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