Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Big Boys at Te Papa

I’ve been lucky enough to see quite a few WWI commemorative exhibitions around the world in the last couple of years, but none as powerful as Te Papa’s 'Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War' exhibition in Wellington.

Designed and built at a reputed cost of over $8 million by NZ film wunderkind and Weta Workshop founder, Richard Taylor, the set and prop designer behind the Lord of the Rings epic. This is a hybrid between a film set and a museum exhibition. The immediate reason I loved it is the stunning 5 times life-size figures that dominate the space in every way. They are masterful creations, the detailing simply awesome using every tool in the film set maker’s kit. 

But what I found most refreshing was the approach to the narrative. Instead of objects neatly labelled in showcases with storyboards on adjacent walls, every available wall space is plastered with text and photos in a highly accessible and readable way. You don’t need to work through all of it, as there are lots of individual stories, but at the same time a continuity of narrative, based around the real stories of the over-size figures, holds it all together and draws you on. One bloke survives a death sentence at a court martial (for falling asleep on duty) only to turn up later in the exhibition being killed in action four days afterwards.

Why did I find it more emotional than others I have seen? It’s very personal, it only tells the Gallipoli story from landing to evacuation, and it brings home better than any of the other exhibitions the devastating impact of the War on so many families in such a small country.

Which brings me to my one gripe. The final storyboard identifies the NZ casualty rate as 93% of those who landed were killed or wounded. An asterix beside the number leads to a footnote along the lines of ‘still to be verified'. I was so struck by that astonishing number that I went hunting. Two minutes on the web led me to the 1919 official history, 'The New Zealanders at Gallipoli', in which British General Sir Ian Hamilton wrote that a total of 8556 New Zealanders landed on the peninsula – of whom 7447 were killed or wounded, a casualty rate of 87% (not 93% but still staggeringly high). A minute more and I was at the official NZ Government’s WWI centenary site where David Green, Historian at the Ministry for Culture & Heritage, explains that through erroneous counting the real New Zealand casualty rate was 53%, similar to that of the Australians whom they fought alongside.

I’ve raised this with Te Papa and they have advised that research is still being undertaken, and they hope to have the final number clarified shortly. But don’t let that stop you visiting a great exhibition.