Report from the Middle North Island Curators’ Hui 2017

Reflections for the Future: War Commemorations in Aotearoa New Zealand

By Natalie Ume Liverant, Masters Student, Victoria University of Wellington

The Middle North Island Curators’Hui 2017 was held at the National Army Museum Te Mata Toa from 2 – 3 November, in partnership with National Services Te Paerangi.

Over the course of two days, attendees from institutions around the middle North Island gathered to discuss the topics, stories, and aspirations for exhibitions around the topic of war commemorations in New Zealand. Speakers shared various perspectives and approaches to memory, preservation, commemoration, and storytelling. Discussions provoked questions on the how and why of remembering and in regard to work for the future.

Day 0 (pre-conference tour):

The National Army Museum Te Mata Toa stands along the desert road among a short pit stop of gas stations, quick stop eateries, and the empty vessels that were once an internet café and souvenir shops. The giant concrete, fortified, castle-like structure of the museum, that used to have a working moat, is guarded by a tank and other big relic weaponry.

The day before the conference, a handful of attendees met at the museum, piled into an army van, and were taken on a tour of the Training Area by Major Pat Hibbs. Our host entertained us with stories of events that had taken place along the terrain as the caravan jostled along the gravel road at a slow and steady pace. We made several stops to marvel at the Kaimanawa horses, a man-made reserve and dam, and a historic corrugated iron constructed homestead.

Day 1

The morning began with a pōwhiri. Unlike traditional design, the Army’s marae and wharenui face West, looking out and keeping watch over the darkness that encloses New Zealand every night.

National Army Museum staff welcome hui delegates. Photographer Ana Palmer, courtesy of National Army Museum Te Mata Toa

The inside of this wharenui is unique as it represents a blended history of the ideals, stories, and ethnicities for the men and women who serve (or have served) in the New Zealand Army. Among the many beautifully carved pieces one small carving located on the western wall, a wooden Merlion, hangs as a symbol of the partnership between New Zealand and Singapore armies.

The first keynote speaker was Professor Kingsley Baird who spoke of his work as a memorial artist. For Baird, memorial art has a ‘moral imperative to consider others.’ He touched on how his works, particularly those displayed in Germany and Japan, serve as a symbol in the recognition and solidarity of loss.

Staff from the National Army Museum Te Mata Toa also spoke. Education Officer, Mark Hays, discussed topics of censorship and learning within school groups.

Many of the students who come to the Museum have already been exposed to the tools of war, he explained. By this he means that many of the students who visit have family members with a history serving the NZ Army. He also mentions that an increasing number of students are exposed to warfare and weaponry from videogames. The Education staff use this as a platform to discuss various other aspects of warfare.

Delegates have a go with wound props from National Army Museum Education Department. Photographer Brenden Shirley, courtesy of National Army Museum Te Mata Toa

Tactile activities such as dressing up as medics and tending to the wounded, help students learn about injury and death. Another familiar topic is food. As part of a live demonstration, attendees were able to participate in ‘cooking a RAT’ or an army ration pack. Being able to see what soldiers must carry in their pack for a day away from base, provided new insight into the day in the life of an NZ soldier.

Delegates taste the NZDF ration packs from Mark Hays, Educator at the National Army Museum. Photographer Brenden Shirley, courtesy of National Army Museum Te Mata Toa

Director Tracy Puklowski, and Assistant Curator of Heraldry Elizabeth Mildon, also talked about their work at the Museum. ‘Museums are not neutral’ Puklowski reminded us. Objects often have a complex history that accompanies it but, she questioned, how much of the story can we tell?

She gave the example of an exhibition designed in the US during the 1990s covering the history of Enola Gay Boeing B-29 used famously in WWII. We learned that despite the institution’s best efforts to provide a ‘balanced narrative’ around the war and the bombing of Hiroshima, a large group of objectors confronted the museum. The protest that followed made national headlines and the museum changed the exhibition several times.

The complication, particularly when discussing events of the modern historical era, is building empathy and understanding around different perspectives. Here, it is the crucial to do more than just present a narrative of both sides. There must be space for visitors to access the material, remember, and come to a conclusion of their own. Aspirations of neutrality, even though well intentioned, may not be accepted by all communities and the repercussions of this must be considered.

Delegates explore the Medal Repository. Photographer Brenden Shirley, courtesy of National Army Museum Te Mata Toa

To put this in perspective of the Army Museum’s curatorial process, Mildon discussed her work in material and memory. Most of the objects that come to her have an official provenance in classification and material identification. These items also bring a personal history, stories of either first-hand accounts or passed from generation to generation. While it is seemingly easy for her to collect and document official provenance, personal history is much less straight forward.

An example she shared explored a family fable. A relative was remembered for ‘almost’ representing New Zealand in the Olympics, had it not been for being sent to serve during WWII. However, research produced no evidence to prove the truth of the story. A disheartening result. Even if untrue, Mildon wondered how much of her role as curator is to censor an object’s legacy?

Buddy Mikaere was our final keynote speaker for day one. He discussed his work in Tauranga focused on the Battle of Pukehinahina (Gate Pa) in 1864. He discussed successful projects including a commemorative ceremony, a dinner re-enactment, and signage placed in various spots around the city to explain the historical relevance to the events that led up to the fateful day in 1864, when over a hundred British soldiers and Marines died in a battle against Ngati Te Rangi. He also discussed his newest challenge; to build a permanent structure dedicated to this historical period, a pre-curser to the New Zealand Land Wars.

Keynote speaker Buddy Mikaere presenting. Photographer Brenden Shirley, courtesy of National Army Museum Te Mata Toa

Day 2

Here are some of my highlights from the second day of the hui:

  • Curator Kristie Ross discussed her work on several projects at Te Papa including Gallipoli: the scale of our war. Ross’ presentation reiterated the question of how and why we commemorate events.
  • Dr. Susan Abasa spoke of commemorations of WWI through portraits of floral arrangements, using specific flowers and colours to remember particular locations.
  • Rosemary Deane and Emma Liley spoke about their continuing work at the Rotorua Museum, despite the unforeseen setback of building closure for earthquake strengthening. The museum’s current education project The Art of Remembering showcases art by school students in the area.
  • Megan Wells and Kararaina Te Ira from Puke Ariki, discussed how they are seeking to engage young people with local history and turning their focus to the New Zealand Land wars.
  • Dolores Ho, Archivist with the National Army Museum Te Mata Toa, shared with us her private project to create thousands of flax crosses with an attached poppy. Dolores’ crosses are sent overseas, annually, to be laid upon the headstones of New Zealand Soldiers. This is an ongoing and annual project, funded by Dolores and donations. For more info:

Kataraina Te Ira and Megan Wells present to delegates. Photographer Brenden Shirley, courtesy of National Army Museum Te Mata Toa

A huge thank you to the staff at the National Army Museum Te Mata Toa for organising a great Curators’ Hui. It was extremely insightful and engaging.