed.

Studying history allows us to step back in time, to walk in the shoes of our ancestors and to ‘time travel’. Historians study the past in order to understand the complexities of the present. Indeed, many modern conflicts in various parts of the world cannot be explained or understood without a historical context and perspective.

Studying history in New ZealandIs the past a ‘foreign country’? Were people in the past really that different from us, or are there clear connections between then and now? And how might we best represent and explain the past?

At present, these questions are sharply debated by historians in New Zealand as the discipline undergoes an exciting new phase of redefinition.

History has more relevance in New Zealand than ever before. Thanks to the work of the Waitangi Tribunal over the past 30 years, most New Zealanders are now aware of our ‘hidden’ colonial history, which has exposed stories of injustice, hope, struggle and loss. Others seek to find out more about their ancestors who migrated to New Zealand in the 19th century and, in particular, what drove them to migrate and resettle half way around the globe.

What is a history degree for?Studying history emphasises a range of skills such as formulating research questions, locating and critically analysing source materials, and communicating in clear and effective ways the results of research. These skills are critical to careers in the news media, education, business and administration, the public service, tourism, heritage and policy analysis.

Redefining history in New Zealand

“Is the past a ‘foreign country’? Were people in the past really that different from us, or are there clear connections between then and now? And how might we best represent and explain the past?”

As well as creating a contemporary ‘information explosion’, modern technology has also made the fragments of the past more widely available. This means that there is an increasing demand for people with the skills needed to make sense of the materials that other people have left behind. There are also opportunities for historians who acquire the necessary professional qualifications to work in archives. With the recent explosion in ‘public history’ or ‘applied history’ in New Zealand, many historians are now employed on a contract basis to research the history of organisations, specific issues and policies.

What will I study?All six of New Zealand’s history departments and programmes (Waikato, Auckland, Victoria, Massey, Canterbury and Otago) offer an exciting suite of papers which cover all of some of the following thematic and regional topics including:

  • New Zealand history
  • Pre-modern and modern European history
  • United States history
  • Histories of Asia, Australia and the Pacific
  • Māori and indigenous histories
  • Thematic studies (e.g. social and cultural histories, histories of health, histories of cultural interaction, religious history)

In addition, history students find that their studies complement papers in Māori studies, political science, philosophy, law, business and education (among others) and often combine these in their programmes of study.

Where can I get further advice?The New Zealand Historical Association (NZHA) is the largest professional association of historians in New Zealand. The NZHA works to promote historical study, teaching and research through regular conferences and communication; it raises awareness of the significance of historical scholarship to public audiences; provides opinion on issues of public policy which concern historical study, teaching, research and publication; and it works to protect and enhance the access of historians to archival and other record collections. University history departments and programmes can also advise you further.

Written by Professor Giselle Byrnes
Council Member
New Zealand Historical Association