Nō whea koe?

Locating ourselves and our families’ journeys

For over 8000 years, we’ve used maps. Many people, including myself, have often thought of them as just a tool to help us get from A to B, but I’ve been learning that there’s a great deal that’s special about them.

Maps are not only tools for navigation, but they can help us understand our place in the world. Maps can document so much of our identities. They highlight where our family has come from, and our ancestors’ journeys that ultimately made us who we are.

Where are you from? Nō whea koe? is often a question asked when getting to know someone better. Often I respond with “I was born in New Zealand, lived in Australia for 15 years, and then moved back to New Zealand”. Without even realising it, I am mapping out my journey, because to me that is a part of who I am.

Unfolding the Map at the National Library recognises how we do this. This exhibition shows maps of our past, our present, and even our possible futures. It presents physical maps, digital maps on a projector that captivates your attention and a walkable large beautiful green felt map of Aotearoa which lets you stand on our country. And not only can you observe, but you also have the opportunity to tell your story.

What are you really asking me?

The question “where are you from?” can not only paint a picture of your journey, but can also spark strong emotions. It seems a mild question to ask, but depending on circumstances it can be belligerent.

When having a conversation, a response to “where are you from” might be second guessed based on appearance and accents.

In some cases, it’s a question laced with presumptions about which people ‘belong’ somewhere, which dismisses the complexity of the real world, and can be offensive towards many, including those who have many cultures in their identity.

By being able to write out this history themselves, it allows the writers’ stories to be told without second guesses, presumptions or further questions that may be offensive. Context matters in which “where are you from?” you’re asked, and within the exhibition it is asked in a way knows only you can share your journey and your families’ journey.

What was your path?

Map table in the exhibition, with pins indication people's origins.Where are you from? You can tell us in Unfolding the map. Photo by Shannon Seiuli.

The exhibition has a map of the world, with pins that are colour coded for you to share not only where you are from, but also where your ancestors are from. The table is filling with pins in almost every country and already paints a picture of how diverse and unique New Zealanders and our visitors are.

It doesn’t stop there though! There are coloured journals which warmly invite you to write or illustrate your path or your family’s journey.

Just a few of the stories have been captured below.

Written family journeys

Conceived in Hungary. Born in Villach, Austria in 1949. Refugee/displaced persons to New Zealand in 1950. Pahiatua displaced person’s camp New Plymouth sponsored settlement 1951. Moved to Auckland in 1960. Moved around Wellington and Hamilton for work and moved to Waiheke Island 1974 and have stayed there ever since. Forever grateful NZ offered us sanctuary and a home. World’s best country.

My father’s side is from England and Scotland and he lived in the Bay of Islands in Keri Keri. My mother’s side is Northern Ireland and they lived in Napier. Both of my parents moved down to Wellington where I have been since.

My paternal great grandparents left Castleblayney, Ireland, for Auckland in 1889. Owned what is now the grange Golf course in Auckland. He was killed after falling off a house and is buried in Papatoetoe. My great grandmother was pregnant, had her child and spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair. She took all her children back to Ireland by ship with her Irish maids, crested silver and coin. She again shipped the family to New Zealand, and finally took them to Australia. My Grandfather settled in Onehunga, married a local woman and they finally settled and farmed at Maketu, Bay of Plenty. My maternal great grandparents travelled from Tipperary (Bansha) in the early 1880s on the “Bebbington”. They settled in Te Puke. The family houses of these people are still well loved and cared for. The families are scattered to the four winds.

A immigrant family of eight, the Harrison family from England, after disembarking from their ship.Harrison family, 1950. Ref: 114/170/10-G.

My name is Cathy. Some of my great grandparents and great great grandparents came to Wellington in the 1860s from Sweden, Scotland, England and Ireland. Some of them came to Australia first and then to here. My Swedish great grandfather (Ferdinend Holm) was a great sailor and became a sea captain and established the Holm Shipping Company. He held a record for fastest voyage in a sailing ship between NZ and Australia. My great grandfather Fredrick Mountier had a nursery garden in Tasman Street. My great grandparents called Lankshesr had a printing business on Lambton Quay.

Pins filling the UK and Ireland, and more than a few in Northern Europe.One of the major origins of New Zealanders. Photo by Reuben Schrader.

I’m Liz. My parents met at the immigration Hostel in Heretaunga in 1954. My mums from Durham, Dad was from Glasgow. He came to NZ to marry a rich sheep farmers daughter, she came to marry a rich farmer! Oh how life turns out. Dad had a milk run in Wellington for many years. I am the oldest of 4 children all born in Lower Hutt. Our children are all over the world now – Germany, Portugal, China, the UK and the US of A. Kiwis have wanderlust!

Diverse culture

Aotearoa has been enriched by many different cultures. Family migration is a key factor in this, and these journal entries are a prime example. Many families dating back to the 1800s migrated to the land of the long white cloud due to job opportunities, to escape wars and economic crises and to better their life for their future generations within their families.

