It must have got under my skin cos I had one of those drunken 'arguments with no-one but yourself' nights. You know the ones, where you wave a sassy finger in a friend's face and tell them not to 'interrupt' you while you force intoxicated ramblings down their throat.
I've been uncomfortable about Anzac Day for a long time. I think it runs in my blood. My family never went to Anzac services growing up and from recollection my grandfather (who fought in WWII) didn't have much to do with the RSA or Anzac Day. It's been a long time coming, but this year I felt a particularly palpable unease. Drunken outbursts aside, this piece is really to try to grapple with the roughly formed ideas in my head and try to understand why I have such an underlying mistrust of what our 'national day' has come to represent and my unease with what I will call 'exhibiting' Anzac Day.
Yes, this commemoration is a big one. It's a particularly big one in the museum world. It will be a big 4 years actually. And boy, did it kick off with a bang. Te Papa literally and proverbially puffed its chest as they unveiled their giant demigod soldiers as part of their much-anticipated co-lab with Weta Workshop. Giant mannequins watching voiceless as hoards of punters trudge through galleries to 'experience' Gallipoli. Peter Jackson paraded his wealth (and his slightly concerning obsession with war machines) through the streets of Wellington to his new vanity project, I mean the Great War Exhibition, at the newly opened Pukehou War Memorial Park. And all of this grander and puffed up nostalgia made me a very uncomfortable cultural sector pleb.
My issue with this day and how we commemorate it doesn't emerge from a dislike for remembrance or the fact that museums are attempting to grapple with this topic. It's that I can't help but feel it's all rather shallow both in how it's presented to us and how we consume it. A lot of my discomfort with this issue arises from the language used to encourage the public to engage with these exhibitions. For example – in the days leading up to the opening of Te Papa's Gallipoli exhibition my mother lodged a complaint with the Wellington City Council after taking offence at their Facebook post which excitedly encouraged punters to get to Te Papa to 'experience Gallipoli.' I find this an incomparably tactless, offensive and bizarre but perhaps we can chop it up to rather tactless and lazy marketing speak. In any case, the WCC very quickly acknowledged this and amended their plug. What was more interesting was the public response to her negative comment. To paraphrase one individual - 'chill out, it's not how we talk about it that matters.' And therein lies the problem. Actually, if we're gonna talk about history, how we TALK about history is everything. In terms of our (non-existent) national dialogue this is important but in museums,where history is being talked AT us, it is particularly important.
Presenting history for consumption is what museums do. And this history isn't a given. It is a selection. A process of elimination. Certain histories and perspectives are chosen and other others are omitted. And the language used to interpret that history in the wall text, the brochures, the advertising campaigns, is also carefully selected. If the general public think that how museums talk about history or how we as an audience consume that history isn't a big deal....well then to me that's a big deal. And for me its a particularly big deal when that language revolves around ideas of nationalism, nation-building and sacrifice. That's when language is at its most simplistic and divisive. It's the realm of hyperbole and the easy-listening sound-bite. It's when you can use the phrase 'WWI trench experience' and not get laughed out-of-town.
In this country we have a rhetoric that the events of Anzac Cove brought our nation into the modern world and helped make us who we are today. Undoubtedly there is some truth to this but it feels hollow to me. It feels like easy history. It's a day when we remember and mourn our fallen 'heroes' who fought for our future without actually having to explore what that future looks like. Because in the hoopla that Anzac Day has become we're not actually trying to uncover truths about our past or REALLY explore what makes us,us. We can gawp at Weta Workshop's mastery and wax lyrical about heroes and 'Anzac Spirit' (has anyone ever felt this? I'm not sure anyone actually knows what this means...). But it's a passing thing. A thing summed up perfectly in a picture a friend took of the discarded poppies strewn across Pukehou Park after the commemorations were over. We discard it and walk away. And next year we'll pick it up exactly where we left it with the same tired, outdated narrative that gets trotted out every year.
Having now experienced several Anzac Days under employment of one museum or another, it seems to me that most New Zealanders don't have a problem with this. It's so caught up in the mythology of New Zealand's origin story that it almost feels like our own version Manifest Destiny. The narrative is not only almost universally accepted but pretty much wholly unquestioned. But the language of this narrative matters and it can be dangerous. In a recent call to arms our Prime Minister used the 'Anzac Spirit' card to help smooth over his decision to send troops to Iraq. Sigh. The only use that calling on patriotism and the ghosts of a brotherly bond between nations actually has is to shut down counterarguments. We have such a collective attachment to this phrase and it's rather vague meaning that it's difficult to disagree. And it helps satisfy that slightly cringy desire for us to be known as a little nation that punches above its weight. We're up there, showing the world what we're made of.
But in my opinion if we were realllllly interested in grappling with history as it affects us now, then Waitangi Day commemorations would pull the crowds. Right? The signing of that document affects our country EVERY SINGLE DAY. It affects the land we stand on, the water we drink, the oceans and rivers we fish in. It affects how we understand race and identity and language. But for the most part Waitangi Day lives in the too hard basket. It's too confronting. It is marked by protest, tension and conflict without constructive debate. And if there's anything we New Zealanders like to avoid, it's conflict. Our own internal conflict at least. Comparatively, Anzac history is easy. It had goodies and baddies and happened thousands of kilometers away. When we consume that history it's as by-standers - as voyeurs to an event that's safely confined to its historic parameters.
But there are ways to deal with difficult histories. We all have skeletons in our closets, but perhaps none quite as ingrained in our collective consciousness as the holocaust. How on earth could a nation bear that burden? If how we talk about history really doesn't matter, then Germany sure missed out on that memo. Of course the German language, being the wonderful composite language that it is, has a word to address this very thing – Vergangenheitsbewältigung. This word describes processes of dealing with the past (Vergangenheit: past; Bewältigung: coming to terms with, mastering, wrestling into submission), which is perhaps best rendered in English as a "struggle to come to terms with the past". It is a key term in the study of post-1945 German literature and culture and a means through which that nation could exorcise the collective demons of their very recent past. And it shows us that having the language to talk and reflect constructively clears a path to cultural growth.
This is what I want for New Zealand. I would like us to not be so afraid of our own history. I would like us to think and engage and question and to attempt to understand that history isn't something to view in passing in a museum exhibit, but a living presence that we cart around with us everywhere we go. I know that we aren't good at accepting this. I'm reminded of that every Waitangi Day when we suddenly get very vocal about being 'one nation' and opinions about 'getting over' it (you know, that tiny thing regarding land and identity confiscation) get thrown around. Trying to ignore history in the hope that the ripples felt in it's consequence will go away is crazy. As much as we might want to, we can't draw a line under an historic event and say 'no more.' The past doesn't play by the rule that if you ignore it, it will go away.
It's not that I don't want Anzac Day to be commemorated or thought about. I just want an engagement with something deeper. Despite my dismay this year, I feel there is a growing contingent of Nu Zilders who feel the same way as me. Perhaps who always did but who are finally finding the motivation in that frustration to speak up. People are questioning the accepted narrative and how our history and it's place in a wider context is presented to us and how we consume it. Bryce Edwards coined the term 'peak poppy,' and the Wellington based Art Not War Collective held 'Disrupting the Narrative,' a week-long event 'incorporating an exhibition of contemporary art, historical material and public talks that seeks to reframe existing narratives about New Zealand's participation in the Fist World War and link it to contemporary issues.' This is the future I want for our museums. I want to be bold and un-accepting of the status-quo. I want to find new and creative ways to engage with our history. Otherwise, what's the point?