A reflection on historical silences

'Any historical narrative is a bundle of silences'

Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Michel-Rolph Trouillot reminds us that silences are inevitable in any historical narrative. There is no grand master account that can capture the complex and nuanced nature of the past. This is widely accepted by historians, and as educators it’s important we continually remind ourselves and our students about the partial and biased nature of historical narratives.

Working at the Pukeahu National War Memorial, I am keenly aware of the layers of history not represented in the Park. There are no monuments to those who, stirred by their conscience, objected to war and were imprisoned (or worse). No plaque tells visitors that this whenua has seen waves of Iwi migration, and that the land in front of Pukeahu – Te Aro – once boasted a thriving mahinga kai named Huriwhenua. Not many people are aware that tunnels burrow their way underneath Pukeahu, designed as a subterranean refuge in times of war. They are, like much history (and most of Wellington’s culverted awa), hidden from view. While Pukeahu has a monument to Turkey, not many visitors will be aware that the authenticity of its inscription – Ataturk’s placation that the New Zealanders and Australians killed at Gallipoli now rest in the ‘bosom’ and ‘soil of a friendly nation’ – is disputed; some argue these words were fabricated in order to cultivate a new Turkish identity as well as to offer solace to Australasians impacted by such horrendous loss of life. So much history, so many silences.

Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War

Many students who visit Pukeahu also visit Te Papa’s exhibition Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War. Promoted as a ‘ground-breaking exhibition’, since opening in 2015, The Scale of Our War has had more than 2.5 million visitors, making it the most visited exhibition in Aotearoa New Zealand’s history. It is so popular that its tenure has been extended and it will not shut before 2025. After becoming the educator for Manatū Taonga, I felt I should go and see what all the hype was about.

The first thing you confront when you enter The Scale of Our War is a larger than life soldier pointing a pistol, blood dripping through his fingers, a silent painful scream coming from his wide-open mouth. According to Te Papa, 22% of visitors are under 25 years old. The day I visited there was a steady stream of children who I guessed were between 5 and 8. I wondered what they made of it, how they felt in the face of this carefully curated display that is intended to play on our emotions.

Spencer Westmacott

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Model of Lieutenant Spencer Westmacott, Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War exhibition.

Museum exhibitions are deliberately constructed to communicate narratives. With Trouillot’s notion of silences in my head, I was interested to know how Gallipoli was going to be remembered and what was going to be forgotten. What would be included, and what would be omitted, diminished or amplified? One literal amplification is the physical bodies of the soldiers. They are larger than life (2.4 times larger, to be precise). In combination with primary source accounts from soldiers’ diaries and letters home, this scale magnifies their voice. This emphasis, however, results in other important aspects of the war being left out. For instance (and oddly), there is no examination of what caused New Zealanders to be killing and dying halfway around the world. Peter Jackson said the exhibition is ‘just showing reality.’ But as John Armstrong succinctly puts it:

Critical issues such as the conditions and events that led to war or the broader strategic relevance of Gallipoli are addressed very briefly … Illustrating the horror of the experience of war is not enough and … ‘presenting the soldiers’ experiences and letting visitors come to their own conclusions’ is certainly not enough. What is needed is clear, properly contextualised information about the past that will enable us to identify conditions and events in our own time that are analogous to those that cast us and the rest of the world into war a century ago, and to speak against them. In other words, we need history [emphasis added].

At the time of its opening, Te Papa’s Chief Executive described the exhibition’s intent in terms of a wish to ‘immerse the visitor in the sights, sounds, and emotions of the war’. But without history, sights become myopic, sounds speak only to a void, and emotions are left hanging. Critical reflection about the morality of the war, New Zealand’s involvement in it, and the short/long-term impact it has had are not encouraged by The Scale of Our War.

This article aims to support teachers who take their students to the exhibition by highlighting some of the silences. It also offers critical questions that can be used when teaching students how to navigate perspectives and representations (see questions box at the end of the article). Ultimately, supporting students to read museums (and other curated spaces) as constructed places with in-built perspectives is an important aspect of ‘education outside the classroom’.

The scale of the silence


One of the first panels of the exhibition tells us that Gallipoli was New Zealand’s first campaign of the war. However, in 1914, 1600 men were sent to occupy Samoa (then a German colony) as a ‘great and urgent Imperial service’. The long-term impact of this decision was massive and included the negligence of New Zealand authorities leading to the introduction of the 1918 influenza virus, which killed at least 22% of the population. In the face of this catastrophe the New Zealand Administrator, Colonel Robert Logan, declared, ‘I do not care if they die. Let them die and go to hell.’


Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/4-017533-F

New Zealand troops arrive to occupy German Samoa.

