Centennial Stances: Museums, Morals and the First World War
This thesis examines the extent to which New Zealand’s Centennial Great War exhibitions impact visitor perceptions, particularly those regarding their personal moral values. Two case studies are used, in order to inform discussions on the current and desired roles of New Zealand museums in relation to activism. While this research aims to provide New Zealand museums with more relevant findings than literature gaps currently allow, any discussions and recommendations may be more broadly applied to other countries. Similarly, despite a focus on the topical and largely publicised subject of WWI ‘100 years on’, discussions and recommendations are also relevant to general queries regarding museum representations, visitor interpretations and activism in museums. This research also intends to emphasise the benefits of interdisciplinary research by including museological, criminological and, to a lesser extent, philosophical literature. The research methods used within the two case studies can be broadly separated into three parts. First, a thick description method is used to provide in-depth overviews of The Great War Exhibition and Te Papa Tongarewa’s Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War. This section attempts to present a largely unbiased description of Great War representation in New Zealand’s capital. Second, the interpretations of ten visitors from each exhibition are gathered in the form of researcher-accompanied, audio-recorded visits. Such a research method intends to extract visitor thought processes in a relatively fluid and natural way. Finally, visitor questionnaires taken at the conclusion of each visit provide information on visitor demographics and overall thoughts regarding the exhibition, war itself and any inclusion of activism in museums. Alongside museum studies literature, criminological literature and debates are referenced to explain and exemplify the plentiful and diverse perceptions surrounding war. Overall, this study found most participants to be wary of activism in museum exhibitions. However, it also found that New Zealand museum visitors tended to possess a strong desire to determine their own moral perceptions through exposure to as many alternative narratives as possible. Therefore, any opposition to activism is not, in this case, due to any overriding wishes to favour ‘traditional narratives’. It is consequentially recommended that emphasis be put on clarity, transparency and multi-narrative approaches in museum exhibitions, as visitors appear to so strongly value their right to autonomous interpretation.