Deep in the vaults at the Auckland War Memorial Museum lives a little-known archive which is about to get some big exposure thanks to a new play.

Since the late 1980s/early 90s, records in the New Zealand Women's Archive have sat at the museum, organised alphabetically, in manila folders. Last year, theatre-makers Saraid Cameron and Amelia Reynolds heard about the archive and decided it was time to blow the dust off and see what stories lurked there.

The result is Cult Show: The Revitalisation of New Zealand Women's Archive which invites audiences to meet women we've likely never heard about but, in their own way, shine a light on gender in NZ.

What did it mean, for example, when Miss NZ 1968 Christine Antunovic misplaced the lamb's wool rug she was to take with her to the contest finals in London and hundreds of Kiwis wanted to send her new ones? Why, when advertising executive Angela Austed was interviewed in 1972, was so much made about who cooked dinner in her household? What does former politician Donna Awatere Huata and her experiences have to tell us about feminism in NZ?

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But Cult Show isn't all about what's gone before; given this year is our 125th anniversary of women's suffrage, Cameron and Reynolds wanted to explore how things stand here and now. They say it's about feminism as experienced by two NZ women in their twenties who have different cultural backgrounds because race plays a huge part in how women encounter the world and the issues they face.

Deciding which stories to use was tricky, says Cameron, because there were so many interesting nuggets of information, so they focus on the archive itself as a starting point to address things they believe aren't being said but need to be.

How do they stop it sounding like a lecture?

"We write plays; we don't write lectures," says Reynolds.

The New Zealand Women's Archive was set up in 1955 by Levin librarian Enid Roberts after she heard from friend Betty Holt about Harvard University's Radcliffe College and its The Women's Right's Collection which had been running in some form since the late 1800s.

The two women agreed it would be good to collect and supply material on the "status and way of life of New Zealand women", so Roberts began clipping out newspaper and magazine articles that mentioned local women.

Eventually the collection grew too large for Roberts to manage so, in 1961, she submitted it to libraries around the country. Another Enid — Enid Evans — had become chief librarian at Auckland Museum, one of the first women in the position in NZ, and accepted the collection when no other research library deemed it worthy enough of holding.

During the next 30 years, it grew into a resource of nearly 8000 newspaper articles and short biographies relating to NZ women, deemed notable by the people who submitted the articles.

The collection was maintained by the Women's Archive Committee, established by the National Council of Women, with group meeting in the library every Tuesday to sort through and archive the submissions made to the collection.

Work on it stopped some years ago so Nina Finigan, curator of manuscripts, was only too happy to let Cameron and Reynolds take a look at what might be there.

"It's wonderful to have new life breathed into the collection and a great example of how we can collaborate with people on creative projects which means our collections can be discovered in entirely new ways."

Cameron and Reynolds have also started their own version of the NZ Women's Archives — what they're calling 2.0 — and hope to get submissions about current women of note who might be missed from the official historical records. To submit, go to nzwomensarchives.wordpress.com

Lowdown
What: Cult Show: The Revitalisation of New Zealand Women's Archive
Where & when: Basement Theatre, May 29 — June 2