The tales that treasures can tell

What does a history of our World War I experience look like if we rely less on the surviving documents, and more in the objects that remain?

Portrait of Hermann Rolfes, c. 1914
Portrait of Hermann Rolfes, c. 1914. Credit: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

That’s the question asked in a new book, Holding on to Home: New Zealand Stories and Objects of the First World War, coauthored by Victoria historian Kate Hunter, an associate professor at the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations, and Kirstie Ross, a fellow historian and the curator of Modern New Zealand at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

The book features about 300 objects sourced from 28 collections held around New Zealand, including regional museums.

“One of my favourites is a collection of scarab beetles from Gallipoli,” says Kate. “Two clearly bored soldiers started gathering these beetles, packaging them up and sending them home. There are 20 in a tray at Te Papa. It’s so quirky, it’s fantastic.”A more poignant favourite of Kate’s is a jacket that had belonged to soldier William Phillipps.

“The uniform jacket had been in museum storage for 60 years. We opened one of the pockets and found a bloodied bandage. The other pocket was full of sand. William had worked at a hospital in Egypt. It was like one of those wormholes back in time—the most eerie experience I’ve ever had as a historian.”

Kate says by focusing on objects alongside documents, a very different history of the war emerges.

“The objects tell us about the importance of reminders or tokens during the war. The everyday, human stories behind these things remind us how close people stayed to each other during the war, despite the distance.

“Men went into camp with nothing except a pair of boots and a shaving kit, and the army provided everything else. But a friend might also give him a watch, a parent might give him a pocket bible—little things you could carry, which kept a man connected to his life at home.”

Kate says it wasn’t just the soldiers affected by the war—their families were also deeply wounded.

“Te Papa has a collection of soldier Hermann Rolfes’ things—when he was killed his mother received a calico bag with his army possessions, things like buttons and his pay book. But then there’s the items his mother had—she carried his photo in a tiny purse in her bag for the rest of her life. She’d also clipped his obituary from the newspaper, just a tiny square of newsprint. You put them all together and you get this tragic picture of a woman whose son was killed and how that must have broken her. It’s the not letting go that really got me.

“When we focus all the time on the men serving overseas it’s easy to forget they are members of families. What Kirstie and I wanted to do with this book was to reduce the separation between civilians and soldiers in traditional histories of the war.”

The book took Kate and Kirstie three years to write, and is the first part of Te Papa’s Conflict and Identity programme, which runs until 2019. It was supported by Te Papa Press, Friends of Te Papa and Victoria’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.