Associate Professor Katherine Smits

Among the central activities organized by New Zealand to commemorate the First World War is the exhibition at the national museum Te Papa, ‘Gallipoli:  the scale of our war’, which runs from 2015 to 2019.  It was created by the museum in association with Weta Workshop, the local film industry special effects production company which achieved international prominence in the industry with the Lord of the Rings trilogy – a series of films used extensively by the state to promote New Zealand tourism. Self-described as a ‘blockbuster,’ ‘Gallipoli’ features the inter-related stories of 8 ‘ordinary’ New Zealanders who served in the War, represented by giant, life-like figures and sets.  Despite its larger than life scale, the exhibition is designed to ‘immerse’ viewers in the experience of the War, to move them and to prompt reflection on its impact.  It has been a controversial and much-discussed commemorative production, and represents a trend very evident in New Zealand to address memorialization of war through interactive spectacles that utilize ‘cutting edge’ technology to provide sensory experiences to viewers.  In another instance, the Quinn’s Post trench experience, created by film maker Peter Jackson, on show as part of the Great War Exhibition, allows visitors to experience ‘the world of grit and hardship’ of New Zealand soldiers during the Gallipoli campaign.[i]  Both cases deploy the ‘technological sublime’[ii] to reinforce particular conceptions of national identity.

My project examines these technologically created sensory experience projects, assessing the ways in which they portray the War as a modern New Zealand experience.  My method will be observation and auto-ethnography; I will recount my own responses, but also the reactions of visitors to both ‘The Scale of Our War’ and the ‘Quinn’s Post Trench Experience.’  I will visit both on Armistice Day, as this is usually dominated by traditional commemorative ceremonies, which tell a conventional narrative in which the First World War is a key point of historical emergence of New Zealand national identity. I will also visit, on November 11, the national commemoration of the Armistice centenary.  I am interested in observing shades of difference in the narratives of national identity told in these very different commemorative cultural events, and in the difference responses of the viewing public.

[i] Quotations in this paragraph are taken from the official promotional material for these exhibitions.

[ii] David E. Nye, American Technological Sublime (Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 1994).