Review: Gallipoli: the scale of our war

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

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

Australia Calls: Whitehorse exhibition launch

Throughout 2015 we have been working with Whitehorse City Council to produce an exhibition commemorating the centenary of World War I and examining the impact of the war on the local community. Australia Calls was launched in the Whitehorse Artspace at Box Hill Town Hall on Friday 11 September by Whitehorse City Councillor Helen Harris, Federal Member for Chisholm Anna Burke and Federal Member for Deakin Michael Sukkar.

The exhibition examines the impact of the war on Whitehorse by exploring the stories of local families and individuals – from those who enlisted and experienced the war first hand, to residents who contributed to the war effort from Australian shores. We had the rich resources and archival collections of local historical societies to draw on, as we researched the stories of five local servicemen and examined themes including local recruitment efforts and fundraising activities, the conscription debate, and efforts to support returned serviceman following the war and to commemorate their experiences.

Way Back When  historian Nicole Curby with panels telling the stories of local servicemen.

Way Back When historian Nicole Curby with panels telling the stories of local servicemen.

The exhibition also features abridged articles printed in local newspapers during the war, and stories contributed by the family members of local residents who lived through the war years. There are items from local heritage collections and private family collections on display.

We also conducted an oral history project with descendants of local servicemen, and the exhibition features four audio documentaries created from these interviews. The documentaries include stories from the battlefront and examine what life was like for returned servicemen after the war.

Click below to listen to this short audio documentary on remembering World War I.

Collection items on display.

Collection items on display.

Way Back When  historians Sarah Rood, Fiona Poulton and Katherine Sheedy (far right) with local council and historical society members.

Way Back When historians Sarah Rood, Fiona Poulton and Katherine Sheedy (far right) with local council and historical society members.

It was a privilege for us to work with Whitehorse City Council, local historical societies and community members to produce this moving, informative and stunningly presented exhibition. We would like to thank the historical societies and community members for generously sharing their collections and stories with us.

Australia Calls will be open until 14 October 2015. We urge you to visit and explore the impact of the war on the Whitehorse community.

Fiona Poulton

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

Melbourne Museum until 4 October 2015

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.


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

WWI: Love & Sorrow launch at Melbourne Museum

On Friday 29 August, Fiona and I attended the launch of WWI: Love & Sorrow at Melbourne Museum. We were excited to have been invited, and the opening and exhibition exceeded our already high expectations.

Guests were well sated with an historically appropriate fare of chicken sandwiches, ANZAC biscuits and scones with jam and cream. We were treated to a moving live performance of 'The Distant Call of Home' by the Orbweavers, the theme song for the TV series 'The War That Changed Us'. It set the scene beautifully. Dr Marina Larsson, author of Shattered Anzacs and Honorary Associate of Museum Victoria, gave a thought-provoking introduction, reminding us that this exhibition in all its confronting, gritty and shocking detail contains stories that need to be told. Larsson emphasised that telling war stories fully and sensitively, without avoiding sadness and trauma, is a powerful form of respect. These stories - long buried by soldiers, families and the passing of time - are finally now, 100 years on, being uncovered.

WWI: Love & Sorrow examines the impact of the war on Australian families through the stories of eight individuals, from a mother left devastated by the loss of her son to a teenage soldier who struggled with the lasting effects of his war experiences for the rest of his life. Through these eight people, we are given the chance to reexamine the war and its very real impact across generations of Australians. This exhibition is a refreshing reminder to all of us that in this time of prolific WWI commemoration activity, there are people and institutions willing to challenge the enduring ANZAC legend and to present for close inspection the devastating realities of war. 

The exhibition itself is not only impressive in the level of historical research and detail it brings, including close collaboration with families and evocative displays of letters, scrapbooks and other personal items, but it also impresses in the use of cutting-edge technology. While the accompanying smartphone app was not to be officially released until the following day, when the exhibition opened to the public, we were taken on a short tour by a museum staff member who demonstrated how the app works. Providing additional audio and visual material, the app allows visitors to engage more deeply with stories told in the exhibition. The creative mix of traditional story-telling with innovative technology makes this exhibition a truly personal and involving experience. 

Way Back When will definitely be going back for a closer look and we encourage everyone to do the same. 

WWI: Love & Sorrow opened at Melbourne Museum on Saturday 30 August. It will be shown for the duration of the WWI centenary, closing in November 2018.

Lucy Bracey

Brunswick Revisited Launch

Brunswick Revisited: Reflections on the Past
Curated by: Sarah Rood and Lucy Bracey
When: 20 January – 19 February 2012
Where: Counihan Gallery, Brunswick Town Hall

In December 2011, Way Back When was commissioned to curate an exhibition for the Counihan Gallery around a collection of incredible glass lantern slides created in the 1939 in celebration of Brunswick’s centenary. This collection of over 300 glass slides was created by local residents, led by Councillor CAJ Dollman. The collection itself has an interesting history, disappearing shortly before WWII and not reappearing until almost 60 years later. It presents a fascinating insight into the social and civic life of Brunswick at the time and is an important historical record – as much as for what it leaves out as well as what it represents.

The exhibition displayed these amazing slides in a modern format (digital projection) aimed at mirroring what would have been the intended display (lantern projector). A selection of original slides was also displayed in a lightbox to show the actual size and intricate detail. In keeping with the civic spirit of the collection, the exhibition was launched by Cr Lambros Tapinos. The collection of slides is now held by the Moreland City Council.  

The highlight of working on this collection for me personally was the opportunity to work with such beautiful slides. I've always been keenly interested in art, so this was the perfect blend between art and history.

Lucy Bracey