Last week an article from the Guardian, written by Paul Daley, appeared in my Facebook feed. Motivated by the words; Anzac, nationalism and war, I clicked through. The article discusses the State Library of NSW’s recently digitised collection of First World War diaries, however Daley opens with a rather critical reflection of Australia’s interpretation of the events and impact of the Great War. Building on a similar belief, held by historian, Geoffrey Serle in the 1960s, labelled Anzackery, Daley believes that
“political leaders, officials, national institutions and journalists [continue to] perpetuate the absurd proposition that nationhood emerged not amid 60,000 years of continuous Indigenous settlement or even at federation, but with 8700 Australian deaths under a British flag at Gallipoli?”
As a history teacher and museum educator at a war memorial, I can only agree with Daley. In my experience the average Australian sees my work to be centred on Gallipoli and Anzac Day. Their perceptions of war are heavily influenced by film, games and pop culture, some even needing to be reminded that in a real war, you can not simply hit reset. Many see war service as a never ending combat role in which everyone fights to the death minimising the impact of 60,000 Australian deaths First World War equating to “only” 20% of those who enlisted. Worse still, are those who are disappointed, and feel somewhat ‘unAustralian’ that their relative survived, didn’t serve at Gallipoli or did not serve in a combat role. My work strives to show that Gallipoli was an eight month campaign of a war that lasted more than fifty months. I acknowledge the crucial and dangerous jobs of those in supporting roles and I place emphasis on the physical and psychological wounds, some permanent, that lasted long after the armistice was signed and the gunfire ceased on 11 November 1918.
With Daley’s article fresh in my mind and my personal experiences and frustrations continuing to simmer, I went to the Melbourne Museum on New Year’s Day to see their exhibition WWI: Love and Sorrow. Besides the free entry I received on the day due to a computer glitch, here are some of the things I want to write
Its Position in the Museum.
One would expect to find a First World War exhibition in the history section of a museum. In a decision, that I’m sure was widely, and perhaps contentiously, discussed, this exhibition is housed in the Mind and Body science galleries, as it focuses primarily on the “impact of war on Australian families”.
Anyone who has worked with me will know that the impact of war on service people, their families and local communities is of particular interest to me. Marina Larsson, who I was please to see assisted with this exhibition, writes much about this in her book Shattered Anzacs, which is a regular ‘go to’ book for me.
Learning Principles and Empathy
Inquiry Based Learning is one of my preferred approaches to teaching and learning. In simple terms, it is the posing of questions to encourage participation, investigation and reflection which, in turn, develops understanding, enhances skills and allows a personalised, relatable connection with the topic, idea or object. This exhibition draws heavily of this approach with an apparent view to create understanding and empathy. Rather than starting the label with the object description, as is traditional, it merely poses a question.
An Inquiry Based Learning approach allows the visitor to be an active museum participant rather than a passive viewer. It encourages skills of analysis and critique rather than an unequivocal acceptance of the information provided. It also allows a multi demographical experience. For example, a small child might respond to the above question with “that would be boring”, “it would be hard to get around” or “I couldn’t play football anymore”. On the other hand, an adult might reflect upon their personal experience of looking after a wheelchair bound relative and the challenges of every day tasks such as showering as well as the psychological impacts on both carer and relative. Each have understood the impact of war on Australian families and empathised, within their own limitations, with the experience.
Whilst a great tool, understanding, connectedness and empathy can only occur if the question posed is relatable to the audience. The same task would not be effective if the object was unfamiliar such as a piece of obscure medical equipment or if the concept was unknown such as asking people who lived in central Australia to empathise with living on the coast. The questions selected by Melbourne Museum, whilst simple, have been well chosen. I have also included a favourite classroom example of creating relatable learning experiences which has been circulating around the internet.
Humanising Service People and Exploring the Wider Impact.
In 2010 I met the youngest daughter of First World War veterans Ernest and Clarice Lawrence. Almost one hundred years after the war, she spoke of her father’s shell shock and premature death, her limited memory of him and about growing up in a war affected home. The effects of the First World War, and indeed any war, are longterm and wide reaching, lasting long after the battlefields fall silent. However these stories are often never told.