Egypt: The first casualty of war and the Battle of the Wazzir

While Samoa saw our first expeditionary force, Egypt was the site of New Zealand’s first battle. The Ottoman army raided the Suez Canal in February 1915 and New Zealand troops were engaged in combat, suffering their first death as a result of battle, Private William Arthur Ham.

This was followed by the ‘Battle of the Wazzir’ in April. The Scale of Our War doesn’t include any mention of this battle, perhaps due to the fact that it was a riot perpetrated by drunk soldiers. Up to 2500 Australian and New Zealand soldiers were involved, and in her diary Anzac nurse Alice Ross King described the ‘terrible things doing in Cairo.’

The (mis)representation of women

Women do not feature in The Scale of Our War until near the end, where we are met by the giant stooped body of Nurse Lottie (Charlotte) Le Gallais. Lottie is depicted grieving over the unopened letters she had sent to her brother, who was killed in action. Her passive stance and emotional outpouring is accompanied by solemn strings playing in stereo. It is incredible that such a stereotype of female sensibility is so brazenly displayed. Forgotten in this representation is the role of women, as nurses, staunchly caring for the wounded and dying. The Battle of the Wazzir, referred to above, was relevant for another significant New Zealander who arrived in Egypt in early 1916, Ettie Rout. Ettie formed the New Zealand Volunteer Sisterhood and won the affection of the soldiers (and the hatred of military authorities) as she supplied them with safer sex kits. The scale of her courage in the face of opposition dwarfs the Weta workshop figures. Her life is a terrific study in competing historical perspectives; she was seen as both a ‘guardian angel of the Anzacs’ and ‘the most wicked woman in Britain’.

Ettie Rout

Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/1-014727-G

Ettie Rout and New Zealand Volunteer Sisterhood.

Colonel Malone

Much of the narrative in The Scale of Our War revolves around Colonel William Malone. I was lucky to have an experienced historian with me when I visited. They told me that Malone was present at the invasion of Parihaka in 1881. He went on to command the Taranaki Rifles, which the exhibition argues was ‘one of the most effective units in the Territorial forces’, between 1910 and 1914. Vincent O’Malley writes that ‘we can’t just pick out the bits that we like from our history, we need to acknowledge the dark episodes as well.’ Historian Christy Clark-Pujara observes, ‘Often our history has been told as what we imagined it to be rather than what it actually was.’ In the case of Malone, his authoritarian character is noted, and we are told that his men often found him difficult. But we are left in the dark about his presence at Parihaka. Vincent O’Malley and Joanna Kidman are part of a team working on Aotearoa New Zealand’s ‘difficult histories’. They write: ‘Understanding the selective processes of remembrance and forgetfulness about difficult events in New Zealand’s colonial era is an important step towards becoming a more confident, engaged and self-aware nation.’ Talking with students about this omission – why it exists, what it means, and how it might be addressed – would make for an interesting discussion.

Conscientious objection to war

One of the challenges of The Scale of Our War concerns the decision to focus the exhibition squarely on Gallipoli. This reinforces myths about the importance of this event, whereas the Western Front was where the vast majority of New Zealanders served and died, and the important home front/political/social stories also largely happened between 1916 and 1918. As a result, we don’t learn about the increasing opposition to war and how the government dealt with people they found to be undermining the war effort. Initially there was much enthusiasm for war – seen as a ‘great adventure’, with young men prepared to do their ‘bit for the empire’. Many quotes displayed in the exhibition reflect this excitement and patriotic feeling. We are also offered quotes that describe the horror of war and the grief of losing loved ones.

Te Puea Hērangi

Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-001920-G

Te Puea Hērangi.

But we don’t get any sense of opposition to war. The concept of dissent is forgotten. Consequently, we don’t learn about the inspired leadership of Te Puea Hērangi of Waikato or the Tūhoe prophet, Rua Kenana. We don’t learn that authorities imprisoned 286 conscientious objectors during the war. In addition, 580 defaulters/deserters were arrested, 102 people were arrested (67 of them were imprisoned) for sedition or illegal strikes, and 14 Waikato Māori were arrested in 1918. A small number of conscientious objectors were shipped overseas and forcibly sent to the front in an attempt to break their resolve. Four men were subjected to the army’s brutal Field Punishment No. 1. Convicted objectors were then denied voting rights for 10 years and barred from working for central or local government.

Field Punishment No. 1

Archives New Zealand, WA78 3/15

Field Punishment No. 1.

A giant figure of Jack Dunn does provide insight into army discipline. Dunn was sentenced to death for falling asleep on duty because he was sick with dysentery and malnourished by bad food. His sentence was rescinded, and he was killed in action a few days later. But the exhibition (again due to its narrow focus on Gallipoli) doesn’t inform us that under the British Army Act, 28 New Zealand servicemen were given a death sentence. Ultimately five were executed (all on the Western Front).

