Am I the only traveller across geographical and cultural borders (I'm talking about going to Wellington), who has found some aspects of Te Papa's Gallipoli exhibition distasteful? I'm not thinking of the inevitable interactive features, which have kids rushing around pressing buttons, then rushing straight on if lights don't flash instantly - though I have to say the Shoot-A-Turk-With-Our-Periscope-Rifle challenges the boundaries of taste.

I'm not too worried by the funereal music thumping through the first sections so it's difficult to reflect in quiet. Nor am I upset by the stagey lighting, Mines of Moria subterranean settings, and inflated tableaux. This is partly Weta Workshop's, after all, a point reinforced by the display of movie weapons as you enter Te Papa. But it does mean there's a stage-set quality about the sandbags, stacks of boxes, strewn cartridge cases, that remove you from reality as much as you are confronted by it.

I'm ambivalent about the colossal figures clutching pistols, machine-guns, etc. They're arresting, and I acknowledge they need to be big enough for people to see. But I was intrigued that the comments from the passing public: "They've even got the hair on his knuckles ... hobnails on his boots ... hole the bullet made" focus on technological skill rather than on emotional impact.

The figures are also, dare I say, uncomfortably like the grandiose Nazi or Soviet statuary of the 1930s and 1950s. Their very size seems to imply that war is inherently heroic and sublime. Voice after voice was calling them "life-like". True: they resemble life, but don't quite make it. Again like Lord of the Rings characters, they're epic, superhuman, slightly grotesque.


The inventiveness and meticulous detail of Gallipoli is remarkable: flies swarm over a piece of bread; sweat forms on a soldier's nose; a gargantuan louse crouches in a drawer. Yet, to me anyway, the painstaking attempts to evoke reality don't succeed. Instead, they sanitise and distance.

The individual stories are compelling, if inevitably sketchy. The contemporary slogans, now almost comically jingoistic, are rendered with restraint and objectivity.

But I reckon Auckland Museum's Scars on the Heart exhibition does it better.

What do I feel is lacking in Te Papa's Gallipoli? Silence. Human scale. People are mostly shown either as toy figures in the splendid dioramas or as those overblown, gargantuan sculptures.

Scars on the Heart is more understated, but more effective.

The other quality I feel our national museum's exhibition lacks is true balance. The text takes pains to record the courage and skill of the Turks, the Anzacs' respect for their enemy, the acts of savagery committed by the Allies.

There's an eyewitness account of NZ soldiers bayoneting wounded Turks that is perhaps the most shocking, and shockingly revealing, part of the entire display.

As a reminder of how war dehumanises, and a step towards preventing such inhumanity from blotting our history again, I wonder if Te Papa ever considered showing that episode in one of their huge, heroic tableaux. I guess we still prefer to commemorate our past in less unsettling images.


David Hill is a Taranaki writer.