Recent discussions on the needs of our post-pandemic society have rightly focused on "social cohesion".
How might we repair our frayed polity in the face of divisions over vaccines, mandates, and the uneven impact of the pandemic in our communities? These wounds have been inflicted quickly but will take generational work to heal.
An important public resource is offered in this year's Anzac Day, which provides a common frame of reference for collective belonging. But if April 25 is to be fruitful, we need a critical reflection on commemorative practices in our society – and how these might work in the future.
We have witnessed a remarkable boom and bust in Anzac Day in recent years. The 100th anniversary of the Anzac landing in 2015 was the largest commemoration in our nation's history. This crescendo of interest, however, was followed by a swift collapse in numbers visiting Gallipoli over 2018 and 2019 and buried by the first Covid lockdown in 2020.
A vestige of the centenary lingers in Te Papa's landmark Gallipoli exhibition, extended until 2025. Restricted services in 2022 are not the return to form many RSAs will have hoped for.
During the past few years I have researched and written about how our remembrance of the Anzacs at Gallipoli has changed over the last generation. I've explored archives to understand the actors and actions that have shaped this history and talked with New Zealanders about their own perspectives on April 25. This work is captured in my book, Anzac Nations, a kind of consumer's guide to Anzac Day in contemporary Aotearoa.
We know it is important to check the side of the box, to understand a product's origins, its ingredients, and how it affects us. In the same way, Anzac Nations unpacks the function of commemoration in our society.
What this history reveals is a public practice that has been remarkably adaptive, forged by consensus but also contest.
In the 1960s and 1970s, many New Zealanders expected Anzac Day to disappear with the death of the Gallipoli veterans. Instead, protest groups used Anzac as a platform to advance their own critiques of society – including what some saw as its overbearing emphasis on an imperial military commemoration. They imbued April 25 with new meaning and reinvented its audience at a time when older imperial stories of nationhood no longer made sense.
Today, we have a stronger sense of public ownership and participation on Anzac Day because of protest actions.
All of this points to how collective remembering is not inevitable but requires deliberate investment – the work of memory. Film, theatre, government policy, and new memorials have all played a vital role.
Certainly, Anzac Day's prominence in our national calendar has been enhanced by a false dichotomy between the day as one of national pride and unity, and Waitangi Day as an anniversary burdened with divisive politics.
In fact, both express important and diverse experiences of our past and how we make sense of it. Remembering the past is not about what happened in 1840 or 1915 so much as the needs of the present to make usable the past – and in doing, make survivable contemporary problems, and make possible the future.
If we want greater social cohesion, we need to draw on our cultural scripts, rituals, and languages which we hold in common.
Anzac Day is not without its issues – attempts by the Titahi Bay RSA in 2019 to include a Muslim prayer to honour the victims of March 15 were met with online backlash (including threats of violence). This reiterates the importance of getting out of our digital bubbles and into physical spaces, together. Local initiatives show the rich potential of collective action.
Recently, local communities have organised the restoration of war cemeteries, a physical practice of recovering the past that emphasises personal stories. Some RSAs have been quietly including those who died in the New Zealand Wars in local Fields of Remembrance – showing how commemoration can be given new dimensions.
Above all, Anzac Nations shows that, on both sides of the Tasman, there are deep needs for stories that allow us to imagine our public relationships, messy and confrontational as they might be.
Commemorative practices are important to revivifying our shared lives together in Aotearoa New Zealand. Recent interest in the New Zealand Wars, evident in the new history curriculum, and anniversaries of the Second World War will shape these.
We will mark the first public holiday of Matariki on June 24. The bicentenary of the signing of Te Tiriti in 2040 looms on the horizon.
These commemorations over the next generation will unleash a host of new questions about the meaning of our past, and with it, our present and future. Let us begin now this work of remembering.
• Dr Rowan Light is a Pākehā historian at the University of Auckland Waipapa Taumata Rau and a project curator at the Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira.