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War – the line between rememberance and glorification

6 October 2018 2 comments

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Without doubt or argument, the World War 1 exhibitions at the former Dominion Museum and Te Papa museum were feats of outstanding  technical achievement. The abilities of creators Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop’s Richard Taylor are a stunning mix of  technology, artistry, and the manipulation of human emotion to tell a story.

The sophistication of their visual story-telling of one of our nation’s bloodiest moments in history is laid out for all to see. The duel exhibitions opened in April 2015 and will soon be coming to an end after a four year “run“.

In the first year alone, 402,896 visitors attended  Te Papa’s ‘Gallipoli: The scale of our war’ exhibition.

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When first revealed to the public, Peter Jackson made great effort to ensure that the dual exhibitions were not to be perceived as a “glorification of war”;

“It’s not an anti-war museum, it’s certainly not a glorifying war museum. It is just showing the reality.”

Te Papa’s CEO, Rick Ellis, repeated the official ‘line’ that it was not a glorification;

It did not glorify war or shy away from questions around war.

But the depictions of the 2.4 times human scale figures of soldiers in various poses – from tragic weariness to stoic determination – raises questions surrounding those assertions. One particular aspect of the Te Papa display is deeply troubling when it’s implications are carefully considered.

For example, the “machine gunner” figure set in the diorama with a machine gun is depicted with a square-jawed, heroic pose;

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Frank Macskasy Frankly Speaking blog - The Daily Blog fmacskasy.wordpress.com - thedailyblog.co.nz Te papa - world war 1 - world war one - WW1 - exhibition - Peter Jackson


Jacqueline Makkee of Weta Workship, works on the model of Gallipoli soldier Spencer Westmacott.

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They  bear an uncanny resemblance to the gallant, valiant, clean-cut, stylised quasi-propaganda,  shown in old ‘Commando‘ comics;

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But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Te Papa is an interactive feature which invites members of the public to treat the roll of the sniper as a ‘game’. A precursor depiction to the ‘game’ revealed how some viewed sniping, contemporaneously;

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To soldiers at the time, that may well have been a common attitude. If anything, the displays reinforces our notions of  war as a bloody kill-or-be-killed conflict. There was no time to consider the ‘niceties’ of polite society.

But the next feature of the sniping display cannot be justified or explained away so easily.

Citizens of early 21st Century society were invited to “Have a Shot”;

“Periscope rifles let you shoot without sticking your head above the trench.”

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The following three “bullet points” were iconised with images of actual bullet cartridges;

— Look through the periscope to your right.

— Press the button when you see movement – any sign of the enemy behind his sandbags.

— Miss him and he’ll shoot back.

The little red button glowed invitingly;

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And perhaps unfortunately, there was no end to a line of members of the public who seemed to hold no qualms in treating the killing of another human being as a ‘game’;

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The creators of the exhibition have taken the mock-killings of internet/electronic gaming and applied it to the legitimacy of a museum setting. Mock killing has become mainstream courtesy of our local museum.

Which would seem to make a sham of exhibition creative director and Weta Workshop co-founder, Richard Taylor’s noble-sounding words when the exhibition was first opened to the masses;

[We wanted to] give respect to memories on the scale that they deserve.

We hope when visitors leave this experience that they carry more wisdom so that the spirit and the sacrifices of these young men and women are never forgotten.”

Little wonder that there was criticism of the dual exhibitions, pointing out the subtle apparent-glorification of our ‘Great War’ dead. Writing for the World Socialist website, John Braddock and Tom Peters said;

As a junior partner of British imperialism, New Zealand’s ruling class joined WWI to expand its wealth and seize more Pacific island colonies. The invasion of German Samoa, which was New Zealand’s first action in WWI, is not mentioned in either of the Wellington exhibitions. In the course of the war, 18,500 New Zealanders died and 40,000 were injured, out of a population of about one million.

Both exhibitions are virtually silent on the widespread opposition to WWI internationally. The exception is a reference in the Great War Exhibition to opposition among the American working class, which delayed Washington’s entry into the war. The wall text then quotes US President Woodrow Wilson’s cynical declaration in April 1917 that “America would ‘make the world safe for democracy’ by joining ‘the war to end all wars.’”

There is no reference to the class struggles against conscription and war, including protests and mass strikes throughout the world. The upsurge prompted the 1916 founding of the NZ Labour Party by the trade unions, which aimed to divert the anti-war movement into safe parliamentary channels.

The Great War Exhibition makes no mention of the Russian Revolution. The overthrow of capitalism by the Russian working class, led by the Bolsheviks, inspired workers internationally and forced the warring powers to agree to an armistice to prevent the revolution from spreading. The display falsely presents the armistice as simply a military victory by the Allied powers.

They make a chilling observation;

The pro-war carnival taking place across Australia and New Zealand must be taken as a sharp warning. The contradictions of capitalism that caused WWI are once again intensifying. Successive New Zealand governments have strengthened the country’s alliance with US imperialism, which is stampeding from one bloody intervention to the next in the Middle East, while building up its military forces against Russia and China.

Messrs Braddock and  Peters point out that “there is cursory acknowledgement of the Ottoman death toll—which numbered 86,692, more than 30 times New Zealand’s 2,779“.

Mr Jackson’s comments – reported above – take on a new  ambivalence as to the meaning of the exhibitions;

“It’s not an anti-war museum, it’s certainly not a glorifying war museum. It is just showing the reality.”

Meanwhile, the exhibition makes a fleeting gesture to the magnanimity shown by the Ottoman/Turks toward an implacable foe invading their territory;

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“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… are now lying in the soil of a friendly country… and are in peace…

They have become our sons as well.” – Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, commander of the Turkish 19th Division at Gallipoli and founder of the Turkish Republic, 1934

No mention of a Turkish museum-game to kill ANZAC soldiers.

In a 2016 thesis by  Elizabeth Anne du Chateau Blackwell also pointed out;

Perhaps, when foot traffic counts, controversy is not welcome: war as a back-drop for noble action and attitude is likely more appealing to a wide audience than war as waste, war as hate, war as frustration and fear and anguish. Certainly, Gallipoli sets the ‘ordinariness’ of the national character against a view of war designed to arouse pride rather than highlighting its brutality and devastation or the changes it caused in Aotearoa-New Zealand.

The war is not a ninth character in Gallipoli, and it might have been. I called this section National pride and the glorification of war, but in fact, the exhibition does not glorify war so much as make it as ‘ordinary’ as the New Zealanders who fought there. It is not sanitised: it is simply accepted as taking place, and this is presents a disjoin for modern sensibilities. Setting aside the sentimental and cultural ties to Britain, a war in Europe, arguably, had little relevance to Aotearoa-New Zealand on the opposite side of the world, but it is in fact the sentimental and cultural ties that are elevated in Gallipoli.

Aotearoa-New Zealand, it seems, did a ‘right’ thing by sending troops and medical personnel to the war effort. Suffering is certainly presented, but it is objectified and put out for the wondering gaze of the visitors. Against the real stories of the eight real, but ‘ordinary’ New Zealanders, the exhibition offers no critique of the catalogue of escalating stupidity and unwise decisions made in relation to the campaign to take Gallipoli.

At a time when the current Labour-NZ First coalition government has voted to extend New Zealand’s military “mission” in Iraq,

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– such questions of doing the “‘right’ thing by sending troops and medical personnel to the war effort” becomes even more critical.

If the exhibitions at Te Papa and the former Dominion Museum have made people think twice about the use of war as a political tool, then it may have served a purpose. Of all the things governments have the power to do – and must always  be unrelentingly questioned –  is their policy to engage in war.

If, as Ms Blackwell suggested,  the exhibitions present war  as “ordinary” and “simply accepted as taking place”, then it has become a form of desensitising propaganda. This may never have been the intentions of messrs Jackson, Taylor, and Ellis – but inviting members of the public to take a shot at a faceless enemy through a ‘game’ suggests otherwise.

At the very least it was unhelpful.

It was certainly disrespectful.

 

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Note:

It will be interesting if the response from certain individuals associated with Te Papa will be as defensive and hostile as  they were in a previous museum-related story.

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References

Ministry of Culture and Heritage: Dominion Museuem

Fairfax media: Jackson’s Great War Exhibition unveiled in Wellington

NZ Herald: Gallipoli exhibition shows soldiers frozen in time

Fairfax media: Te Papa brings epic scale of World War I to life

Te Papa: Te Papa celebrates a record-breaking year

Fairfax: Sir Peter Jackson shows off his Great War Exhibition in Wellington

World Socialist Web Site: New Zealand’s WWI exhibitions falsify history and glorify war for a new generation

AUT: Gallipoli as Edutainment? Constructing national identity in a “new” museum

Newsroom: NZ’s ‘mission creep’ in Iraq creeps on

Other Blogs

World Socialist Web Site: New Zealand’s WWI exhibitions falsify history and glorify war for a new generation

Previous related blogposts

Peter Jackson’s “Precious”

The gentrification of Te Papa

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This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 1 October 2018.