This exhibition strays from a traditional museum hang, to reimagine an early 20th century fireplace mantel, complete with bronze frames and photos of all members of the family at varying times in their life. The family theme continues as eight individual narratives are followed through to the post war period, or in the instance of those who did not return, their family members. This approach, intentional or otherwise, provides a more accurate gender reflection of the population at the time. The narrative of mother, Eliza Amery, most resonated with me as both the most tragic story, and the one to be most likely to be lost in an Anzackery narrative.
Whilst some may label it intrusive, confronting or inappropriate, I was pleasantly surprised by the frank but tactful approach to these narratives including the mention of suicide. I also appreciated the graphic visuals throughout the exhibition including images of amputees and those with facial disfiguration. In my opinion, censoring stories and images of war and its impacts shows a grave injustice and disrespect to those who suffered. Museum CEO, David Greene and exhibition curator, Deborah Tout Smith appear to share my sentiment describing the exhibition as emotional, challenging, painful and confronting but offer no apologies for their approach.
My absolute favourite part of the exhibition is the suburban street audio visual interactive. Visitors can tap on a house in the street and see who enlisted from that address, an overview of their service and in some cases other close relatives, not living at that address, who also enlisted. As well as showing how many of the individual stories throughout the exhibition are intertwined, it demonstrates to visitors the intensity of enlistment and the war’s wide reaching impact on a small community which can then be applied to their street, suburb or town. This is somewhat like an idea I had a couple of years ago to place the extensive list on names on the honour roll at the Brunswick Town Hall onto a map. An idea that fell by the wayside due to its sheer intensity; both time consuming and emotionally draining.
My experience at Love and Sorrow was very much issues based, however, the exhibition is object rich with over 300 items on display in a rather small space. Each of the individual narratives include a number of items both from the museum’s collection and on loan. Many of these are unassuming and as a single item would bear little significance or emotional impact. Yet, when displayed together, and thoughtfully curated with additional narrative and modern audio visual contributions of descendants, each of the individual stories is captivating, holistic and informative.
If you don’t talk about the battles, aren’t you being and exclusionary as all of the people you are criticizing?
Naturally, the greatest understanding of a wartime experience comes from an intricate study of the topic. Indeed, there are more resources available than one could utilise in a lifetime of research. In reality, most people do not have a keen interest in military history, nor do curators and museums have an infinite amount of space, time and money to invest in educating the public on the topic. The average Australian learns much of their military history from brief units studied at school, a short museum visit or as interest sparks around Anzac Day each year. Whilst an understanding of the introduction of gas warfare or machine guns is required to discuss the wounds they inflict, it is preferable that snapshot learning emphaises the individual approach and the maimed, scarred and broken men and women of Love and Sorrow.
To put it into perspective, more than 60,000 Australians were killed in the First World War and 63 received a Victoria Cross. Whilst the story of Albert Jacka’s Victoria Cross at Gallipoli is a key part of the First World War his successes in the trenches were an exception rather than the norm. Furthermore, little else is known about Jacka, before, during and after the war, removing his human status. Jacka was not renowned for possessing the Anzac qualities with which he is associated today; his ability to work in a team environment was questionable. His invincible image is quashed once one reads the details of his time at Caulfield Military Hospital where he died a slow, painful and very public death as a result of his war wounds. Whilst successes should be acknowledged, it should not be at the expense of the whole story. The approach of Love and Sorrow is one I would like to see more over the next five years so that the average Australian’s perceptions of First World War, reflects the experience of a wider cross section of Australians and that everyone can be proud of their family member’s contribution to the war effort.
Melbourne Museum will host an Imperial War Museum exhibition focused more heavily on service, and sadly, Gallipoli. This will allow them to provides even greater context for their Love and Sorrow exhibition and I trust they will encourage visitors to experience both exhibitions as a complement to each other.