The voices of those families are traditionally only heard through their own family from a grandparent’s verbally storytelling, and the journals have proven to be a way for these voices to be shared with those who enter the exhibition.

Hi my name is Ruth, I’ve brought my family here today to view a portrait of their great, great, great grandmother who was one of the first settlers in Wellington and then Auckland. They moved to Auckland after the 1840/1841 earthquake that rocked Wellington – yes the 1840s not the 1850s. I was born and raised in Newcastle, NSW Australia and left Australia to live in the UK for 8 years and then to New Zealand to raise my family. However the racism towards Aussies is becoming intolerable and the Aussies here have never done anything wrong but somehow Kiwis find it justifiable to be hateful and sorry but two wrongs don’t make a right and our journeys are not finished. Have a nice day.

My parents came to this country in the 70s on a Pacific wave. They were welcomed to fill a gap in the manufacturing sector in a time when NZ was thriving. The Samoan people have contributed a lot to NZ and today consider Aotearoa to be home. Many like myself are proud kiwis and add warm, colourful, rich flavour to the evolving NZ culture. I hope one day to be the richest man in New Zealand.

My name is Katya. I was born in Russia, Arkhangelsk. My ancestors were Shetland Islanders, and one story my Granddad told me was that my great great great grandfather was a young boy when he travelled/settled in New Zealand. As a young boy, baby young, my Granddad told me that what had happened was that he had been in a huge storm that washed him overboard by the waves and then another wave washed him back on board the boat. To this day, if that wave didn’t wash him back onto the boat, I wouldn’t be in New Zealand and I wouldn’t be with the family I am with today. I love New Zealand.


I am from Wellington, New Zealand. My family took a boat from Ireland to NZ in the 1800s and settled on the East Coast near Tolaga Bay.

From one place to another

The countries they have migrated from are emphasised to show where these individuals’ journeys have started, and how they are ending or continuing in New Zealand. Within the journals visitors are not only painting their journey and their ancestor’s journey, but are using this writing opportunity to share with their future generations where they are in the world.

All my Grandparents are buried in New Zealand. One Grandfather was born in Columbia and one in Ireland. One Grandfather was born in New Zealand, me in Ireland. All my ancestors came to New Zealand between 1848, 1860s, some as young children. All did well for themselves. I have hundreds of relatives in New Zealand. Mostly in the Northern Island.

My dad is of English/Scottish/Welsh/French origin but was born in Christchurch a 4th or 5th generation now. My mum is an immigrant from Holland but you wouldn’t know at all by her accent. She almost speaks better English than Dutch.

Father is Swiss, mother is Thai so I was born in Thailand and grew there until I was 9 years of age. We moved to New Zealand and I’ve city hopped since before moving to Wellington. My family live in Christchurch. New Zealand has been an interesting place. I moved during the so called “Asian Invasion” and met not so nice people. It wasn’t until University in Dunedin that I felt accepted and felt like a true kiwi. New Zealand is vast becoming a place where it is no longer bi-cultural but multicultural and we need to acknowledge and accept that.

Timeless journeys

A common feature of the entries is the time. By describing the year of their family’s migration, it tells us when they added to New Zealand’s diverse cultures, and what the circumstances were to inspire the migration.

The years noted in these entries have a strong connection to the physical timeline of New Zealand’s history that is printed on the exhibition walls. Unfolding the Map features a number of New Zealand maps displayed around the space, paired with information about the nation at the time they were made.

Maps of New Zealand connected to major events in New Zealand history.Take the long view of New Zealand cartography on the timeline wall. Photo by Shannon Seiuli.

In this way, the exhibition helps us understand what influenced New Zealand cartography at the time, as well as the purpose of particular maps. While writing the journal entries, those visitors who describe the time are contributing to Unfolding the Map, by unfolding their map and sharing it with us.

Reading these unique stories gives the maps on the wall an additional layer of meaning – insight that can only be gained from this sort of personal context.

Family migration is only one of the lenses, one of the themes that can be drawn out by looking at the stories you’ve shared with us. Soon, we’ll share some more stories that show other ways you can look at these maps.

Please do come visit, and unfold your family’s journey with us!

By Shannon Seiuli

Shannon is a learning facilitator from the Public Programmes team at the National Library.

Post a Comment

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Kate November 28th at 11:38AM

Thanks for sharing these touching stories. We're lucky to live in a country with so much diversity.

caroline christian November 29th at 9:01AM

Unique interesting stories ordinary people have written, unfolding a glimpse of the journeys of their life maps. You're spot on, Shannon, Unfolding the Map is also the personal life journey everyone has taken. Thank you!

Anna Tiaki December 1st at 1:16PM

Thank you Shannon for your blog, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. As a pacific islander I too can relate to the Pacific wave mentioned, my parents came to New Zealand in the late sixties from the Cook Islands. With your blog I do hope more of our pacifica communities will be able to view, use and explore the Library's collections.