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The gentrification of Te Papa

28 June 2013 4 comments

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Te Papa logo

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Te Papa – Our Place?

What does $17.50 buy at  a supermarket? Or $10.50?

For a low-income family who are struggling to pay rent ($300 – $400  p/w);  power ($30 – $50 p/w);  medicine ($5 per prescription); insurance; school fees; car rego and fuel; debts; etc,  $17.50 or $10.50 can mean the difference between food in the pantry or fridge – or running out of bread, milk, potatoes, eggs, cheese, before the next pay-day or State social security payment.

If you’re earning $1,100 a week (gross), $17.50 or $10.50, you have discretionary income for to buy tickets to a Te Papa exhibition.

If you’re on minimum wage ($13.75/hr) and earning $550 a week (gross), buying tickets to a Te Papa exhibition is the last thing on your mind.

Since 1984, the concept of User Pays has been firmly embedded in our society. It was part of neo-liberal “reforms” where, in exchange for six tax cuts since 1986, individuals were expected to pay for services that, previously, had been free (collectively paid for by everyone).

The most well-known example of this is tertiary education. Once upon a time, it was free. Post 1992, student fees were introduced, along with student loans, and a measure of  User Pays resulted. (See previous blogpost:  Greed is good?)

The rationale for the implementing a new User Pays regime was that higher education was a “private good”. However, as more and more highly trained/skilled professionals leave New Zealand, that notion of “private good” seems to be questioned more and more.

If the loss of thousands of professionals and tradespeople migrating to Australia weakens our economy, this becomes a socio-economic loss for us. For Australia, it becomes a socio-economic good. This part of the equation seems to have escaped the attent of “free” market neo-liberals.

We lose out when we assign an arbitrary monetary value to something that benefits society as a whole – as well as it’s individuals – and some or many are excluded, solely on the basis  of inability to pay.

Because in the final analysis, that is what User Pays is; if you can’t pay, you can’t use it.

This was highlighted (again) to our household recently when we considered attending an exhibition that Te Papa is currently holding,

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te papa andy warhol exhibition

Source: Te Papa – Warhol Immortal

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The description of the Exhibition was intriguing and it seemed to offer an interesting way to spend a few hours on a Saturday afternoon.

Then we saw the price of admission,

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te papa andy warhol exhibition admission prices 9.6.2013

Source: IBID

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$17.50 admission price!?

No thanks.

One of us in our household, with a strong interest in art, will still visit the exhibition. For the rest of us, for whom it would only have been a mildly entertaining/interesting event, we would rather spend that money elsewhere.

However, the thought occurred to me; how many low-income families, or individuals, would not have the same choice whether to attend or not, as we did?

How many people would see $17.50 as the difference between food for the mind or food for their bellies? For a low income family of four, the Family “Concession” of $46.50 could buy food for a several days, or make a payment on their power bill to stave off disconnection for a while longer.

I put this to Te Papa in a recent email,

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From:               Frank Macskasy <fmacskasy@gmail.com>
To:                   bridgetm@tepapa.govt.nz
Date:                9/06/2013 at 12:51 p.m.
Subject:           Exhibitions

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I am aware  that it has long been Te Papa policy to charge for various exhibitions.

For example, you current exhibition on Andy Warhol has the following charges for entry;

Adult – $17.50
Child (5–15 years) – $10.50
Child (under 5 years) – Free
Family (2 adults + up to 3 children) – $46.50 Concession – $15.50 Friend of Te Papa (adult) – $11.50 * Friend of Te Papa (child) – $6 *

10+ adults (per person) – $11.50
School group (self-guided, per person) – $8 Audio guide – $5

I would submit to you that the amounts listed above are beyond the ability of many low income families to pay, and therefore this policy excludes a sizeable sector of the community.

Whilst I understand that many of these exhibitions incur a cost, that your current charging regime means that many miss out.

I would remind you that Te Papa is a public facility which has been paid for by tax/ratepayers.

