Southland’s War: The Western Front is a multi-sensory and immersive exhibition that explores Southland’s role during the First World War. Following on from the massively popular Gallipoli Experience, The Western Front features new themes, new stories, new artefacts, and new technology.
Visitors begin their journey by exploring a photographic display of Southland soldiers and their loved ones. While the soldiers departed overseas, their friends and families left behind played an important part in supporting the war effort, and then caring for the often physically and mentally damaged men when (or if) they returned home. Short biographies that accompany the photographs portray some poignant family histories of love and loss.
Entering the exhibition proper, visitors can learn about changing practices in recruitment. As the war dragged on and volunteers became fewer, the New Zealand government introduced conscription. In two years nearly 20,000 New Zealand men were chosen at random and sent overseas to fight. This display also explores the controversy of conscientious objection, a group of men that refused to enlist for political or religious reasons.
Visitors then journey towards the Gallipoli diorama to learn about the Anzac legacy. Highlights here include an interactive map, a 3D flyover, and uniform and equipment display that showcases Anzac adaptation and innovation.
Moving along, the exhibition begins to delve into the horrors on the Western Front. This area features a variety of displays on gas warfare, changes in military equipment, faith and superstition, and a dark and gritty trench experience that highlights some of the museum’s diverse war collections. At the end of the trench experience there is a chance to explore a virtual trench using Oculus Rift 3D technology (bookings essential).
Coming away from the trenches the visitors can learn about the important role of women serving as nurses and VAD (Volunteer Aid Detachment) workers. This was a hard and occasionally dangerous role, but one that garnered the utmost respect from soldiers and male medical staff.
The next display looks at Armistice Day and how returned service men and women adjusted to civilian life again. Visitors can learn about the celebrations and listen to a patriotic song written by a Southlander more than 100 years ago.
Heading back out into the gallery there is a chance to find out more about two of Southland’s best known soldiers, Richard Travis and James Douglas Stark. Both men were incredibly brave in combat: Travis was awarded a Victoria Cross, and Stark was reputedly recommended for one too, but instead found himself in a military prison.
At the final part of the display the museum invites visitors to remember an Anzac, ancestor, or family affected by the war by writing a message and posting it on a board with a handmade paper poppy.
Southland’s War: The Western Front opens on Anzac Day 2017 and will be on display until November 2018.