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The Museum’s WWI galleries are designed to be a series of immersive experiences that take you back in time and allow you to imagine what it would have felt like to be at war, from the mud and rain of Fringe of Hell on the Western Front to the sand, heat, and flies of Anzac Cove.
When designing this new space, some questions we considered were: what is currently on display? What materials had previous temporary exhibitions about the same subject generated that could be reused? How can we make best use of a very tall, shallow case?
To fit with the design of the rest of the gallery, we needed to create something that felt overwhelming, as a war on global scale is overwhelming or, to take a more recent example, a world-wide pandemic. By pushing the objects all the way to the top, we made full use of the case height and created that wave-like feeling.
Display Technicians Chris Sheehan (right) and Alex Lencz installing objects in one of the refreshed cases.
Next was to apply the same frugal material constraints that would have been available at this time in history: wallpaper, limited paint colour options, fabric, cardboard, corrugated iron, rough-sawn wood, cheap timber, old nails. Recycled materials bring a patina that is difficult to reproduce and time-consuming to fake. All recycled materials spent time in the blast freezer to eliminate any chance of tiny pests been introduced to the galleries.
High-quality digital reproductions were made from photographs or scans of collection objects to avoid the use of historical documents that would be damaged over time from light exposure. The historical photographs, newspaper articles, recruitment posters and labels you see now are all printed directly on conservation-approved, acid-free cardboard, eliminating any chance of chemical reactions with the other objects in the case. Avoiding the plastic that makes up vinyl labels and graphics that are commonly used in modern displays is also much cheaper.
Any new materials that were needed used full sheets, so nothing was wasted. Some props, such as the tea-chests, were made using modern methods: laser-cut stencils for the custom branding and cardboard stripes painted to look like rusting tin edging. New printing methods even allowed us to print directly on fabric for the Soldiers’ Flag and super-thin plastic for the small light boxes.
Testing different paint combinations to look like rusted edges on the tea-chests.
Light causes permanent and irreversible damage that affects the chemical composition, physical structure, and, usually the most obvious, the appearance of the collection items. There are no conservation treatments that can reverse light damage. Even if some visible manifestations of light damage can be lessened, the chemical and physical damage to the material is permanent.
The process for these cases in particular began with the removal of Our Soldiers' Flag several years ago – the renewed space features a replica of this flag. Other objects, including a doll, had begun to show signs of light damange. In the end there would have been very little left in the cases.
You can read more about how our teams measure light damage, decide display times, and renew galleries in this blog.
Display technicians removing the glass of the case in order to replace a vulnerable object with a replica.
Refreshing First World War display cases focused on experiences of the ‘home front’ has given us the opportunity to highlight two aspects of the war experience that coloured our community life in New Zealand.
On the one hand, the general public developed an active desire to contribute in whatever practical way possible, driven by strong feelings of loyalty to the British Empire and a determination to lessen the hardships that our own soldiers were facing. This showed up as numerous creative fundraising efforts involving all ages and all sectors of the economy. There were many group and individual projects for knitting, baking and gathering ‘comforts’ and for writing cards and letters to lonely servicemen, all to make soldiering more bearable.
On the other hand, men in the Dominion were subject to the complicated feelings associated with familial and community expectations to ‘do their duty’. Their own wishes and fears – and the voluntary nature of the initial enlistments – were increasingly coloured by the pressure to sign up. As it became harder and harder to fill reinforcement quotas, the government introduced conscription and the social ugliness surrounding conscientious objection came along with it. The experiences of our Māori and Pacific men is now the focus of the recruitment section. Another case around the corner, which tells the story of New Zealand’s occupation of Samoa, has likewise been refreshed to acknowledge different groups of people affected by the occupation, and will be the subject of an upcoming blog.
Detail from a souvenir cloth featuring a poem accusing men who didn't serve of being cowards.
In telling these stories, Our Soldiers’ Flag provides the perfect anchor for the two display cases in this sub-gallery and has returned to pride of place between the two home front ‘stories’. The New Zealand Blue Ensign (the flag) was donated in 1929 by Mrs Agnes Keary, who embroidered the flag with names of members of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Initially begun to raise money in support of the 1915 Auckland Queen Carnival, a multi-event celebration with the serious intent of raising donations for Auckland patriotic funds, the flag was completed in the months following the event. In December 1915 a fee of 10s was charged per name.
Although the age and unique nature of the flag means a reproduction is on display, the flag nevertheless brings together acknowledgement of those who had volunteered to put their bodies on the line and play a physical role in the war, and those at home who were doing their part to provide whatever support they could.
Detail of Our Soldiers' Flag
While caring for the collections was the initial driver for these improvements, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to also update the visitor experience. With objects having been removed over time and the design and interpretation left unchanged, the cases were left looking tired, empty, disjointed, and unengaging. It was definitely time for a makeover!
As these cases were just one section within a larger gallery, the main challenge in upgrading the visitor experience was doing it in a way that was sympathetic to the surrounding displays. We wanted to create something that would be in keeping with the look and feel of the rest of the WWI gallery, while also creating something that felt fresh and introduced our updated standards with regards to accessible and sustainable design. Labels are now set at a comfortable height and angle, the graphic design has been updated, and objects and labels are now well-lit to improve legibility and engagement.
Another key focus was bringing an updated approach to the narrative and text interpretation. This involved applying a clear structure to the themes and stories we wanted to share and making that structure evident in the design and interpretation. A simple but significant improvement has also been individually identifying each new object on display. Previously it was very difficult to identify the objects in the case and connect them to stories, the new labels make this much easier.
The new display features a life-size image of a recruitment office.
The new display case explores the process of recruitment in more detail, as well as the contribution of Māori and Pacific soldiers.
While still focused on patriotism and fundraising, the new case dives deeper into stories of efforts on the home front.
Prior to improvement the display case featured many objects that needed to be at eye-level to read.
Before refurbishment the case still focused on stories of fundraising and patriotism, but featured many paper objects that were vulnerable to light damage.