I would like to suggest that Te Papa reconsider their admission fees policy, with a view to making it more inclusive for those on low/fixed incomes.

My suggestion is that Te Papa make the last two days of an exhibition,

1. Free entry for Community Services Card holders

or,

2. Entry upon a coin donation for Community Services Card holders

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3. Free entry for all schoolchildren from low-decile schools.

The current system, I submit is totally unfair and maintains a two-tier class structure  where some are deemed second class citizens simply by their inability to pay an entrance fee.

This is especially unfair on children of low income families who miss out on cultural and history aspects of our nation.

Enjoying our culture and history should not be predicated on ability to pay.

– Frank Macskasy

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To their credit, Te Papa responded promptly,

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From: ridget MacDonald <BridgetM@tepapa.govt.nz>
To: Frank Macskasy <fmacskasy@gmail.com>
Date: Mon, Jun 10, 2013 at 4:15 PM

   

Kia ora Frank

Thank you for your email comments and concerns regarding Te Papa’s exhibition pricing. I will pass your comments on to relevant staff for consideration for upcoming exhibitions.

We are very conscious of the need to make our exhibitions as accessible to a wide range of people.

You may not be aware that for every charge-for exhibition we also have the Wellington Free Day in partnership with the Wellington City Council.  This means that upon proof of local residence, for example a library card, rates invoice or utility bill with a local address, all Wellingtonians can attend the exhibition free of charge on that day.  This has been very popular for past exhibitions and we have been delighted to have a large number of families attend.

The Wellington Free Day is held on a Thursday, open late till 9pm, and advertised by us and also the Wellington City Council online and in The Dominion Post. The date for the Wellington Free Day has not yet been announced for Warhol: Immortal.

Our free events programme complements our exhibition programme and offers our visitors opportunities for insight into related subject matter through films, performances, floortalks, workshops, children’s Discovery Centre activities and much more. We have also included a selection of works from the exhibition on our new website http://www.arts.tepapa.govt.nz/on-the-wall/warhol-immortal. This site and activities such as our blogs support our programmes and offer behind the scenes information and glimpses into collections and exhibitions.

Thank you for your interest in our exhibitions at Te Papa.

Ngā mihi

Bridget

Bridget M [full surname redacted]

Senior Corporate Affairs Adviser

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa | 55 Cable Street, PO Box 467, Wellington, New Zealand
[other contact details redacted]

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I wrote back to Bridget,

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Kia Ora, Bridget,

Thank you for your prompt reply.

The Wellington Free Day is a good start. As Te Papa is New Zealand’s National museum, it would be even better if all low income families could somehow benefit from a special day or on-going discount upon presentation of a Community Services card.

This would encourage out-of-towners to participate, as well as Wellingtonians.

The Wellington Free Day is a step in the right direction.

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As I pointed out, Te Papa is New Zealand’s national museum. As such, the benefits of exhibitions  should be made accessible to as many people as possible.

Whilst the “Wellington Free Day” is a good start – for which I applaud Te Papa – one has to ask; why Wellington only? Shouldn’t we have a “National Free Day”* where as many New Zealanders as possible can have the opportunity to visit their own museum?

As I pointed out in my 9 June email, the last two days of an exhibition could be easily made free-entry for all Community Card-holders (and their immediate family).

Otherwise, Te Papa’s admission policy will continue to be discriminatory,  excluding those New Zealanders for whom User Pays is a barrier to enjoying part of our culture that the rest of us take for granted. In effect, this creates a two-tiered society, with those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder missing out. (Though some might argue – with justification – that free access based on presentation of a Community Services card, also constitutes a form of discrimination. The Lesser of Two Evils Factor might apply here.)

Not only is this a dangerous thing, to discriminate and  alienate a group of people from society; but it is also morally wrong. This is another indication that our society is fracturing, splitting  along a socio-economic rift.

The fact that this is happening, and New Zealanders think this is ok, is a sad reflection of the times we live in.

This is the neo-liberal paradigm. We are living it now.

Te Papa – Not everyone’s  place?

Addendum

A link to this blogpost will be emailed to Te Papa.

This blogger wishes to thank Bridget for her timely and candid responses to my emails.

* Postscript

I don’t mean a day free of  the National-led government. Though that is a tempting thought. Post 2014 will be a National-free government.

This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 15 June 2013.

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