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Contemplating commemoration in a digital world

Victoria Passau
Collection Manager, Online Cenotaph

The act of remembrance is complex. It can be a pure expression of love and appreciation and in parallel a contradictory and multi-faceted message of mamae (pain), loss, pride, and frustration. What happens when the commemoration of a person is undertaken in the digital realm? What are the ethics around protecting and sharing these examples of oftentimes personal self-expression? Or when the physical commemorations are cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances such as a natural disaster or in our current case a pandemic?

Poppies laid at 2018 Anzac Day event at Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Poppies laid at 2018 Anzac Day event at Auckland War Memorial Museum.

© All Rights Reserved.

Online Cenotaph is a military database that acknowledges New Zealand service personnel and enables the public to contribute notes, images and data into each individual record. Over the past five years the database, that consists of 235,000 records (and counting), has received more than 100,000 contributions. Every record with added information, images and notes has been activated by these contributions. However, the research potential of this collective memorialisation has yet to be harnessed by researchers and curators alike. I am interested in how we can enable this resource to be used in a way that deepens our understanding of commemoration and memorialisation in New Zealand.

Commemoration at Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira is responsible for the perpetual commemoration of the service personnel of the Auckland Province. Online Cenotaph enables our visitors to further understand the individual impact that war has had on our nation. It provides an outlet for expression and helps connect our visitors to the past. Online Cenotaph is only one part of the Museum’s ongoing commemorative programme. The Museum includes war collections, physical war memorials and galleries exploring conflict and peacekeeping. It provides education programmes as well as tours led by volunteers through our war galleries. The Museum also hosts regular commemorative events and manages formal commemorative protocols when welcoming dignitaries.

An Auckland Museum staff member and researcher using Online Cenotaph in Pou Maumahara Memorial Discovery Centre — Armistice Day 2018.

An Auckland Museum staff member and researcher using Online Cenotaph in Pou Maumahara Memorial Discovery Centre — Armistice Day 2018.

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The ethics of sharing

Throughout my time with Online Cenotaph I have struggled with how we uphold the mana (authority / prestige) of our contributors without exploiting their vulnerability. We have therefore avoided the wholesale posting of personal notes and messages as this feels like we are breaking the trust of our contributors.

While our contributors grant the Museum a worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive, license to reproduce, modify or use the material posted under a Creative Commons license, it is unlikely they expect Auckland Museum to use their messages, of sometimes grief and pain, for the benefit of promoting a database. We need to ensure that people continue to feel safe to express themselves.

When writing Cenotaph Stories we often partner with the contributors who have shared information in a record. In line with our Guidelines and Terms of Use we respect the  between Online Cenotaph and our contributors. We undertake this through meaningful engagement and relationship building based on reciprocity, respect and mutual trust. As a part of this we make every effort to inform our contributors if notes or images are to be used in commemorative events, publications and exhibitions.

Contributions made to Online Cenotaph January 2015-April 2020

Contributions made to Online Cenotaph January 2015-April 2020

Auckland Museum CC BY

Wider Museum use

The personal messages and images shared on Online Cenotaph help to highlight the ripple effect one service person’s experience can have across time, space and generations. This is not something that can be captured by the letters and war diaries or objects held within our physical collections as they act as a snapshot in time. Online Cenotaph helps to supplement the narrative and arguably increase the mana of these taonga held in our collections — by continuing the narrative into today. However, this aspect of our digital collection is not currently leveraged by our curatorial staff. We are now starting to explore how these messages of remembrance could be appropriately used by our curatorial staff, educators and exhibitions teams. Is it reasonable for us to consider the personal messages left by whanau, comrades and researchers as a time capsule not to be disturbed for say a hundred years? Is that enough time for the pain of loss to be mediated? Or has the immediacy of the connected world we live in, lessened this settling period to five years or ten?

Personal messages left on Online Cenotaph have been read during commemorative events and have sat comfortably alongside readings from the archives. These readings have helped to return the audience’s focus to the individual. This is especially impactful when the collective loss cannot be fathomed by the audience. However, these commemorative events are ephemeral in nature. The voices echo through our Hall of Memories for but a moment in time. The Museum has yet to explore ways in which these digital contributions can be included in our exhibitions, research and public programmes.

