Sunday Herald: On a big scale

Sunday Herald: On a big scale

A life-size exhibit recalls the Gallipoli War.

On a recent trip to New Zealand, I happened to drop in at the Te Papa Museum in Wellington to watch the three-years-running mega crowd-puller, Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War Exhibition. I walked in curious but fairly sanguine. Over an hour later, I walked out blinking back tears, but not trying to hide the fact that I had just experienced the most moving show-and-tell of the World War I campaign launched by the Allies at Gallipoli in Turkey.

But first, a little history. The battle of Gallipoli took place between February 1915 and January 1916 on the peninsula of the same name, which forms the northern bank of the Dardanelles; this strait provided a sea route to the Russian empire, one of the Allied powers during the war. Russia’s allies, Britain and France, launched a full-blown land and water attack with the aim of capturing Constantinople/Istanbul. The attack was repelled, and after eight months of fierce battle and many casualties on both sides, the campaign was abandoned and the invasion force retreated.

This show is Gallipoli, seen through Kiwi eyes. A total of 2,779 New Zealanders died at Gallipoli, and many others returned as war veterans, scarred for life.

The mind-blowing exhibition has been created by none other than New Zealand’s own Sir Peter Jackson, the man who made the iconic The Lord of The Rings and Hobbit films, and his Weta Workshop, and curated expertly by the Te Papa. We virtually experience what happened during the rather ill-conceived eight-month Gallipoli campaign through the eyes and words of seven New Zealanders who found themselves in the front lines of the war.

Elicits emotions

This really is creativity at its zenith. Each of the protagonists stands, sits or has fallen to the ground, but on a monumental scale — 2.4 times the human size. The viewer’s emotions are proportionately magnified, staring up at these real replicas, if you’ll pardon the contradiction; you can see the sweat run down a soldier’s temple, tears furrowing down a nurse’s cheek, wounds on another man’s forearm, the veins on the side of a man’s neck, the anguish in every eye.

These giant sculptures were created using a staggering 24,000 hours, and even more man-hours were spent researching their rich personal stories. But the giant figures are not all. The exhibition is a trove of 3D maps and projections, miniatures, sand models, dioramas, and a range of interactive experiences, all of which hold the visitor in thrall. Every prop is on a magnificent scale: a massive 10-tonne tank, an 11-tonne gun, 5,000 tiny hand-painted figurines on a sand model which re-enact the battle of Chunuk Bair, and hundreds of black-and-white photographs that have been colourised, which make the men and the women fighting this battle all too real.

Close to two million visitors of all ages have visited this entry-free exhibition since it first opened in April 2015. Peter Jackson’s touch is felt all through; the sets are movie-like; there is a clear chronological record; there is a timeline at the visitor’s feet which effectively has them looking up at the tale unfolding before them, and then down to check the timeline.

Words of reflections

And, at the end of the labyrinth, the visitor comes to the stones from Gallipoli alongside which are red paper poppies on which they can write what they feel about this war and all other wars, and place it in running water. Then they wash their hands and emerge into the foyer, and all day long, the memories roil in their heads: memories of the nurse who lost her beloved brother; the colonel who insisted his soldiers clean up their barracks like it was some peacetime station; the soldier who, a short while ago, was punished for sleeping at his post, but who went in and fought like a tiger in the next confrontation with the Turks. And the grace displayed by the Turkish commander, none other than Mustafa Kemal, who said the brave Anzac soldiers who fell fighting would be remembered with respect.

There is a strong India connect, of course. If the Kiwis thought the Anzac soldiers were cannon fodder, well, so were the 16,000 Indians who were sent by their colonial masters to fight a battle far away from home. Australian Captain Frank Coen from the 18th Battalion writes in his diary:

“I am bursting with admiration for these dusky friends of ours. I have seen many instances of their devotion to duty, their self-sacrifice. God bless them. Their hearts are as big as the land they come from.”

The show winds up at Te Papa after three years and prepares to move on to other parts of the world. How wonderful would it be for us to host it in India? Lest we forget.