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Margery Blackman - Textile Curator and Tapestry Weaver

Interviewed by Dorothy - 22/05/03

Margery Blackman
Margery Blackman
Margery Blackman first became known nationally in New Zealand as a weaver of rugs and tapestry. More recently she has turned her energies to curatorial and conservation work particularly with historical textiles in Dunedin public collections. She was Honorary Curator of Ethnographic Textiles and Costume from Other Cultures as well as the Maori material in the Otago Museum. She has curated a number of exhibitions including From Emperor's Court to Village Festival, an exhibition of Chinese costumes and other textiles held in the Otago Museum, the work of Lily Daff, well known for her bird paintings, and Threads of Tradition which displayed textiles held at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. She has also studied Maori cloaks, made of New Zealand flax, with particular attention to the details of their structure.

Interest in textiles from student days
Margery's intense interest in textiles began when she was a student at the Home Science School at the University of Otago.

Research and self-generated learning about weaving and historical textiles
Her weaving began when she was living in Scotland in the 1960s. Being unable to find suitable tuition in weaving she studied books and was largely self taught.

Tapestry by Margery Blackman
Tapestry by Margery Blackman
Silk, mohair, cotton
242 x342mm

At about the same time her interest in historical textiles began. She took advantage of seeing museum displays in Britain and this gradually extended into building up a worthwhile personal library on the history of textiles throughout many cultures.

Honorary curator at the Otago Museum
Margery explained, "As there is no tuition available in New Zealand in this specialised area the learning was inevitably self-generated. Overseas travel added considerably to my knowledge as I was able to study museum collections, attend occasional lectures and conferences. This led to my being invited to be the Honorary Curator of Ethnographic Textiles and Costume from Other Cultures as well as the Maori material in the Otago Museum."

She worked casually at the Museum from 1967, was Honorary Curator from 1988 to 1999 and continues to be an adviser on the Museum's textiles.

This meant identifying, researching and caring for the Maori cloaks and other textiles, such as mats, bags, and some basketry, and the Otago Museum collections of material from Asia, including China, India, Indonesia, and Japan, from Africa, the Middle East and North and South America, and folk costume from the Balkans. Apart from the Maori material the major overseas collection is from China.

Recent academic acknowledgement of the study of textiles
Margery finds it surprising that it is only in the last twenty or thirty years that academic disciplines have included the study of textiles and costume which are so much a part of the every day life and the ceremonial of a people.

Coptic collection of interesting origin
One of the small, but rare, collections in the museum which has especially interested Margery is fragments of Coptic and early Islamic textile fabrics from archaeological sites in Egypt. They were given to the museum in 1946 by a Greek antique dealer, a Mr Tano, who had an antique shop in Cairo. He gave them as a tribute to the performance and courage of the New Zealand Second Expeditionary Force in Greece and Crete in 1941.

A museum benefactor, Colonel Waite, collected a lot of stone, pottery and other artefacts from the Middle East for the Otago Museum during his overseas service in both World Wars. He was at Gallipoli in World War I and served in Egypt as a welfare office in Egypt in World War 2.

Mr. Tano knew Colonel Waite and would probably be aware that the other artefacts going to the museum did not include textiles. He selected seventy pieces extending from the Coptic period about 400 to 500 AD through the early Islamic period up to imported Indian printed fabrics up to about the eighteenth century. These are all fragments. Mr. Tano clearly recognised the importance of such textiles being represented in a museum and sent this collection to the Otago Museum.

Three fragments are currently on display in the museum. A larger group has been displayed at the Dunedin Art Gallery and the National Library Gallery in Wellington.

The fragments are part of garments which were found in burial grounds and rubbish dumps, and which survived because of the dry climate. When the excavations began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the decorated parts were all that was rescued from the deteriorating garment so they became separated from the original setting. The fragments were parts of long bands that were parts of otherwise plain linen garments. These bands featured saints and other religious symbols.

In the Islamic period there is Arabic lettering on the garments. Margery has had some of them translated, and they quote short phrases from the Koran.

Study of Maori cloaks
Because she is a New Zealander and because Maori cloaks are unique to New Zealand Margery felt that it would be wise to become familiar initially with some of the material in the Otago Museum. Then because she was fortunate enough to travel when her husband had sabbatical leave, over a ten year period she collected a lot of information about cloak collections world wide. Collections are held in London, Oxford, and Cambridge, in Scotland and some are in Switzerland, Italy, France and Germany. She travelled to Sweden to see a cloak which was collected on Captain Cook's first voyage to New Zealand. She has also seen cloaks in several North American museums and a few in Australian museums. This means that they are fairly widely spread.

Structure of the cloaks
What has interested Margery in particular has been the fine details of the structure - the way that the threads are manipulated together. They are made of New Zealand flax, phormium tenax , from the fibres extracted from the leaves. Many were decorated with feathers for prestige cloaks, or tags of flax leaf for rain cloaks forming a thatch-like structure. Margery's particular study has been of the finely twined decorative borders known as taniko, a technique which appears to be unique to the Maori.

Clothes of the Pre-European Maori
At this point I asked Margery how the early Maori people kept warm in the winter. Her reply was that it was a case of survival of the fittest, but that in the south there are stories of seal skin being made into cloaks, though none are known to be in existence. The skin of the Polynesian dog which the Maori had brought with them was also made into cloaks. There were never profuse numbers of these dogs, however. The dog skin cloaks were made of the phormium tenax fibre and then decorated with strips of dog skin which would give them added warmth. These cloaks were only worn by tribal leaders.

