New Pou Kanohi gallery helping people connect with First World War stories
A century on, the events of the First World War can feel abstract and unconnected to our lives today, but Auckland Museum’s new gallery Pou Kanohi New Zealand at War is making the events of the war feel both relevant and relatable.
“A lot of people think about the war and they immediately think of far flung places like the Somme, Messines and Passchendaele but we are looking at the war through the stories of people who came from Auckland and unlocking events that happened right here,” says Content and Interpretation Developer Ben Bradford.
“We want people to get a sense of the lasting impact that the First World War had on New Zealand. Families and communities were changed forever and, by the end of the war, one in five families had lost a loved one.”
Among the features in the gallery are a series of videos from young spoken word poets, filmed in different locations around Auckland with a direct link to the First World War.
Onehou Strickland recites one of her pieces as she walks through Pukekawa, Auckland Domain where on 6 April 1919, 1000 men of the Pioneer Battalion were honoured with a huge welcome home ceremony.
Strickland’s powerful piece includes the lines -
… there is shrapnel left, no pliers or prayer could extract” and “… lest we forget, they cried, as if you ever could, even if we tried."
Other spoken word pieces were filmed at Narrow Neck on the North Shore where an influenza epidemic hit the training camp in 1918 with devastating consequences, at the Auckland Harbour and railway station where many soldiers were farewelled as they prepared to travel first to Wellington and then overseas for deployment, and at Avondale Racecourse where hundreds of Maori trained to become soldiers.
As spoken word poet Sheldon Rua researched his piece about the Avondale Racecourse he says he tried to understand what these men were going through then and to examine his own response now, in today’s context, before trying to make sense of it all.
Rua’s piece talks about how it was new and strange for different iwi to come together to train and how fighting in the war was held out as an honour with the men -
told that war is a glorious thing, that it is a privilege, an honour, to hold the destiny of a man in your hands."
The videos are just one of a number of different ways the Museum shares the stories of the First World War.
“One of the Museum’s strengths is being able to tell stories in a variety of different ways and Pou Kanohi makes use of objects, collections, video, virtual reality and digital interactives to bring the stories of the First World War to life and enable people to really get a sense of how the war impacted people’s lives,” says Bradford.
Another feature of the gallery is “Letters from the front line”, a series of six large digital touch screens where people can read original letters from soldiers and nurses who were stationed in different places at different times during the WWI.
“Many of these letters are being shared for the first time and it’s an example of how technology is enabling us to give our visitors greater access to our collections. People can explore the letters using a timeline of the war, through a world map or by theme. We’ve also enriched the content by showing the original letter along with the transcribed content, and we’ve provided definitions for words that people might not be familiar with.”
The gallery also uses interactive technologies to share the Museum’s collections in new ways.
“We have a QF 18-pounder artillery gun in our collections but it was a very large object to put into the gallery. Instead we recreated it in incredible detail and now when visitors come to Pou Kanohi they can put on our virtual reality headset and experience how overwhelming it would have been to try to manage one of these weapons with the chaos of explosions, people shouting, gunfire and planes flying overhead.”
An aerial reconnaissance table allows visitors to see first-hand how planes were used for intelligence gathering from the skies and to try it for themselves.
Objects from the Museum’s collections also feature prominently in Pou Kanohi and are critical in helping people connect with the realities of war.
People often picture miles of trenches when they think of the war. In the gallery we have some of the tools used to dig these, and I think people will be shocked to see how small they are. You wouldn’t really want to dig much in your garden with them, yet alone dig for cover in the ground as though your life depended on it.”
Other objects on display in the gallery include photographs, letters, a case of firearms illustrating the evolution of weapons, a soldiers’ kit, keepsakes collected during the First World War, gifts sent to loved ones from home and special memorial items created to remember soldiers who didn’t return.
A learning tool for students
Pou Kanohi is the first of the Museum’s permanent war memorial galleries aimed specifically at school students and throughout its development the gallery team have worked with a focus group of Auckland teachers to determine how to make it an effective learning and research tool.
The gallery has been developed to engage young people with this world they can’t really imagine – with what life was really like during the war for the soldiers overseas fighting, for the nurses on the hospital ships, for the people at home.”
Bradford says using Pou Kanohi provides students with an opportunity to explore the research aspect of their study.
Students are able to engage with primary sources, such as letters and diaries, and using the gallery’s ‘My Collection’ card they can collect digital content and send it to their email address so they can re-engage with it in more detail back in the classroom or at home.”
The gallery provides a broad overview of key events and dates in the First World War and then the digital design means visitors can choose if they want more information.
“If they want to discover more they can delve into the timeline and access more information on each event, including photographs and beautiful images of our collection items.”
Students can also build on their research with the resources available in the Museum’s Pou Maumahara gallery and by using Online Cenotaph, which holds thousands of records on New Zealand service people from the First World War and many other conflicts.
Space to reflect and remember
Pou Kanohi is also a space for remembrance. Auckland War Memorial Museum was funded in large part by the people of Auckland who wanted a memorial to those who had fought and those who had lost their lives in the First World War. This gallery, developed almost 90 years after the building first opened its doors to the public, and supported by funding from the Lottery Grants Board Te Puna Tahua, is a sign of the Museum’s enduring commitment to its memorial role.
Helping create an environment for reflection and remembrance are the artworks commissioned for Pou Kanohi from Bernard Makoare, Rangi Kipa, Maureen Lander and Beronia Scott.
Lander’s work focuses on the theme of farewell, absence and longing and is named after the farewell song Pō Atarau – Now Is The Hour that was often used to farewell Maori contingents leaving to serve.
“My artwork is displayed in the 1914-1915 ‘Enlistment’ period of the gallery timeline, beneath a photograph showing a group of Maori women from Rotorua performing a farewell song for the departing Native Contingent at the Auckland Town Hall.”
“My research suggests that the song they sang could have been Po Atarau which was composed around that time. The 'Karu Atua’ or God's Eye crosses in my work evoke a sense of spiritual protection,” says Lander.
“It was common for Maori farewells to departing troops to include karakia [prayer], the wearing and waving of green leaves and the singing of poignant waiata [songs] entreating the men to return home to their loved ones afterwards.”
Excerpt from ‘Pō Atarau – Now Is The Hour’
Ka hoki mai anō
Ki it te tau
E tangi at nei
But return again
To your loved one,
This is the first in a series of blogs about the Museum’s new Pou Kanohi New Zealand at War gallery.
Post by: Auckland Museum
Auckland War Memorial Museum tells the story of New Zealand, its people, and their place in the Pacific.