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Mike Yardley: Te Papa's enthralling Gallipoli exhibition

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Tuesday, 25 April 2017, 9:01a.m.
The giant figure of nurse Lottie Le Gallais, holding the letter marked "Killed – Return to Sender." (Supplied)
The giant figure of nurse Lottie Le Gallais, holding the letter marked "Killed – Return to Sender." (Supplied)

As we mark Anzac Day, Te Papa's ground-breaking exhibition continues to draw a constant flow of visitors, of all ages. More than 1.3 million visitors have now explored Te Papa's 'Gallipoli: The scale of our war', since it opened two years ago. And it's the kind of exhibition which warrants multiple visits to reflect on and admire the astonishing attention to detail and human touches.

If you're not familiar with the exhibition, 'Gallipoli: The scale of our war' tells the stories of seven ordinary New Zealanders and one Australian who found themselves in extraordinary circumstances during World War I. The centrepiece for each story is a monumental figure 2.4 times human size, artfully created by the wizards at Weta Workshop.

Queues into the exhibition have been a regular occurrence since it opened in April 2015. New Zealanders make up 58 per cent of attendees, while 9 per cent of visitors are returning for a second visit. The exhibition has particularly proven popular with millennials, with 37 per cent of visitors being aged between 15 and 34.

History curator Kirstie Ross says World War I exhibitions might traditionally appeal to older generations, so it's gratifying that hundreds of thousands of younger people taking the time to see 'Gallipoli: The scale of our war'.

"Feedback we get from younger visitors is that it has made the Gallipoli campaign and World War I more real to them. They can see glimpses of themselves, or their relatives or friends, in these figures and stories.

"We wanted to create an enduring exhibition that would commemorate the Anzacs and ensure their legacy and the memory of Gallipoli would live on."

Twenty-one-year-old visitor to 'Gallipoli: The scale of our war', Chloe, said she was overwhelmed by the exhibition.

"I'm still trying to comprehend what just went on in there. Everything became real; war's something not very tangible to the mind of a 21-year-old, so it just became real."

Kirstie Ross says the exhibition is also having an impact on older visitors. Those aged 65 and over make up 17 per cent of visitors to the exhibition.

"The older generation still bear the impact of this war with the surviving children of soldiers being particularly touched by the way the exhibition tells this story in a fresh way."

Billie Nicholls and Peggy Seton never asked their father about Gallipoli.

"We must have been selfish and silly," says Peggy, now 93. "I feel guilty about it, but we just never talked about the war."

But now with sister Billie (90) she has been able to learn a little more about her dad's wartime experiences, with a trip to the exhibition. Billie came from her home in Christchurch and Peggy from hers in Hastings to see the exhibition. Like many who come to Gallipoli, it was a family affair, with three generations sharing the experience together.

Frederick Ernest Walker fought at Gallipoli as part of the Auckland Mounted Rifles, returning to New Zealand a changed man. Suffering from shell shock, his health broke down. The family moved often as he struggled to support them on a war pension. For his three daughters, born after his return, the war cast a long shadow.

"Dad had nightmares his whole life," Billie recalls. "You'd hear him scream in the night, but we never knew why."

Visiting the exhibition was a moving experience for the two sisters, and a time to reflect on the impact that their father's war experiences had on their own lives.

"Dad was a very gentle guy," remembers Billie. "But I remember during World War II, I was complaining about there not being enough boys at the dances."

Those who hadn't experienced the horrors of war could be quick to judge those who had suffered through it. The sisters recall men in the neighbourhood who accused their father of "swinging the lead" – avoiding work on his war pension. Even today their anger is palpable as they recall the ignorance of those who judged their father unfairly.  

"No one knew the life he had," said Billie.

Billie and Peggy spent an hour and a half in the exhibition, learning about their father's experience on the peninsula – from the way the trenches were dug within earshot of the enemy, to the hardships of daily life with the heat, the food and the flies. The emotional impact really struck them when they saw the giant figure of nurse Lottie Le Gallais, holding the letter marked "Killed – Return to Sender".

And what would their father have made of the exhibition, and the interest shown in Gallipoli by the more than 1.25 million people who have seen it to date?

"I think he would be grateful that the story had been told," says Billie. "He bottled it up and maybe if he hadn't, he wouldn't have been such a broken man."

'Gallipoli: The scale of our war' is open daily from 10am till 6pm at Te Papa in Wellington. Entry is free and the exhibition continues through until 2019. Lest we forget.

Mike Yardley is our Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.

ON AIR: Andrew Dickens Afternoons

12p.m. - 4p.m.