The headquarters of Wellington's old harbour board is getting a female voice for the future.

There are more than 30 portraits lining the walls of its boardroom in the old Bond Store, which is now Wellington Museum.

They were the chairs of the Wellington Harbour Board from its inception in 1880 to when it finished in 1989.

All of the photos are of men apart from a group-shot of the final board with now 94-year-old Ruth Gotlieb standing among her colleagues.


Museums Wellington has decided to address the gender bias by commissioning an artwork to provide a counterpoint to those men who wielded significant power.

Project manager Tamsin Falconer said the new artwork would be launched to coincide with national Suffrage 125 celebrations, marking the 125th anniversary of the movement in New Zealand.

Portraits hanging in the boardroom are almost exclusively of men. Photo / Georgina Campbell
Portraits hanging in the boardroom are almost exclusively of men. Photo / Georgina Campbell

"There are other stories in history as well, it's not just about the powerful people who sat in the chairman's chair."

Falconer said many of the men pictured in the room not only controlled comings and goings at the harbour but were MPs, city councillors and prominent business owners.

"We believe they're all Pakeha men as well, and they're very formal those portraits, many of them mustachioed, almost all of them wearing suits."

She said the boardroom where they conducted meetings emphasised the power and status of the organisation.

It has a double-height ceiling, gold leaf detailing, old wooden tables with green felt covering their tops and a press bench in the corner.

Falconer said she wanted the artwork to provide a contemporary political response to the idea of women's equality.


"We're not thinking that we want to embroider flowers on to the chairs or anything, who knows, that could be interesting, but it's not about being literally pink and flowery it's about providing a counterpoint to the men that are there."

The project design brief said applicants could use any medium, although textile works would be strong contenders given the historic banners women had created in the past to promote their causes.

Gotlieb said she was a member of the Wellington Harbour Board for the final three years of its existence.

"It was a little like being the member of a gentlemen's club but there was a lot of hard work done by the harbour board, don't underestimate it."

But she said the board could have benefited from more female input.

"The staff have always been a big priority with me. I was the only board member that many harbour board staff ever met and I would go around to them and thank them for what they did and women are more inclined to do that, I think, than men."

Gotlieb said she heard schoolchildren often pointed out her photograph as the only one of a woman in the room.

"Part of me is ten feet tall. Yes I'm extremely proud that people thought enough of me to vote me on to it.

"I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of being there and I think it's a shame that I am not accompanied by more females."

Gotlieb said she supported the idea for a new artwork and said her photograph was a reflection of the times.

"In a way I suppose we should be a little ashamed of it but we can all be so proud as to the way it is now and has now changed and hopefully will change even more so for the better.

Proposals for the artwork are due in February.