Interpreting the Great War Exhibition

Back in April, I was lucky enough to attend the NAI International Conference. It was held in Wellington, in partnership with our national interpretation organisation, INNZ. I learned a lot and met some great people – plus I got to spend some time in one my favourite cities.

While I was there, I visited the Great War Exhibition. It’s showing at the Pukeahu National War Memorial Park until November 2018. Created by Sir Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame, the exhibition – unsuprisingly – has a big impact visually. From cobble-style flooring to elaborate settings featuring real objects to detailed miniatures, there’s a lot to look at. (Note: apologies for the somewhat blurry photos in this post; they were taken on my phone.)

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Particularly affecting for me were the entrance panels to each different section of the exhibition. It’s chilling to look along the seemingly never-ending row of gravestones, and I found it an effective way of getting across the sheer scale of the loss of life during each year of the war.

Though I enjoyed my visit, there were a couple of things I wasn’t super fond of in terms of the panels and labels.

I love words, a lot, but even I struggled with the sheer volume of them used in this exhibition. I’m not sure how many words there are overall, and maybe the layout, design and fonts made it seem like there were more.

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Many of the panels and labels contained a massive amount of information presented in blocky paragraphs, with a number of different fonts used throughout the space. For me, this made it difficult to pick out the most interesting information and fully engage with the story. In my opinion, labels and panels like this would have benefited from a harsher edit to cut down on the word count and bring the most pertinent facts or stories to the fore.

According to Beverly Serrell, “exhibits—to attract and hold the interest of a broader audience—must have some appeal to novices as well as to the specialists.”

SERRELL, B. (2015). EXHIBIT LABELS: AN INTERPRETIVE APPROACH (2ND ED.). PG 58 LANHAM, MARYLAND: ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD.

Now, perhaps specialists were the targets of the printed interpretation in this exhibition. But, if the written content was intended to attract the widest possible audience, I feel some of the stories may be a bit lost in the wordier labels and panels.

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Probably my favourite labels in the exhibition were scattered throughout the different sections. Like the one pictured above, they focused on words and phrases people starting using during World War One, which have since entered the common vernacular. As a self-proclaimed word nerd, that appeals to me on many levels. But with my interp hat on, they were especially appealing because they were short, well laid out and not over-designed, and got their message across very effectively.

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Overall, I enjoyed my walk through the Great War Exhibition, and hope to visit it again before it closes.

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