Does NZ really need a war museum?

21:10, Jun 09 2014

The suggestion that the Government might buy back the Dominion Museum building to house a war and conflict museum (Dominion Post, June 4) raises the same question asked in the immediate aftermath of World War I: does New Zealand need a war museum?

Putting aside for the moment that New Zealand now has army, navy and air force museums, it is useful to look at why the proposal almost a century ago got little traction. In the aftermath of the Great War, two feelings worked against the proposal for a national war museum: one was a general unease that such a destructive war might be commemorated in a museum. Museums were temples of human progress and culture; they had emerged from enlightenment principles of reason and celebrated societies' highest truths and noblest values.

After nearly five years of unprecedented global catastrophe, few felt World War I represented a great leap forward in any of those realms. London's Imperial War Museum almost foundered on exactly this qualm. Founded in 1917 to house Great War records, it survived mainly because it combined a memorial function with a repository of archives.

The second feeling that discouraged the establishment of a New Zealand war museum was sentiment. Ultimately, families and communities were reluctant to relinquish their treasures - souvenirs sent from far-away lands or gathered from the battlefield, trench artefacts, photographs, letters, personal effects - especially when those possessions were all that had been returned to families. It is telling that the enormously rich collections of soldiers' personal papers, snapshots and ephemera in our archives and libraries were largely acquired from the 1960s onwards. Until then, libraries and museums were not much interested in collecting the personal experiences of those who had been to war, and families and veterans even less interested in giving away their relics.

The opportunity to establish a museum of military equipment was never more ripe than when the government took delivery of New Zealand's share of the 100,000 captured weapons, distributed throughout the Empire by the War Trophies Committee in 1921.

But instead, these too were dispersed far and wide to communities that requested them as instant war memorials while funds were raised for more permanent obelisks and statues.


This process revealed that locals saw their war efforts as community affairs: one MP argued for his electorate's right to a trophy gun as his constituents had "done their best for the men", specifically mentioning farewells, parcels for men at the front and caring for soldiers' dependants.

Mayors also argued that most New Zealanders would never see the trophies of war if they were held only in the larger cities or in a museum. Even when the museum and memorial functions did overlap, as with the Auckland War Memorial Museum, there was controversy. This was not a war museum; rather the Auckland museum proposed that its new building be a memorial, but during planning, veterans often criticised what they saw as too much museum and not enough memorial.

Many also felt strongly that until veterans and their families were adequately provided for, fundraising for memorials and museums was premature.

As the president of the Soldiers' Mothers' League wrote to the Auckland Star in 1919, no memorials or museums were needed when the ravaged bodies and memories of returned men served as a daily reminder of all that the community had suffered and all that men would forget if they could.

For a century, communities throughout New Zealand have been the stewards of World War I memories and objects.

A colleague and I have just completed a book on the objects and stories of the Great War. We drew on objects from 28 museums, libraries and archives in New Zealand, and that was by no means exhaustive.

New Zealand's war treasures are, I suggest, already where they should be: in the communities that struggled with decisions about enlisting, raised funds, sewed sheets for hospital beds and cared for the maimed and bereaved in the aftermath of the Great War.

Kate Hunter is an associate professor at Victoria University and head of the history programme. She is an honorary research associate of Te Papa.

The Dominion Post