Screenshot of Henry William Insley’s Online Cenotaph record. Used with permission of the Passau whānau.

Screenshot of Henry William Insley’s Online Cenotaph record. Used with permission of the Passau whānau.

Commemoration in the time of COVID-19

Over the past few weeks this thinking has had to shift and grow. Due to the impact of COVID-19 the Returned and Services Association has made the difficult decision to cancel any public Anzac Day events this year and is postponing its national Poppy Day appeal. It is the first time Anzac Day and Poppy Day have been postponed since 1920 and 1922 respectively.

This has made the Online Cenotaph team really start to think about how we can create a space for commemoration while keeping our community physically as well as culturally safe. We are no longer the ancillary outlet, an add on, for bonus commemoration, we have become a focal point for Anzac Day Commemoration at Tāmaki Paenga Hira. We want to ensure the contributions of our service personnel are remembered and their memories cared for.

In under two weeks we have been able to collaborate with a group of well-respected New Zealand academics who have agreed to share articles relating to New Zealand’s war service on the front line and the home front. It has been so wonderful to see how positive their responses have been to our pretty audacious request. Especially when their time is so heavily taxed by online teaching, research and the daily juggle of whānau responsibilities during lockdown. It shows their generosity and community spirit and reflects our commitment to acknowledge the sacrifices of our service personnel and their whanaunga. But it also illustrates that Online Cenotaph is seen as a trusted space to share research, memories and connections, and that makes us feel pretty proud.

While this is a positive outcome of a topsy turvy time, I also wonder if this event will mark a shift in the way New Zealand publicly acknowledges Anzac Day or other commemorative events. Especially when we consider the impact of large gatherings on our aging or often immunocompromised veterans. Will the number of public events reduce? Will online acknowledgment play a greater role in these events and will this digital shift be preferred by the newer recruits? Would this transition enable them to shape the way they share their stories and connect to their comrades? I am not sure we would see the end of face to face commemorative events but I do feel they are likely to reduce in number. It may be that only a few physical sites are used as a symbol and they would be streamed for the public to observe online. If this was to occur then what changing role would online spaces such as Online Cenotaph play in enabling this participation?

More questions than answers

In these unpredictable times we feel it would be beneficial for us to open up a dialogue about how we can identify appropriate ways to utilise the content that has been created by projects such as Online Cenotaph. It raises a number of questions that we have yet to answer.

  1. Do digital collections, such as this, shift our understanding of collection management, curation and research?
  2. How do we safely incorporate this content into our wider museum work to help augment and extend our understanding of a topic or time period?
  3. How do we do this in a way that protects the mana of our contributors?
  4. How are the contributions left on Online Cenotaph, or its equivalent, perceived by the academy?
  5. Are they placed on the same plane as archival material?
  6. Or are they discounted due to the medium, the status of the contributors, or their arguably apocryphal nature?
  7. As a publicly funded institution how do we appropriately measure the valuable role Online Cenotaph plays in the ongoing memorialisation of our service men, women and non-binary personnel?
  8. How can we engage our curatorial teams with the content created by digital projects in an ethical and useful way?
  9. Will COVID-19 mark a shift in the way New Zealand publicly acknowledges Anzac Day or other commemorative events?

There are obviously more questions than answers. However, five years after the relaunch of Online Cenotaph, we feel an obligation to untangle our thoughts as a sector, especially relating to the implications of launching digital collections without creating appropriate and culturally safe frameworks for reuse. I also want to suggest that sometimes it is better to take a leap of faith without knowing all the answers. Museums aren’t always known for taking huge risks and I can truly say that the positive impacts this online space has enabled for people to share, reconnect and commemorate has genuinely out weighed the negative. As we say it a work in progress and we are always open to feedback.


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Cite this article

Passau, Victoria. Contemplating commemoration in a digital world. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 20 April 2020. Updated: 20 April 2020.