Review: Gallipoli: the scale of our war

Gallipoli: the scale of our war, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

gallipoli.tepapa.govt.nz

On now until 2018

Over the last three years, it has been virtually impossible to avoid the hype of commemoration surrounding the centenary of WWI in Australia, especially around Anzac Day. The reminders of our bloody wartime past have come in a variety of different forms, including books, conferences, documentaries, television dramas, lectures and exhibitions. By now, April 2016, even the general public has grown weary of overhyped ‘Anzackery’. However, there have been some institutions that have worked hard to challenge the stereo-hype and actually think critically about what kind of legacy we want to preserve and what we can learn from this centenary. Melbourne Museum is one such institution, with its challenging exhibition WWI: Love & Sorrow (which you can read more about in our previous blog entry here).

In a similar vein is the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa exhibition Gallipoli: the scale of our war. Like Love & Sorrow, Gallipoli: the scale of our war looks at the personal experiences of war – the Gallipoli campaign specifically – through the personal accounts and military records of eight New Zealanders. Through these personal experiences, the exhibition examines in detail the New Zealand experience in the Gallipoli campaign. It has recently been revealed that more than 16,000 New Zealanders served at Gallipoli – a figure double the original estimates. While this information will require new analysis and will no doubt alter the historical record, it doesn’t change the fact that New Zealand suffered the highest casualty rates of any allied nation in the Gallipoli campaign. The significance of this is not lost on the New Zealand public, and while I can’t speak with authority, having only seen a small part of the country, it did seem when I was there that, while the centenary was clearly ever-present within the community consciousness, it was not something that was of central importance to New Zealanders' sense of cultural identity. 

Where the Love & Sorrow exhibition examines the ongoing and life-changing impacts of war across generations through the personal experiences of individuals, Gallipoli: the scale of our war invites you to experience life at Gallipoli during the time of the campaign. Both exhibitions are emotionally challenging, but while Love & Sorrow shows the long-term impacts of war on families across generations, Gallipoli explores the immediate physical and psychological effect of war. It does this in a number of different ways. The first, and most effective, are the huge human sculptures of each individual in the exhibition.

Almost two and a half times larger than real-life, these truly magnificent sculptures were created by Weta Workshop and Te Papa over 24,000 hours, using cutting-edge technology. Each piece sits in its own room, depicting one ‘scene’ in the real-life war experiences of these people. The room, completely black except for the sculpture, has audio recordings playing, of actors reading accounts written by the person depicted. The words are also projected on the black walls, and the visitor is invited to walk all around the sculpture, while listening to and reading these personal accounts. The sculptures include every detail meticulously captured, from flies buzzing around open wounds, dirt on puttees and rips in real canvas bags, to tears falling through eyelashes and individual hairs on the backs of hands. The effect of all this on the visitor is incredibly moving and very intimate. The creation process over seven months has been captured in a number of videos you can watch here.

The exhibition is set up so that the visitor follows each individual story in a relatively chronological order throug the Gallipoli campaign. After viewing the larger-than-life sculptures, visitors are presented with a timeline of the individuals' life and war experiences, and then more general information about the campaign. Following the experiences of one sniper, you are then invited to learn more about trench warfare - including trying to shoot at an enemy - as well as what exactly happens to a human body when it meets various weaponry, including bullets and shrapnel. Hearing about a doctor’s experiences working on the frontline invites you to learn more about medical practices during WWI, and the account of a nurse learning news of a loved one's death reveals the gruelling conditions of working on a hospital ship off the coast of the peninsula.

The exhibition maximises the immersive experience for the visitor. As well as the highly evocative human sculptures, there are many interactive elements, from sniper shooting simulators, postcards to write, hats to try on and an app that lets you design your own military badge. There are also lots of models, including a cross-section of trenches (reminiscent of an ant farm), and one of a hospital ship. As well as the many recreated elements, this exhibition also has original artefacts and collection items on display, including photographs, illustrations, oral history testimony and other ephemera. These are woven throughout the exhibition, but the visitor has no problem clearly distinguishing between original collection items and recreations. The exhibition is thoughtfully designed and adds to the immersive experience by creating a (sanitised) trench-like atmosphere. The exhibition winds its way around in a warren-like fashion, guiding visitors but at the same time encouraging exploration.

There is so much to see and do at this exhibition that in order to fully appreciate everything, several visits are required. Like Love & Sorrow, a visitor could spend their whole time on just one story. We spent two and a half hours inside without even realising it. Unlike some exhibitions that are this size, we didn’t feel overwhelmed or exhausted, nor did we feel like we were missing important things if we skipped over sections.

The only negative experience of the whole exhibition was the fact that, despite having been open for ten months already, we still had to line up for at least 15 minutes before we could go in. The staggered entry meant the exhibition was less crowded than it might have been, but there were still lots of people – a sign of a successful marketing campaign if nothing else. Those in the know book early bird entry and avoid the crowds – something I would suggest to future visitors.

But with free entry and a showing time until 2018, there is still plenty of time to get over to Wellington and see this (literally) larger-than-life exhibition.

Lucy Bracey
WBW foreign correspondent

Review: The WWI Centenary Exhibition: The War that Changed the World

Melbourne Museum until 4 October 2015
http://ww1exhibition.com.au/

Last Saturday was the opening of the latest touring exhibition to arrive at the Melbourne Museum, The WWI Centenary Exhibition. This exhibition is curated from the impressive collection of the Imperial War Museums (IWM) in England. There are five IWM and this exhibition includes over 350 items from those museums. It is also the first time in history that items from this collection have travelled outside of the IWM.

