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Historical Portraits of Women Home Scientists: The University Of New Zealand, 1911–1 ...

Chapter 1:  Portraits and Portraiture
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Historical Portraits of Women Home Scientists:

Chapter 1

Portraits and Portraiture

Portraits offer a way of examining the world of academic women in New Zealand. To illustrate this point, the photograph of a group of professors at the University of Otago that accompanies this chapter underscores both the value and the difficulties such an artefact can present. As a portrait of a past event, this photograph has both a physical and a temporal existence. It captures what was in front of the camera and allows viewers to become eyewitnesses to an historical event, to ‘see’ the past as it was, in lifelike detail. As Allan Sekula argued, the viewer is confronted not by historical writing, but by the appearance of history itself.1 The photo acts as a bridge between the past and the present, turning distant historical subjects into intimate human contemporaries. As a viewer of this artefact, one is invited to consider the significance of a fleeting autobiographical moment in academic life and to examine the university as a site of struggle over the location and the status of women’s work.

The photograph depicts a group of nineteen men and one woman professor at the University of Otago sometime in 1930.2 Labelled ‘Professors 1930’, it presents a familiar ritual of university life, the staff photograph.