New Zealand through the lens of World Expos 1970-2020

New Zealand’s participation in World Expos has not only given the country a platform to share its culture and values with the world - the stories we have told at World Expos, have helped to shape New Zealand’s national identity at home. Our presentations at World Expos over the years have captured the country’s development, its position in the international community, nation brand and national psyche.


New Zealand has a long history of involvement in World Expos. We were there at the very first Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, London. As a new colony, following the 1840 signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi between indigenous tribal leaders and representatives of the British Crown, New Zealand’s small exhibition was displayed among the British and colonial produce section. The exhibition comprised specimens of flax, raw materials such as copper ore and coal and Māori handcrafts. There were also models of a volcanic White Island and a Māori war pā (fortress) .


New Zealand’s attendance at international exhibitions continued throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the country sought to promote its primary produce export products such as wool, timber and dairy and distinctive indigenous culture.


In recent years, New Zealand has become more selective in its participation in World Expos. From 1950 to 2019, the country chose to participate in just five fairs and each time with a strategic reason to do so. Through this participation in World Expos, we can trace New Zealand’s national identity – both as it is portrayed internationally and understood at home.


Expo 1970 Osaka, Japan: A seminal moment for New Zealand

In the post-war period, New Zealand’s sense of self was developing. A generation of service men and women had returned from war having served alongside the British and gaining a reputation for being dependable and egalitarian. Television in the 1960s strongly reflected the lives of New Zealanders and the New Zealand dollar was introduced in 1967, cementing the country’s identity further. The nation was growing more confident and carving out its own identity, distinct from that of the United Kingdom. This was a necessary move. The UK had joined the European Economic Community and suddenly New Zealand was in desperate need of new export markets for its meat and dairy products.


The Osaka Expo of 1970 presented a grand opportunity for New Zealand to showcase its exporting prowess to a new market in Japan, that was also much closer to home.


New Zealand’s pavilion for Expo 1970 was bold and striking. It consisted of different zones including a bush walk scene, a restaurant and a film screening room. The pavilion was a major attraction at Osaka and visited by 7 million people .


For the New Zealand Meat Producers Board, Expo 1970 was an opportunity to introduce our lamb to the Japanese market through its “Geyser Room” restaurant inside the pavilion. The striking design of the restaurant featured a floor-to-ceiling geyser effect in the centre. Made of polythene pipes that were pumped with water, the geyser ran up the middle of the restaurant, giving patrons an immersive experience.


“It was lighting that moved and gave you this amazing sense of being somewhere that nobody could imagine… I wanted them to feel encompassed, to feel that that they’ve come somewhere that was quite different” says architect Michael Payne, who was given influence over the design of the entire restaurant, from the crockery and chairs to the waitresses’ uniforms.


“It’s something more than just the design, it’s what the design is going to do to the way people feel and think and experience” he says.

The leather upholstered chairs custom designed by Payne for the Geyser Room restaurant are some of the most significant designs in New Zealand modern furniture making and 50 years on, the chairs now sell as collector’s items.


Serving New Zealand lamb and wine, the Geyser Room was one of the most popular restaurants at the Expo, and the pavilion’s outdoor takeaway food store was popular for its lamb burgers and milkshakes.


Inside the pavilion exhibition space, New Zealand’s innovative spirit and film-making talent was on display with a film called This Is New Zealand, directed by Hugh Macdonald. Using the latest technology, the film was projected onto three adjacent screens used to form one large screen in the pavilion cinema. This Is New Zealand shows the country’s wide-open landscapes cut together with scenes of everyday life – old and young, people at work and school, in cities and rural areas. It depicts natural beauty and landscapes existing in harmony with people, while the clever edits convey New Zealand’s sense of humour.

“We just wanted to give an impression of the country, its landscape a certain amount of its history we also wanted to show the aspects of the way New Zealanders lived their lives, what their entertainments were what their lifestyles were, what their livelihood was, just without any words” says director Hugh Macdonald.


“We just knew that it had to be appropriate, it had to be emotional, it had to be all engulfing and it had to capture the audience.”


And capture the audience it did. This Is New Zealand was seen by more than one million people at the Osaka Expo. It was then brought home to New Zealand where it played to sell-out audiences.


“We only thought we were doing it for a six-month trade show! We didn’t realise we would get New Zealanders themselves absolutely hooked on what we’d done. It had a very strong emotional impact, and nobody was immune from it. The men came out [of the cinema] looking extremely proud, the women were wiping tears of enjoyment from their eyes and the men weren’t immune to that either” says Macdonald.