Victorians are especially lucky, as the Melbourne Museum is the only Australian stop on this exhibition’s world tour. Way Back When was invited to review this exhibition and I was lucky enough to be among the many excited attendees on its opening day.

This exhibition is immediately striking, not only because of its sheer physical size, but in the impressive scope of the content it attempts to cover. The exhibition encompasses the entire history of World War I, and while much of the content is derived from the IWM collection and is therefore UK and allied-centric, the exhibition maintains a holistic approach, highlighting how truly global this contest was. It is also refreshing during this time of increased ‘Anzac-ery’ to see a WWI centenary exhibition that neither glorifies the war, or the importance of Australia’s involvement in it.

The design of the exhibition works well in terms of directing visitors, as well as showcasing the displays. The huge touring gallery space is segmented into ten thematic chapters through the construction of ‘trenches’ using temporary walls. A map at the beginning of the exhibition outlines the gallery space and the themes covered in the displays:

1.     The World of 1900
2.     Why War in 1914
3.     Shock of War
4.     Feeding the Front
5.     Trench
6.     Machine of War
7.     Beating the U-Boat
8.     Taking War to the Skies
9.     War’s End
10.  Making a New World

The first three themes outline the important background to how and why the war started; something that has been overlooked in many (not all) of our Australian centenary commemorations. Using maps, newspapers and animations, the political tensions of Europe in the lead up to 1914 are skillfully explained. I was particularly impressed by the use of historic newspaper headlines to illustrate a timeline of events.

newspapers.jpg

It seems that no expense has been spared in the use of digital technology in this exhibition, and, at $32.90 per adult ticket, visitors will expect high production value. Historic film footage helps to immerse visitors in the past. Some footage is created through the animation of still photographs, such as an English streetscape that has moving traffic and retrofitted WWI posters on the buildings. Each theme in the exhibition also featured a huge movie screen on which moving and animated footage played.

The soundscape throughout is also impressive. The barrage of gunfire (a rapid firing German 77mm artillery gun, for those interested!) that hits and decimates a charge of men is a powerful representation of the scale of destruction. As well as weaponry in action, visitors hear other atmospheric sounds relevant to each theme that add to the immersion experience. While this might sound overwhelming, acoustically the sounds manage to stay mostly in the relevant areas, meaning that visitors aren’t distracted by other surrounding displays.

The exhibition has enough military detail and artefacts to attract war buffs, but also a strong big-picture narrative to engage those with no background knowledge of the war. There are some impressive collection items on display, including a large selection of contemporary WWI artwork and photographs, which I found particularly interesting. There are not as many diaries or letters as you might be expecting, and those that are included are mostly facsimiles. The weaponry on display was very impressive, even for someone not particularly interested in guns.

Dividing up the exhibition into themes such as ‘Feeding the Front’, ‘Beating the U-Boat’ and ‘Taking War to the Skies’, meant that rather than relating the major contests and heroic stories many of us are becoming increasingly familiar with, this exhibition is able to explore the impact of new technologies and changes in warfare, as well as social and cultural changes brought on by war, including changes to the roles of women. In fact, for the most part this exhibition steers clear of singling out individuals, focusing more on the overarching narrative.

The exhibition features such a large number of excellent photographs and film footage of women working in factories and on the land, as well as facsimiles of diaries outlining their experiences, that I wanted to see more. Unfortunately the experiences of women seemed to be confined to the one theme ‘Feeding the Front’. While an exhibition cannot tell every story, I felt that having a stronger presence of the stories of women in the exhibition would have enhanced an already impressive display.

The final two themes of the exhibition deal with armistice and aftermath in a poignant and compelling way. I was particularly taken with the audiovisual display in the ‘War’s End’ section, which included voiceovers from soldiers. However, it was unclear if these were original oral history recordings or actors reading from diaries and letters. I was very disappointed that it was unclear if these were original recordings or not. One of my major criticisms of the exhibition is that the labeling did not always clearly state where the material had come from. The film footage, for example, could have come from any number of British institutions – all of which were listed in the acknowledgements panel at the end of the exhibition – but not clearly on the exhibition labels themselves.

The final theme, ‘Making a New World’ explored the complications of the Treaty of Versailles and gave hints about a second world war. It also addressed the impacts of war on society and the resulting physical and mental trauma experienced by many. This section of the exhibition provides an excellent introduction to the Melbourne Museum’s own exhibition Love and Sorrow, which provides a perfect complement to this exhibition.

With the centenary of WWI dominating so much of our social and cultural space at the moment, you can be forgiven for feeling Anzac fatigue. One of the advantages of Love and Sorrow being on display for four years is that we can rest and reassess over the course of the WWI centenary and perhaps revisit the exhibition with new perspectives. The WWI Centenary Exhibition, however, is only around until October. Some of you may be feeling like a break from WWI history, especially those historians out there who have been working on projects relating to the war for the last few years. However, this exhibition is one that I don’t think we’re likely to see the likes of again in Australia. It is definitely one for historians to check out but I am also hoping those WWI enthusiasts – especially those on the committees organising centenary commemorations – go along and see the war from a wider, more global perspective.   

Lucy Bracey