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March 9, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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Exhibition -Welcome Sweet Peace

Sometime in the coming months, the Alexander Turnbull and National Library (opposite parliament) will close for a year and half of major renovations that will allow us to house the wealth of material in the style it deserves. But before that happens, the current building is having one last hurrah as it hosts ‘Welcome Sweet Peace: Returning home after the Great War,’ an exhibition detailing soldiers coming home from the First World War.

Entering the gallery, one is confronted first by material detailing the armistice of November 1918. To the left is a lounge area with comfy leather sofas and headphones on which you can listen to interviews from the World War One Oral History Archive. Walking through into the exhibition’s main chamber, you’ll find documents detailing the 1918 influenza pandemic and the 1919 vote over whether to introduce alcohol prohibition, which looked like it would succeed until overturned by the votes of returning soldiers. This part of the exhibition is illustrated by a wealth of cartoons, many from prohibitionist papers War Cry and Vanguard—one cartoon from War Cry shows wholesome ingredients (barley, oats, hops) put through “Satan’s Sieve” and emerging as evil spirits to drown the globe; this image is set against one from the soldiers’ paper Quick March, depicting a soldier telling a businessman that as he defended him from the Hun, it is now the businessman’s turn to defend the soldier from prohibition. Next to this material is a newsreel showing Dunedin’s peace celebrations in July 1919.
exhibition_welcome-sweet-peace

Tragedy

The exhibition’s really moving element comes from the material detailing soldiers’ experiences returning home—besides photographs from their journeys and village memorials are advertisements informing soldiers how they can now become farmers. These experiences were recorded by Nicholas Boyack and Jane Tolerton in the Oral History Archive and their subsequent book In The Shadow of War. As part of the exhibition, Boyack and Tolerton gave a talk detailing how badly this country treated its servicemen. After being heavily pressured into fighting (partly by campaigns telling girls to marry only soldiers), their harrowing experiences on the battlefield were ignored by countrymen who simply didn’t want to know, treated those with shell-shock (almost all returned servicemen) as insane, looked down on and attempted to prohibit their drinking, and advised girls not to marry soldiers for fear of VD. On top of all this, the few soldiers who managed to make their under-supported farms thrive often lost them once the depression set in.

Comedy

Yet the tragedy of our mistreatment of soldiers is set off by the final part of the exhibition: letters from Edward, Prince of Wales, to his mistress Freda Dudley Ward, about his 40-stops-in-29-days tour of New Zealand in 1920. Besides their appearance in the exhibition, the letters were narrated in a talk by the Turnbull’s Curator of Manuscripts David Colquhoun. Edward, although adored by the local press, privately despised us as a nation of ingratiating drunks and “ham-faced” women incapable of dancing. The Governor, Lord Liverpool, was “hopelessly pompous” and grossly fat; his wife incapable of conversation. All-in-all, the Prince remarked that it was “a rotten way to see a fine country… Returned soldiers and shrieking crowds and school children are all I shall remember.”

Tristan Egarr

The exhibition closes on 14 March (this Saturday!), and a guided tour will take place at midday this Thursday, 12 March. Meanwhile, the National Archives has a similar exhibition, ‘An Impressive Silence: Public Memory and Personal Experience of the Great War,’ which runs until May.

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Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

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