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

War and Emotions symposium at Melbourne Museum

On Thursday 17 and Friday 18 September this year, Fiona Poulton and Lucy Bracey attended the War and Emotions symposium at Melbourne Museum. It was a marathon two days which had us not only thinking critically about the WWI centenary but also the way in which we practice and engage with history. We were so exhausted after live tweeting the whole thing we haven't got around to blogging about it. But after learning about Storify from the fabulous Professional Historians Association, we thought we'd storify some of the tweets so those of you who didn't make it can at least get a feel for some of the thoughts, comments and questions floating around at the symposium. See below or head to Storify!

Researching military ancestors

The centenary of World War I has prompted many Australians to delve into their own family history and discover the wartime experiences of their ancestors. Us historians at Way Back When have worked on a number of war-related history projects in the last few years and become pretty adept at uncovering these forgotten Anzacs and interpreting the sometimes complicated and often hidden military archives. So we thought, why not share the tips and tricks we've developed over time with those people wanting to know more?

We recently gave a presentation for the City of Boroondara at Hawthorn Library on researching military ancestors and it was met with great enthusiasm from attendees. So we've decided to take this show on the road. If you are interested in having us speak to your group or organisation, please contact us.

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

History in (many) Places

Way Back When was engaged by the National Trust of Victoria to facilitate the History in Place project at four National Trust sites. The History in Place project is the result of a partnership between the Heritage Council of Victoria, the History Teachers’ Association of Victoria and Culture Victoria. The project was designed to establish a framework for students to engage with their local history and heritage.

Students learn about the mulberry tree at Mulberry Hill

Students learn about the mulberry tree at Mulberry Hill

Over the course of several months, Way Back When coordinated the History in Place project at the Portable Iron Houses in South Melbourne, Mulberry Hill in Langwarrin, Endeavour Fern Gully in Red Hill and Gulf Station in Yarra Glen with groups of local primary school students. Each school was taken on a tour of the site and encouraged to take photographs, film and notes about the site and themes that interested them to later turn into a film using an iPad and iMovie. 

Students in the Gulf Station school house

Students in the Gulf Station school house

The hands-on nature of the day appealed to students and they loved using the iPads to film, photograph and curate their films. The films the students produced showed us what appealed to them at each site. The slaughter house was a particular favourite at Gulf Station, while Daryl Lindsay's paintings were a highlight at Mulberry Hill.

It was a great learning experience for us as historians. Working with kids between 10 and 12 years of age certainly presented some challenges! But it was so rewarding to be a part of students experiencing history in a tangible way, sometimes for the first time. The students' positive reactions to the sites, the concepts and the overall project were so encouraging and reaffirmed to us our belief that history is inherently interesting and fun - when presented properly.

A bonus for us in this project was getting to work with so many passionate and interesting volunteers at each of the National Trust sites. Without the dedication of these people, these important historical links to our shared past would not be accessible. So we'd like to say a very big thank you to everyone who helped us with this project.

If you'd like to see what these students came up with, the finished films will soon be available on the National Trust website, so stay tuned!

In the meantime, below are two previews:

Learning about the Portable Iron Houses in South Melbourne

Learning about the Portable Iron Houses in South Melbourne

The land at Endeavour Fern Gully, looking almost exactly as it would have during the time of the Bunurong people

The land at Endeavour Fern Gully, looking almost exactly as it would have during the time of the Bunurong people

Lucy Bracey