Self-made Kiwi

Birkbeck's Ian Conrich, the driving force behind New Zealand studies in the UK, fell in love with the country via its cinema.

February 14, 2008

Ian Conrich is the first non-New Zealander to become a contender for the title of Britain's New Zealander of the year.

Dr Conrich is the driving force behind the Centre for New Zealand Studies at Birkbeck, University of London - the only centre in the world outside New Zealand itself that is dedicated to the research area.

He discovered his passion for the country on the screen. "I've always had a strong interest in the film of different cultures. The more I watched New Zealand film, the more I found myself drawn to it. Many of its film-makers could be described as visionary," said Dr Conrich, 38, who has recently co-edited two books marking the New Zealand Film Commission's 30th anniversary.

Dr Conrich taught Britain's first formal course in New Zealand film at the British Film Institute in 1994. His subsequent posts have included that of 2005 MacGeorge visiting scholar at the University of Melbourne and visiting scholar at the University of Oxford's Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology.

The Birkbeck centre has strong support from the University of London's vice-chancellor, Sir Graeme Davies - a Kiwi - who has given up his old office to make space for the centre in the university's Senate House. To mark the centre's launch last February, a Maori elder travelled from New Zealand to lead a whakawaatea, a traditional blessing ceremony, at the centre.

The centre holds 260 New Zealand films and as well as books and journals, it also has more than 2,000 magic lantern slides dating back to the 1800s, a collection of 1,400 postcards and 400 posters. Its central role is to act as a hub for academics in Europe with an interest in New Zealand studies, and to promote study of the country at UK and continental universities.

"Academics in New Zealand studies are very scattered," said Dr Conrich, who is aware of some 45 academics working on the area in the UK. "There is rarely more than one person in one department of a university."

The New Zealand Studies Association, which he has chaired for more than a decade, helps bring together academics from around the world. The association's latest annual conference is set to attract 71 speakers, compared with about a dozen when the first was held.

"It is in good health but is still in its infancy," Dr Conrich said of the discipline.

The winner of the New Zealand Society's annual honour was due to be announced as Times Higher Education went to press.

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