The New Zealand flax fibre with washing and beating processes to a very soft flexible fibre, so cloaks wrapped around the body would give considerable warmth. In wet or snowy weather they would have an extra outer cloak or a rain cloak with its thatch made in such a way that the rain would run off.

Sandals were worn, and sometimes a legging covering the shins, when going through the matagouri for instance. The life expectancy of the Maori at that time was probably between thirty and thirty five.

It is difficult to know just exactly what was worn by early Maori settlers as archaeologists have found so few examples of early Maori textiles in New Zealand. What is known is that there were very sophisticated, highly skilled cloak makers working at the time of European contact.

Reference books on Maori clothing
There are a few good publications about Maori clothing. One of the best, The Evolution of Maori Clothing, was written early in this century by the great Maori scholar, Sir Peter Buck, and published by the Polynesian Society.

Another is S. M. Mead's Traditional Maori Clothing published in 1969 by A. H. and A. W. Reed.

A fine more recent publication on Auckland Museum's collection by Mick Pendergrast - Te Aho Tapu. the Sacred Thread 1987, is more readily available.

Other work
Margery's work has not been limited to her role at the Otago Museum. She catalogued and conserved the textiles at Olveston, the well-known historic house in Dunedin, has worked as an occasional conservator for the Otago Settlers' Museum, and at times worked as a consultant at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. This work has included cataloguing the lace collection at the Art Gallery and some work on the oriental rug catalogue.

Private conservation contracts
As a consultant textile conservator she has undertaken a number of private contracts. Among many people in the community there is an increasing interest in old textiles passed down through the family. Private clients have asked for her advice on the care of samplers and of textiles brought back by grandfathers or great grandfathers from the First World War from places like France and Egypt. She frequently talks to groups on the history and care of textiles.

Waitaki Boys' High School Hall of Memories
Her largest contract was for the preservation of fifty three flags and eight pennants in the Waitaki Boys' High School Hall of Memories. This task involved cleaning and repairing the flags and pennants, and strengthening those fit to be hung in the hall again. The most fragile were cleaned but not repaired and are stored as a historical record at the Oamaru Museum. Many were from former British colonies. As a voluntary extra service Margery has researched the history of the flags and pennants.

As a weaver Margery has had her work exhibited through New Zealand. Her works have been purchased by museums and galleries. She has also accepted some private commissions, including woven panels for the Dunedin Hospital.

Tapestry by Margery Blackman
Otago Banners 1986 at Dunedin Hospital

Textile exhibitions
Margery has organised or assisted with many textile exhibitions, including twelve at the Otago Museum. These included Islamic Rugs in 1975, Indonesian Weaving in 1981, Treasures from Maori Women in 1989, and From Emperor's Court to Village Festival - an exhibition of Chinese costumes and other textiles held in the Otago Museum. She has also written catalogues with high quality illustrations for the Indonesian and Chinese exhibitions.

Recent exhibitions and biographical research
Margery described recent developments in her work.
"In 1999 I continued with work at the Otago Museum. I had written several biographies of women for Southern People: A Dictionary of Otago and Southland Biography published in 1998. One of these was on Lily Daff. [1885-1945] She was best known by members of the Royal Forest and Bird Society of New Zealand from the 1930's -1960's for her paintings of New Zealand native birds. These were seen on the covers of the society's magazines, published in albums, on greeting cards and on school stationery. Less well known was her work at the Otago Museum from 1932-1945 where she was artist and exhibition designer. I curated an exhibition of her work which was held in the Gallery of the Hocken Library, University of Otago, during August and September 1999. This included a number of her original bird paintings, a series of her hand painted posters for the museum and an original display case of Colour in Nature which was retained by the museum as a 'period piece'. The exhibition was part of Three Dunedin Designers' with work by Rona Dyer curated by Linda Tyler and Eileen Mayo curated by Jillian Cassidy. A catalogue of this exhibition is still available from the Hocken Library.

"In late 1999 I retired from active work at Otago Museum although I frequently return to see the museum's on-going development. I have continued with some tapestry weaving but in 2001 I responded to the suggestion that I curate an exhibition of the costume and textile collections of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. This excited me and after six months on contract as curator and conservator in 2001 the result was that Threads of Tradition was on display from November 2001-May 2002.

"I have also curated another exhibition at the Hocken Library Gallery [October-December 2002]. I had been researching the work of Mary Eleanor Joachim [1874-1957] throughout the 1990's. She was a fine leather book-binder in the English Arts and Crafts tradition who worked in Dunedin in the early years of the 20th century.

<em>The Psalms</em> M. Blackman collection
The Psalms
Binding by M. Eleanor Joachim
M. Blackman collection

I had published an essay on her in A Book in the Hand - Essays on the History of the Book in New Zealand 2000. Other books bound by her have since been found and a large number of her tools have been located and are still with Dunedin book-binders. In the exhibition Perfect Masterpieces twenty examples of her bindings were displayed alongside works in water colour by her mother, Susanna Joachim and paintings by her
<em>Otago Pathways V</em> 2002, Tapestry by Margery Blackman
Otago Pathways V 2002
Tapestry by Margery Blackman

two aunts, Fanny and Jenny Wimperis. At the same time the gallery showed an exhibition by another Dunedin woman artist, Eana Jeans. A record of this joint exhibition will be published in 2003."

Interests in weaving, historical textiles, and biography
Margery's interest in her own weaving, in historical textiles, in the biographies of Dunedin's craftspeople have blended to enrich the range of her lectures on these subjects and the exhibitions she has curated in recent years.

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