A century after World War One, the Melbourne Museum brings the stories back to the statistics
When you think of Australians in World War One, what comes to mind? A soldier shivering in a trench; a harried nurse steeling herself over a screaming patient; a pregnant wife writing letters to her husband? Or ¬– as wartime Australia grows ever more distant – can you only just make out a sea of statistics?
Making sense of World War One a century on was the challenge faced by Museum Victoria. It was Deborah Tout-Smith, Senior Curator of the Home and Community collection who decided to commemorate the centenary by focusing on personal stories, with particular interest on veterans, their families and the long-term impact of war. The result is World War I: Love & Sorrow: a microscope, rather than a wide crowd shot.
“Thinking from that perspective, we started to see a really rich and nuanced story,” explains Tout-Smith. Her team started reaching out to families who had donated objects to the museum, or to people they had traced through historical sources. “To find a history so long ago that feels so close and immediate to families now has just astonished me,” she admits. “We’ve all been in tears at various stages for this exhibition. People have shared really difficult stories about injury and suicide. There’s a real sense that it’s time the story was told.”
Which stories, exactly? Tout-Smith narrowed the exhibition down to eight individuals, although she admits she wishes she could’ve kept 20. In a thoroughly modern take on the exhibition format, visitors will be asked to choose one person, and virtually live that person’s war experience through diaries, letters, photographs and objects – not knowing the fate that awaits them. Among them are soldiers: a butcher, two Aboriginal brothers and two German-Jewish soldiers, as well as a woman waiting for her husband to return and a nurse on the front line. A cutting-edge mobile app – designed by the same team who created MONA’s famous ‘O’ virtual tour – will provide a running commentary tailored to each experience. World-first locator beacon technology will beam up extra information at various points of the passage.
Mind-bogglingly advanced as the technology is, the emotional core of the exhibition lies in the most unassuming objects. A bright red armband emblazoned with a gold ‘R’ (for Runner) represents the story of John: a teenager from Central Australia. Buried several times under dirt from enemy gunfire, John succumbed to shellshock, which left him completely catatonic. When he returned via ship, his family was left to contend with a new horror of which they had no understanding.
A brittle hand-written letter, opening with “my darling boy”, immediately draws visitors deep into the anxiety of Eliza Amery, waiting for her beloved soldier son Alex to return. “She writes, ‘I’d be terribly worried except I’m sure that God will be with you,” explains Tout-Smith. “You can’t imagine when she gets the news that he’s gone missing how she would feel about God’s role in his fate.” When Alex was pronounced dead, Eliza suffered multiple nervous breakdowns. Decades on, some of his siblings and descendants still held onto the idea that perhaps Alex was wandering around in Europe somewhere with amnesia.
Other objects reveal the profound incoherence and desperation that reigned on the home front during wartime. One widow received a parcel containing the goods of Albert Kemp – except that they weren’t his. Tragically, the mistake wasn’t that Albert was alive – it was that another Albert Kemp had been killed at the same time. The widows had been sent the wrong parcels.
When the exhibition opens, Tout-Smith is fascinated to see which stories visitors choose to follow. Whether it’s a middle-aged woman or a young man, chances are you’ll have the opportunity to follow someone who could have lived a few kilometres from where you do now, in surprisingly similar circumstances. The choice is yours.
Image: Museum Victoria, courtesy of Jilba Geogoulis