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State-funded history


A selection of books published by the History Group of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage in 2005-6. 

The state of history

The New Zealand government has a long history of funding and publishing historical works of all kinds, from the 50-plus volumes of Second World War history to cutting-edge digital projects in the early 21st century.

The government's role in recording and promoting New Zealand's historical heritage can be traced back to at least 1865, when the Colonial Museum was founded in Wellington. Direct state support for history publications began in 1879, when John White was appointed to write what became the six-volume Ancient history of the Maori (1887–90). In the years after the First World War five volumes of official history were published, as was James Cowan’s landmark history of The New Zealand Wars (1922-3).

In the mid-20th century the government broadened its historical role. The Centennial Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs published an 11-volume series marking New Zealand's centennial in 1940, drawing on the talents of historians and writers including E.H. McCormick and J.C. Beaglehole. Other publications at this time included the first Dictionary of New Zealand biography, edited by Parliamentary Librarian G.H. Scholefield.

In April 1945 a War History Branch was established, under the direction of McCormick, now Chief War Archivist, and Major-General H.K. Kippenberger, Editor-in-Chief. Beginning with the publication of 24 short booklets, the Branch produced nine campaign volumes, 11 volumes on various services and 21 histories of specific units, plus volumes of documents and the four-volume New Zealand people at war series. This official Second World War history series eventually totalled more than 50 volumes published over nearly four decades. It remains the largest historical enterprise ever attempted in New Zealand. 

Meanwhile, other official histories appeared, including A.H. McLintock's Crown colony government in New Zealand (1958) and three-volume Encyclopaedia of New Zealand (1966). Although work on the originally planned series of war histories continued into the 1980s, the War History Branch became the Historical Publications Branch in 1963. In 1989 it was renamed the Historical Branch and began a period of expansion under the leadership of Jock Phillips, producing dozens of histories of New Zealanders at war, government departments and state activity.

In the early 1980s the Branch helped launch a new Dictionary of New Zealand biography project, with first W.H. Oliver and later Claudia Orange as General Editor. Five volumes, containing biographies of 3049 people, were published between 1990 and 2000, together with a parallel Māori-language series, Ngā tā̄ngata taumata rau. Another major reference project of the 1990s was the Bateman New Zealand historical atlas: ko papatuanuku e takoto nei (1997), edited by Malcolm McKinnon.

At the end of that decade the then Heritage Group of the Department of Internal Affairs embraced the brave new world of the Internet, launching the website on 16 March 1999. An online version of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (in English and Māori) was formally launched on 19 February 2002.

In 2000 the renamed History Group became part of the new Ministry for Culture and Heritage. It has continued to publish histories of New Zealand's involvement in war, state activity in the broadest sense, and works of national significance such as the television tie-in history Frontier of dreams: the story of New Zealand (2005). In 2002 the Ministry's new Reference Group began work on Te Ara, the online encyclopedia of New Zealand. This world-leading digital resource appeared in 12 sections between 2005 and 2014.

Further information 

How to cite this page

State-funded history, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated