In the 1930s, WWI veteran Wiremu Paora travelled from Cape Reinga to Gisborne collecting the names of those who served with the Maori Contingent and Pioneer Battalion to ensure they would be inscribed on the Shrine of Remembrance Roll of Honour in Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Some 84 years later, Paora's great-nephew Bernard Makoare, an artist and master carver, has helped create the museum's newest war memorial gallery, Pou Kanohi New Zealand at War.

It is NZ's first dedicated war memorial space designed specifically to tell young people about the country's experiences of WWI and used interactive technologies the likes of which the museum hasn't seen before. Starting with its 1914 outbreak, pivotal events of the conflict are illustrated up to the weeks immediately after November 1918's Armistice Day.

Makoare is one of several artists creating art for Pou Kanohi so our war stories can be told in fresh ways for a new generation. Young adult fiction illustrator Andrew Burdan contributed graphic drawings to bring the events of WWI to life through a multi-media timeline.

Advertisement

As well as the timeline and specific objects, an aerial reconnaissance table allows visitors to undertake a mission piloting planes above the trenches; a virtual reality head-set lets wearers get up close to a 3D rendered artillery gun with planes flying above. Students and visitors can also be issued with "collectible content cards" which allow them to read letters and diary entries and look at photographs in greater depth online once they've back at school or home.

Letters from the front line allow greater reflection on the motivations, hopes and fears of people as the country prepared for war, how they felt about the daily realities of fighting and, as the conflict become ever more bloody, how that might have changed.

Makoare is carving the Pou-ihi Te Whatu-a-mahara, a stylised weaving peg made from wood which symbolises how Maori communities, devastated by war, wove their way back together following WWI and the subsequent Spanish flu outbreak. Maori, in particular, suffered heavily because of the virus with at least 2160 deaths in just a couple of months.

"Art allows these stories to be woven together and when you start thinking about the devastation of war and disease, weaving communities back together again becomes potent symbolism for what was required," he says.

Artist and Exhibition Developer Maureen Lander with her work in a new gallery to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Passchendaele. Photo / Nick Reed
Artist and Exhibition Developer Maureen Lander with her work in a new gallery to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Passchendaele. Photo / Nick Reed

Artist Dr Maureen Lander drew inspiration from a small item in the museum's collection to craft Po Atarau - Now is the Hour, a contingent of crosses made from sterling silver and harakeke (NZ flax) harvested from Whirinaki and her Omapere garden in Hokianga.

Maori war parties were customarily sent off with blessings and spiritual protection. Po Atarau, which became the song Now is the Hour, was a favoured waiata. An early photograph - a group of Maori sending off soldiers with songs - inspired Lander as did a fragment of fern leaf in the museum's collection that came from a mourning wreath worn on that occasion.

Those poignant taonga prompted her to think about the rituals Maori undertook while preparing for battle. She thought specifically about her maternal grandmother's cousin, Harding Waipuke Leaf from Whirinaki, who served in WWI and II, and what he would have felt and done as he readied himself to leave Aotearoa.

Lander bound 35 silver crosses with harakeke to form God's eye patterns (kara atua) also known as fly swat (papakingaro), symbolising the idea of being watched over and protected. She used photography and reflective surfaces to create the allusion of water and horizon (paepae) and to multiply the crosses to 70 to represent Te-Hokowhitu-a-Tu (Maori war party).

"When people look in, I want them to see their own reflection and get the idea of looking back in history and forward to the future and see themselves as part of both," she says.

As well as visual artists Makoare, Lander, Rangi Kipa and Beronia Scott, young poets were asked to contribute to Pou Kanohi. They include Vanessa Crofskey, winner of the 2015 and 2016 University of Auckland Poetry Slam Championships.

Returned troops prepare for the peace parade in Auckland's Quay St in 1919.
Returned troops prepare for the peace parade in Auckland's Quay St in 1919.

Crofskey and five fellow poets were asked to contribute words about specific locations around Auckland which related WWI to the region itself because war didn't just take place on distant battlefields but had a real impact of those at home.

"I learned so much that I hadn't known previously and it gave us, as young people, the opportunity to think about and comment on this, to acknowledge our views and allow us to share them."

She says the material provoked strong emotions and it was a challenge to connect these with their own often anti-war sentiments and to reimagine the conflict from different points of view but not to talk over what was experienced back then.

"This offers a place where youth are allowed to form opinions and views about the war," she says. "A lot of time we talk about the dead but there were the living for whom life was never the same again, always dealing with the effects of war that were like ripples on a pond.

"We talked about the fact that war is not glorious or something to be glorified; we even considered issues about commemorating it at all but thought we need to honour those who passed and the families who were left behind - the next generation - but question the system and who those who passed had to die at all."

Pou Kanohi opens on Wednesday evening, a day before the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium, where 846 young New Zealanders were killed in battle in just a few short hours. It was the highest one-day death toll suffered by our forces overseas and grew as, during the next few days, the total number of casualties - wounded, dead and missing - rose to a staggering 2740 men.

Pou Kanohi is the second gallery to be redeveloped at Auckland War Memorial Museum as part of an ongoing programme to renew the building's heritage features and revitalise a third of its gallery spaces. Last year, Pou Maumahara Memorial Discovery Centre opened offering specialist research facilities.