Opening windows to history through art

Te Papa curator and Victoria University of Wellington alumna Rebecca Rice has enjoyed a varied and fulfilling career in art history, which she says was all sparked by a happy accident.

Rebecca Rice
Rebecca Rice, exhibition curator, in Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality. Photograph by Jo Moore, Te Papa.

“I started off studying Music and took one Art History paper… and I completely fell in love with it. It was a really vibrant department and I enjoyed their approach to teaching. I also liked the way Art History as a discipline opened up our own country’s history and methodological approaches to all sorts of things—semiotics, feminism—and the journey just carried on from there.”

Rebecca went on to do her Bachelor of Arts (Honours), Master’s, and PhD at Victoria University of Wellington. She says she had some excellent mentors during her studies, including Art History lecturers Associate Professor Roger Blackley, Christina Barton, and David Maskill.

“They all have that magical skill of passion for their subject, but also great skills of engaging and nurturing students.

“Roger was the kind of teacher who, from the very beginning, was encouraging us to look beyond the textbooks and go to the primary sources. And that’s something I came to love about studying New Zealand art history in New Zealand—you have those amazing resources like the Alexander Turnbull Library, the collections at Te Papa and the University library’s J.C. Beaglehole Room—so you can actually encounter not just the artworks but also the archival documents that bring the people and the artworks to life.”

Rebecca says she was given lots of opportunities during her time at the University to engage with the cultural sector, which helped her land a job at the Adam Art Gallery after her studies.

“It was getting a job at the Adam, managing the University’s art collection, that made me realise how much I love working with the artworks as well as their histories.”

From there, Rebecca moved to Te Papa in 2012 to take on the role of Curator Historical New Zealand Art, which she still holds today. While to an outsider it might seem like a seamless transition, Rebecca describes it as a “dedicated journey”.

“I always say to younger people that at the same time [as working at the Adam Art Gallery] I was also working at the City Gallery, writing for Art New Zealand, writing essays for artists’ exhibitions, and just getting into the sector. If you want to have a seamless journey—and it won’t always be seamless—you have to demonstrate that commitment and that passion for whatever it is you love.”

During her time at Te Papa Rebecca has had opportunities to branch out of her specialist field, having curated exhibitions of French and American impressionist painting, Chinese modern painting, and now ancient Chinese artefacts in the current exhibition Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality.

Rebecca describes Terracotta Warriors as a career highlight that has challenged and broadened her curatorial palate. “You don’t get to curate an exhibition like this very often, and even though it’s not in my specialty field, it’s such a privilege and such an amazing collection of taonga to work with,” she says.

Since early 2017 Rebecca and her team have been researching the exhibition, reading widely, working on the exhibition narrative, and even visiting museums and mausoleums in China to help determine which objects to include.

“China doesn’t just hand you the exhibition—you get to negotiate the objects that will create the story you want to tell.

“That’s what I really like about the curatorial role—you’re working really broadly across these modes of communication. So the exhibition is one mode, the catalogue is another, the public talks and events are another—it’s all those different channels that you have to be able to adapt and adjust.”

Rebecca says she also relishes the interdisciplinary nature of her role at Te Papa.

“When I hung the portrait wall [at Te Papa] I was working very closely with Mātauranga Māori curator Matariki Williams to imbue a more subtle understanding of New Zealand portraiture through how we organised the wall. It might not be blasting you in the face with the fact that it’s informed by a bicultural perspective, but there are certain subtle things that frame it curatorially in a way that means it looks different to how the same kind of thing would have looked 50 years ago. For example, making sure [Captain] Cook wasn’t the first thing you encountered on the wall—instead bringing a pre-encounter taonga as the first thing.”

Looking back on her career journey, Rebecca says that her passion for art was the driving force that helped her get where she is today.

“If you’re passionate about something, you’ve got to just throw yourself into it and embrace all of the ways you can engage with it. It’s about living and breathing the thing you love.”

Rebecca’s philosophy on art and curation is simple.

“Art is for everyone—it’s not an elite activity. You don’t need to be able to read a 3,000 word essay to understand what a painting is about.

“Art is how I engage with history. I love that little window into the past it opens up.”

Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality runs until 22 April.