For New Zealand, a sense of national pride was emerging. We were a nation on the go, distancing ourselves from the United Kingdom and moving out into the world.


“[The film] has a feeling of when were young and could do anything” says Macdonald.


Expo 1988 Brisbane, Australia: Closer to home

Expo 1988 Brisbane was a Specialised Expo, hosted by Australia – our closest neighbour and New Zealand had one of the largest exhibits.


For New Zealand, Expo 1988 was an opportunity to show that despite our similarities, our cultural identity was quite distinct from that of Australia.


“There was a real desire to reflect the cultural difference that New Zealand would provide in an international fair or event like this. When we look for something original and local, we can’t really go past our own Māori cultural heritage,” says artist and graphic designer Roy Good.


Good had been commissioned to design the logo and graphic standards for the New Zealand pavilion at Expo 1988.


In an initial meeting about the pavilion brand identity, Good was thinking about the typography and how the numbers ‘1988’ looked.


“As a graphic designer you latch onto the numerals, the typography, the name.”


During the meeting, Good sketched on his notepad the numerals “88”. He then added a Māori tiki tongue to the design. The sketch became the pavilion logo.


“Most designers will tell you those moments don’t happen often, usually it’s a struggle and you’re doing hundreds of concepts, but that one I knew was going to work,” he says.


A land-based strident green was used for the logo and it communicated New Zealand’s bush and pasture, cultural identity and the year of the Expo.


The pavilion was one of the more popular at Expo 1988 with three-to-four-hour long queues stretching outside the pavilion alongside a waterfall and New Zealand pāua shell simulated wall featuring the bold logo in neon green.


Inside the pavilion, visitors experienced New Zealand’s distinct landscape with native Kauri tree forests and glow-worm caves. The legendary story of Māui, a Māori demi-God who fished up the North Island, was projected onto mist and New Zealand’s ingenious spirit was profiled through champions and inventors in a Hall of Fame. Visitors to the pavilion were guided by characters, including an animated cattle dog from the popular television cartoon comedy series “Footrot Flats”, allowing New Zealand humour to shine through.


Expo 1992 Seville, Spain: Taking the Pacific to Europe

The theme for Expo 1992 Seville was “The Age of Discovery” to mark the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage. Visitors to the New Zealand Pavilion went on their own journey of discovery, learning about New Zealand and its location in the South Pacific, the direct opposite side of the world from Spain.


New Zealand used the Expo theme to tell its own ‘discovery’ story. The pavilion entrance resembled high rock-face, just as English explorer James Cook would have seen when he first saw New Zealand in 1769 . The exterior cliff face, water and a stream were a recreation of New Zealand’s distinct landscape – something many in Europe would not have seen.


The brief for Roy Good, who was again designing the New Zealand logo, was centred around water as a theme. Good designed a double spiral logo, based on Māori koru designs, that inferred ripples in a pool of water. Continuing the water theme, a deep blue was the dominant colour and it was used to reinforce New Zealand’s location in the Pacific.


“The response was terrific. Most Europeans respond to the flavour and historical magic idea of the Pacific and it doesn’t take a lot to crank that emotion up,” Good says.


For the millions of people walking past during Expo 1992, the pavilion experience started well outside the building. There were kapa haka (Māori performing arts) routines performed on an outdoor stage five times each day, creating an intense experience for passers-by.


The message that New Zealand was in fact located in the South Pacific, not Europe, as many assumed, was especially targeted at consumers who could now choose to buy New Zealand food, especially kiwifruit, at local supermarkets.


Expo 2005 Aichi, Japan: Old friends

“When we came to Aichi in 2005, it was an opportunity really to recalibrate in terms of our relationship with Japan and remind New Zealanders about how important Japan was to New Zealand,” says Phillip Gibson, New Zealand’s Commissioner-General to Expo 2005.


The pavilion was designed to appeal to the Japanese aesthetic. It was minimalist and simple and easy to walk through, but also conveyed New Zealand’s atmosphere.


“The Japanese had preconceived notions of New Zealand as a ‘clean, green, beautiful and a great place to visit,’” says Gibson. “We also wanted to get across that New Zealand is smart, it’s innovative, it's a great place to invest and it's a great place to send your kids for education.”


As its centrepiece, the pavilion had a large pounamu, a two-tonne piece of nephrite jade (New Zealand greenstone). The pounamu “caught the imagination of the Japanese and it became for them quite a ritual to come to the New Zealand pavilion and pay their respects,” Gibson recalls.

The pavilion referenced New Zealand’s earlier success at Expo 1970 Osaka, with a film as an homage to Macdonald’s This Is New Zealand. In 2005, the film was a day in New Zealand through the eyes of a bird flying over the country.


