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A window into our military heritage

A window into our military heritage

Auckland Museum staff
Fri, 14 Oct 2016

Military medals mean different things to different people. This ANZAC Commemorative Medallion recognising service at Gallipoli in the First World War is highly valued for its family connection - Reg Scarfe holds his father’s medal at the Museum’s 2016 Military Heritage Day.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

A small round of metal hanging from a ribbon or a vital piece of history? A precious connection to a loved one or a valuable collector’s item?

People see different things when they look at military medals but from next month - when the new Pou Maumahara Memorial Discovery Centre opens - visitors will have greater access to the Museum’s collection of military heritage medals than ever before.

Among the Museum’s war memorial collections are nearly 3000 military heritage medals, and from now on Pou Maumahara will be their home.

Instead of storing the medals in off-display collections or storage areas, Associate Curator Gail Romano says the Museum has created ‘visible storage’.

“Our medals will be displayed in a way that means they retain functionality for curatorial purposes, for instance we can use them for reference purposes or access them if we need to examine an item or remove one or two for a specific display, but visitors to Pou Maumahara can also see them up-close in the drawers and then learn more about them through the gallery’s interactive displays.”

All the Museum’s military medals will now be available for visitors to view in drawers - dubbed ‘visible storage’ - in Pou Maumahara Memorial Discovery Centre.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

The new medal displays won’t just be more accessible than before either.

“We feel it’s also a more respectful way to store and share these medals. Each of the medals in our care is connected to someone, to their story and their memory, and making them more visible is in keeping with our war memorial role.”

The interactive displays inside Pou Maumahara will allow people to delve into the stories of some of the people who earned the medals.

Close-up photography of the medals also forms part of the interactive displays and Senior Content and Interpretation Developer Kate Woodall says the images allow people to see some beautiful details.

“You can see detail and design elements that are hard to see on the medals themselves, and the close-up images also let you see the wear and tear of the medals which gives you a sense of how people have worn them and cherished them. Seeing those details gives me a real sense of these medals being part of someone’s life.”

The interactive content also answers some of the more frequently asked questions about medals, for instance whether women received medals? (Yes they did - Florence Nightingale was the first.)

Woodall says the Museum’s military medal collection has mainly been acquired through gifts and bequests so it isn’t an encyclopaedic collection.

“We don’t have every medal and even with the medals in our care we don’t know the stories behind them all but it’s an evolving collection and we hope people will be inspired to use the Pou Maumahara Memorial Discovery Centre as a place to learn more and to share what they know.”

“Hopefully some of our visitors will look at the collection and then be inspired to look into the medals their family has and learn more about them - then we would love it if they can share that information with us!”

In preparation for the move the Conservation team have carried out hundreds of hours of restoration and careful treatment work of the medals in their care.

Extensive restoration and cleaning of the Museum’s medals has been carried out by the collections team.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

Among the medals that have been prepped for the move into Pou Maumahara are hundreds from the Brent Mackrell Collection.

A dedicated collector, Brent Mackrell initially set himself the goal of collecting examples of all British campaign medals from the 17th century to the present day. The vast size - and cost - of that task meant he revised his goal, deciding to specialise in orders, decorations and medals awarded to New Zealanders, or associated with New Zealand families.

Mackrell’s aim was to create the most comprehensive collection of medals and decorations awarded to New Zealanders (including New Zealanders serving in foreign defence forces and people who only later became New Zealanders) from all walks of life and to ensure that the memories and stories of the medal recipients were also collected and documented.

Visitors to Pou Maumahara will be able to see the full Mackrell collection - 1200 items - including some pieces outside the original scope of the collection such as memorial plaques and nurses badges. The rest of the Museum’s military medals will be moved into Pou Maumahara in coming months. From offsite people can access many of the medals using Collections Online.

Project Leader for Collections Imaging Dave Sanderson says two collection technicians have dedicated months to digitising the museum’s military medals and other war memorial collections items.

To date 1300 of the military medals have been digitised and Sanderson says the online records not only allow a close-up look at the medal but they also provide interesting details including the soldier’s name, information about the material and size and whether it is linked to other items in the Museum’s collections or records.

This set of medals awarded to Warrant Officer George Ramsay Andrews, Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force, is part of the extensive Brent Mackrell Collection which will be housed in Pou Maumahara.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

Where Mackrell’s collection was driven by a desire to document history on a large scale, for some people their collection of military medals is deeply personal.

At this year’s Military Heritage Day at the Museum, Reginald ‘Reg’ Scarfe brought in a collection of medals that he treasures: they were awarded to his father Edward Reginald Francis Scarfe for his service in the First and Second World War.

Edward Reginald Francis Scarfe’s medals including a Distinguished Conduct Medal, 1914-1915 Star, British War Medal (1914-1920), Victory Medal, War Medal 1939-1945 and New Zealand Territorial Service Medal.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

As Reg Scarfe stood talking about the stories his father had shared with him, it was 100 years on from the Battle of the Somme in which his father had fought and earned a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his part in recapturing a trench.

For him, these medals are a tangible link to his father and to his history.

Reg Scarfe talking about his father’s actions on 16 September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme - actions which saw his father awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Associate Curator, History, Gail Romano hopes Pou Maumahara will allow more people to discover the stories behind the medals.

“We hope these medals will provide another important window on our military heritage and create a tangible connection with our history.”

For families a medal can provide a tangible link between their relative and a significant event in history. Reg Scarfe has a scrapbook documenting his father’s war service including the medals and letters he received and a treasured photo (his father is seated front right) found in an on newspaper - which is also in the Museum’s collections.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

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