… by Francesca Beddie
What could be more apt after the four years of WWI commemoration than the question posed at Professional Historians New Zealand’s fifth conference in its twenty-five-year history — After the war: what’s next?
And the answer: well, yes, more war history but also more diversity in whose stories are told and by whom, and more place-based stories, and more use of the digital medium. Given the continuing dominance of conflict as a theme in history, this post concentrates on that strand of the conference.
The Ministry for Culture and Heritage’s senior historian educator, Steve Watters, gave the keynote address at the two-day conference in Wellington (14-15 April). In a polished performance – framed inevitably by the Christchurch massacre, being referred to in New Zealand as March 15 – he asked what message we send when we emphasise certain events and explain what war means by steeping it in gratitude for sacrifice rather than by asking challenging questions.
One response in New Zealand to the focus on WWI surprised me: in 2014 a visit to the sites of battles in New Zealand’s internal wars prompted some year 12 students to initiate a petition to parliament to officially acknowledge the New Zealand Wars in a national day of commemoration and to introduce study of these conflicts into the school curriculum. The petition gained momentum; it had more than 12,000 signatures by the time the Ōtorohanga College students presented it to Parliament in December 2015.
In August 2016, the government announced that a national day of commemoration would be established (although not as a statutory holiday). In the final year of the WWI centenary, on 11 March 2018 such a day was held in Kororāreka-Russell to remember the battles that took place there in 1845. Finding a fixed day on the calendar that suits the country as a whole will, however, be difficult because the different nations (iwi) within Maori society have different wars to remember.
The Ministry of Education voiced its opposition to introducing the New Zealand Wars as a mandatory part of the curriculum but the government has set aside funds to increase awareness among all Aotearoa New Zealand citizens about local history. As one of the advisors (Kaawhia Te Muraahi) on the use of those funds put it:
We want the country behind the concept of a national day that speaks to who we are – in this country, not in Gallipoli, not off-shore but who we are in this country – where we have come from and where we could possibly go to.
While it is ANZAC that, according to Watters, remains New Zealand’s de facto national day, he thinks history teachers realise the need to incorporate the internal wars into their teaching. Many, however, do not feel well equipped to do so, and are therefore keenly awaiting the outcomes of a project that will provide additional resources. Difficult Histories, The New Zealand Wars is tracing shifting historical perspectives of the nineteenth-century clashes involving Māori and the Crown and investigating how different groups have commemorated these conflicts over time and how memory and silence about this difficult past permeates people’s everyday lives in the present.
Other papers at the conference alerted us to the continuing gaps in war studies: the effect of war on women and others who remained at home, as workers or dissenters or, suddenly, enemy aliens. In one session, Jared Davidson drew on material from his recently published book, Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914-1920, to illustrate how war had affected the lives of people who did not go to the front.
Another presentation resonated with the recent book by Emma Dortins, The Lives of Stories: all this WWI commemoration will become part of the history of memory. Ewan Morris suggested there is more to investigate in the cross-overs between public and private memory; and between official and popular projections of the past.
Incorporated into the conference were three tours. On the walking tour of Mt Cook, we saw again the prominence of war commemoration. Outside the conference venue swayed a sculpture of Flanders poppies, produced by students at the neighbouring technical college for their 2015 project. Along the way we saw the remains of bunkers built in anticipation of Japanese invasion in WWII and then we arrived in the National Memorial park, newly created in 2015. The park incorporates the War Memorial Carillon (1932) and other monuments but also has a casual air. As the official website says:
it’s the perfect place to bring a picnic; an oasis of quiet reflection in the middle of our vibrant capital city of Wellington.
Fifteen minutes away is Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand, where people are still flocking to the Gallipoli exhibition. This is a display that pulls no punches about the horror of war. It tells its story through the eyes and words of eight New Zealanders, each captured frozen in a moment of time on a monumental scale – 2.4 times human size. The crowds have to navigate narrow passages, one a simulation of a trench in which hand-to-hand battle is disturbingly lifelike. As well as hearing the stories of the men and women, the effects of war are graphically displayed. A little boy ran in front of me eager to look at a grenade. He pushed a button to be confronted by an animation of the effects of that grenade on a human skeleton. His glee turned to silence.
The exhibition sets out to create empathy for the characters who carry its messages about war. It asks people to write their responses on poppies that are placed at the feet of the last great statue. Some convey the familiar gratitude for sacrifice; others the need to learn from the carnage:
‘A great reminder we do not want war.’
But also a reminder that historians have an ongoing role in exploring silences in the official record and bringing these into public view.
Image: one of the monumental figures at Te Papa’s Gallipoli exhibition (by the author)