Technology played a big part in the pavilion too, with a large touch screen that conveyed messages about education, tourism and business. It was also interactive, with pavilion visitors able to use their mobile phones to get information or a livestream from New Zealand.


“We didn’t try and say to the Japanese… we’re smart and innovative,” Gibson says. “We did it by showing them what we were doing – that was how we really got the message across”.


To reinforce ties of friendship, the pavilion had a welcoming staff of young New Zealanders who spoke Japanese.


“We found that human interaction was a real plus in setting us apart from some of the other pavilions” Gibson says.


Expo 2010 Shanghai, China: A new trade horizon

In the early-mid 2000s, New Zealand’s trade with China was increasing and a Free Trade Agreement was being negotiated. China’s economic rise and growing middle class represented huge potential for New Zealand exporters.


Participation in Expo 2010 Shanghai “simply made sense” according to Phillip Gibson, who had again been appointed as New Zealand’s Commissioner-General.


In 2008, New Zealand became the first developed country to strike a trade deal with China. Heading into Expo 2010, this gave New Zealand a unique competitive advantage and helped to position us as “one of the pavilions to go to” according to Gibson.


For many New Zealand companies, Expo 2010 served as an introduction to the Chinese market. In support of this, the New Zealand pavilion had a strong business narrative.


“Coming to the Expo, coming to the pavilion and using it to help leverage your relationship with your clients, was about coming to an environment that showed New Zealand for what it is - sure clean, green, and beautiful - but also a very sophisticated business environment in which it makes sense to do business,” Gibson says.


With dairy and meat products among New Zealand’s top exports to China, our food and beverage offerings were an important part of the story at the Shanghai Expo. VIP entertainment facilities inside the pavilion were used to showcase New Zealand cuisine. New Zealand businesses used the pavilion to build relationships, host important clients and profile goods and services in a distinctly New Zealand environment. More than 9,000 VIP guests attended events at the pavilion over the six-month Expo.

The pavilion itself was designed as a walk through a ‘day in the life of New Zealand’. Visitors to the pavilion were greeted with the same pounamu stone that was used in the Aichi pavilion and walked through an exhibition that took them from the sea to the mountains and finished on a rooftop garden with a magnificent giant replica of a native Pohutukawa tree.


“With Expos we probably think of all the high tech and the important messages we were trying to get across. But really, what most people adored about the New Zealand pavilion was the pounamu and the giant Pohutukawa tree,” Gibson says. “Hopefully with it you have people who say, ‘I didn't realise New Zealand was so sophisticated’”.


Gibson attributes New Zealand’s success at both the Aichi and Shanghai Expos to our authenticity and honest approach.


“Sure, we wanted to get across some new messages, but they represented the reality - the way we are. I think that is very, very important in an Expo, not to try to pretend, but at the end of the day to be authentic. And who we are is a great story” Gibson reflects.


The New Zealand Story

A major evolution in the New Zealand country narrative since the Shanghai World Expo has been the introduction of the New Zealand Story.


Established by international facing government agencies to enhance the country’s reputation beyond natural beauty, the New Zealand Story is grounded in values and tells a narrative of New Zealand as a progressive nation of creative idea-makers delivering new solutions, while always caring for people and place.


Three values are the foundation of the New Zealand Story: kaitiaki (an indigenous Māori environmental ethos that represents care of people and place), integrity and ingenuity.


The cohesive narrative provided by the New Zealand Story has helped to unite and grow New Zealand’s international reputation based on a set of values.


“The recognition that we're gaining globally is based on a much deeper set of principles and values” says New Zealand Story Group Director Rebecca Smith. “There’s a duality of how we operate, it’s the care and ingenuity that's wrapped up together that makes us different.”


The New Zealand Story provides resources such as images and key messages via an online toolkit to businesses and government agencies to help them share their story on the world stage.


“Certainly, it has taken time, but it has been really encouraging, I think even in the last five years, to see that confidence build and for us to go, ‘you know what, we’re not perfect and we’ve got things to work on’, but if we don’t make a statement around our intent then we’ll never get there,” Smith says.


The New Zealand Story represents a major evolution in the country’s narrative. It has deepened New Zealand’s reputation from the very successful ‘100% Pure’ tourism marketing campaign, to that of a progressive society with Māori values at its core.


Expo 2020 Dubai, United Arab Emirates: Care for People and Place

The New Zealand Story has provided a framework for New Zealand’s participation in Expo 2020 Dubai.


We knew the story New Zealand told at the first World Expo held in the Middle East, South Asia or Africa, had to fall within the existing New Zealand Story. And the pavilion design brief specified that it must reflect the values of kaitiaki, integrity and ingenuity.