I was expecting to learn about dissent and objection to war when I noticed a series of panels featuring Ormond Burton. Initially recruited as a stretcher bearer, Burton joined the infantry after a friend was killed. This experience left a lasting impression on him. ‘War is just waste and destruction’, he would write. Burton later became one of New Zealand’s staunchest opponents of war and was repeatedly imprisoned during the Second World War for publicly opposing New Zealand’s involvement. The Scale of Our War doesn’t mention this; instead, we read that ‘none were more game than the stretcher bearers.’ The failure to describe the war’s impact on Burton is, as Armstrong points out, a failure to include history. As a result, we are denied a significant part of Burton’s life and legacy.


In his book Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914–1920, Jared Davidson examined some of the 1.2 million letters that were censored during the First World War to reveal the perspectives of ordinary New Zealanders who got caught up in the web of wartime surveillance. To help maintain national security, the government passed the War Regulations Act in 1914, giving it wide-ranging powers over communications, ‘enemy aliens’, political gatherings, military personnel, anti-social behaviour and public opposition to the war. Hundreds were arrested for contravening the regulations. As Davidson writes, ‘Mail, telegrams, pamphlets and books, news and newspapers, plays, photographs, films, and speech were all subject to censorship – or restrictions – during the First World War.’ None of these things are addressed in The Scale of Our War, which is a shame because this is fascinating history and fertile ground for students to feel engaged and empowered. Contemporary links to our role in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance and changes in technology could be teased out by teachers to explore questions of power and control, and historical relationships such as change and continuity.

Our war?

What is remembered and what is forgotten in historical narratives depends largely on the intention of the narrative. It’s hard not to feel as though The Scale of Our War is intending to promote a sense of national identity (‘Our’ war). Gallipoli is often framed as marking the beginning of a national consciousness. Even Ormond Burton felt this when he wrote late in life: ‘somewhere between the landing at Anzac and the end of the battle of the Somme New Zealand very definitely became a nation.’ The 19th-century Prussian historian and militarist Heinrich Von Treitschke was in no doubt about the relationship between war and nationalism: ‘only in war does a nation become a nation.’ What’s interesting is how the selective process involved in creating history can reinforce these ideas. As the American historian Howard Zinn remarked in his book A People’s History of the United States: ‘What struck me as I began to study history was how nationalist fervor – inculcated from childhood on by pledges of allegiance, national anthems, flags waving and rhetoric blowing – permeated the educational systems of all countries, including our own.'

It is worth considering the use of the term ‘Our’ in The Scale of Our War. Educationalist Linda Levstik writes that ‘pronouns are shape-shifters, and it is useful to pay attention, particularly when antecedents shift around. Who are "we", and what is "our”?’ Demographically, Aotearoa New Zealand is very different today to what it was 100 years ago. The country’s population is more diverse – Māori, Asian, Pacific, and Middle Eastern / Latin American / African ethnic groups are increasing in size, and I wonder how recent migrants and/or refugee students would relate to the term ‘our’? The terms ‘we’, ‘our’ and ‘us’ are woven through the exhibition. One panel reads: ‘Our Māori parliamentarians urged our government to…, and another: ‘some tribal leaders discouraged their men from enlisting.’ The juxtaposition of these quotes makes it clear that the category ‘our’ revolves around allegiance to the Crown. In response to histories that promote nationalistic fervour, Zinn concludes: ‘Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals the fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex.’


Whether you take students to Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War or any other curated space, it’s important to consider perspectives – whose voices are represented and whose voices are silent. It’s important students remain alert to the emotions they experience or are encouraged to experience. This critical ‘reading’ is particularly valuable in a space like The Scale of Our War where the focus is on emotions, the ‘affective domain’.

Ricky Prebble, Educator–Historian

Questions to support students to navigate perspectives and representations

  • Recognise narratives: Who do you think is telling this narrative? Why?
  • Describe how others may view narratives differently: How might someone else tell the story differently? Why might their story be different?
  • Identify missing narratives: If this story was being told by another person or group, what parts of the story might they leave in or take out? Why?
  • Predict why narratives might be missing: How might [a particular group] benefit from missing this part of the narrative? Why might this part be missing?

Questions to support a visit to Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War

  • How should we remember New Zealand’s involvement in war?
  • Should there be an emphasis on the suffering and remembrance of soldiers, or the horror and carnage of war?
  • What do you think about conscription? Under what circumstances, if ever, is it justified?
  • Should The Scale of Our War mention those who refused to fight for the state? If so, how? If not, why?
  • Why do you think visitors are encouraged to ‘shoot’ at enemy soldiers? What purpose does this serve?
  • If you had to design a new exhibition space based on your understanding of Gallipoli, what stories would it tell? What would it look/feel/sound like?
How to cite this page

'Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War – A reflection on historical silences', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/te-akomanga/contexts-activities/gallipoli-scale-of-our-war-historical-silences, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 14-Jun-2023

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