The successful design team, led by Jasmax architects, pitched the idea of having kaitiakitanga as the underlying theme of the New Zealand Pavilion for Expo 2020, inspired by the world-first legal status accorded to the Whanganui River.


“It is incredibly important for us to have Māori values at the core of the pavilion story. Through the story of the Whanganui River (Te Awa Tupua), we will show that New Zealand is a contemporary, forward-thinking nation that has come full circle to recognising that values such as kaitiakitanga are at the heart of who we are” says New Zealand’s Commissioner-General to Expo 2020 Clayton Kimpton.


In 2017, innovative legislation recognised the Whanganui River as a living entity, called Te Awa Tupua, and granted it the rights of a person.


For Whanganui Iwi, the indigenous people who live along the river, there is an intrinsic connection between their people and the river and its health and wellbeing. The legislation obligates the government, local authorities and all communities of the river to work together under the innate values of the river:


Ko te Awa te mātāpuna o te ora: the River is the source of spiritual and physical sustenance. E rere kau mai i te Awa nui mai i te Kahui Maunga ki Tangaroa: the great River flows from the mountains to the sea.

Ko au te Awa, ko te Awa ko au: I am the River and the River is me.

Ngā manga iti, ngā manga nui e honohono kau ana, ka tupu hei Awa Tupua: the small and large streams that flow into one another form one River.


The pavilion experience will use the Whanganui River as a muse for a universal narrative conveying the importance of our relationship with natural resources and our relationship as people with one another. The theme is expressed as Care for People and Place. It does not claim that New Zealand is perfect or that we have solved all our problems, rather the theme encapsulates the idea that over time, through this care of people and place, we are looking after our future generations.


In order to tell this story authentically, the New Zealand Government entered into a relationship agreement with Whanganui Iwi setting out a process for engagement as the pavilion experience is developed.


“We are honoured and humbled by the opportunity to share the story of Te Awa Tupua, the precious taonga (treasure) of Whanganui with the world. It is a story that has meaning and value, not only in New Zealand, it is also a story that is good for the world,” Clayton Kimpton says.


It is the first time New Zealand’s participation at a World Expo has been done in partnership with iwi Māori.


On the signing of the agreement, Whanganui Iwi representative Gerrard Albert said, “Te Awa Tupua heralded a paradigm shift toward recognising we are part of the natural environment. We are sharing the provenance of Te Awa Tupua to guide what we want to be a confronting and life affirming experience for those visiting the New Zealand pavilion. We are awakening as a nation to both domestic and global realities, so the story needs to cover the journey we’ve taken as a nation to arrive at this point and the journey ahead of us”.


The relationship represents a progression in the journey of New Zealand according to Rebecca Smith.


“I think a lot of countries with an indigenous culture really struggle through a period of understanding how to genuinely portray that, and we are not there as a nation yet. So, we are moving through a cultural competency phase where non-Māori are beginning to understand and associate with Māori values.”


Māori culture has always been a strong feature of New Zealand’s World Expo participation. At Expo 2020 Dubai, Māori values will be central to our story, with the experience grounded in the indigenous environmental ethos of kaitiakitanga.


“We are shifting from indigenous culture being seen as a cultural asset to be leveraged to the benefit of a particular outcome, to actually a true partnership and a true expression of who we are as a nation,” Smith says.


The relationship with Whanganui Iwi is one example of how New Zealand is moving into a phase of honest and transparent partnerships with authentic representation.


The people of Whanganui have generously shared their story with New Zealand, and in 2020, together, we will share the story with the world.


Visitors to the New Zealand pavilion will leave knowing that if we all embrace the ethos of kaitiakitanga, and care for people and place, together we can build a more sustainable future for generations to come.



This article originally appeared in the Bureau International des Expositions 2019 Bulletin.


[1] Jock Phillips, 'Exhibitions and world’s fairs - The purpose of exhibitions and the Great Exhibition, 1851', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/exhibitions-and-worlds-fairs/page-1 (accessed 1 September 2019)

[2]Fiona Barker, 'New Zealand identity - War and sport', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/new-zealand-identity/page-3 (accessed 1 September 2019)

[3]Jock Phillips, 'Exhibitions and world’s fairs - World’s fairs since 1950', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/photograph/45450/bush-scene-at-osaka-expo-70 (accessed 1 September 2019)

[4] Jock Phillips, 'Exhibitions and world’s fairs - World’s fairs since 1950', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/exhibitions-and-worlds-fairs/page-6 (accessed 1 September 2019)



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