A new exhibition atAuckland War Memorial Museum, called Love & Loss, is the perfect balm for your soul, whether you attend in person (for Aucklanders) or online.
Well, I can’t lie. The tears started immediately. At the new Auckland War Memorial Museum exhibition, Love & Loss, a collection of letters, texts, diaries, DMs and telegrams tell a big, beautiful story of our shared humanity and the power of communication and it’s an emotional rollercoaster from the first hand-drawn card.
Love & Loss was two years in the making and the starting point, says the museum’s Curator of Manuscripts, Nina Finigan was the importance of stories. “The way that I connect with the [museum’s] documents is very much on an emotional level,” she says. “When I walk through our store rooms, I don’t just see a collection of facts or historic evidence, I see people and their lives and their stories and their loves.”
“Archives can be framed in quite an academic way… I wanted to flip that and present them as something that relates to everybody, that everyone can connect to. Because we share these stories; even though they’re unique, they’re quite universal as well.”
The exhibition, which closes March 6 2022, is separated into different genres of content: family and friends, love, grief. There are romantic letters, sent between lovers during the World Wars. There are letters from soldiers sending colourful cards back to their young children to wish them a happy birthday. There are letters informing family members of the death of their loved ones.
For one poor soldier and his family, there are letters that run the emotional gauntlet from enthusiasm at training to be a solider, the excitement at shipping out, the mundanity and horror of war and then the devastating notice of his death. All of these letters were packed up by his mother and put into a box which then lived under her bed. A full life and death, told through treasured correspondence.
But Nina and the exhibition team also wanted to showcase the modern ways we communicate as well, so they put out a call-out to the public last year for people to send in their submissions, in the form of Facebook messages, Tinder chats, DMs and more.
“Like with most exhibitions, as you start researching the collection, you realise there are gaps in the stories that you want to tell,” Nina says. “And the collection we have here – which is spectacular – is heavily slanted towards 19th-20th century stories and a predominant kind of person as well, often Pākehā and, in terms of relationships, straight relationships. And then the pandemic happened and we thought it was an opportune moment to leap on people being at home, with time to think about what they might have in their own collections. We really wanted people to see themselves reflected in the story.”
“Then the pandemic happened and we thought it was an opportune moment to leap on people being at home, with time to think about what they might have in their own collections.”
Nina says they were blown away by the response they got, both in terms of the number of submissions and in the level of vulnerability people were willing to share. The pandemic, she believes, played a part in this. “We were all experiencing this profound disconnection, so all of those feelings were very much on the surface,” she says. “We were all, also, suddenly very aware that we were living through history.”
“Some of these stories come from big conflicts like World War One; it can be hard for us to understand what those times must have been like but then to see someone writing to their girlfriend back home, expressing these very human emotions that we’re so familiar with, that exist within these enormous historic events, these are just people at the centre of those events. And that’s what we wanted to convey, that these stories aren’t about conflict; conflict is a backdrop to the human stories that propel us through our lives.”
“These stories aren’t about conflict; conflict is a backdrop to the human stories that propel us through our lives”
As well as the historic and supplied letters, there are corners in the exhibition where museum goers are encouraged to write the letter they’ve always meant to write, then either send it, shred it or leave it anonymously on display. The day that I’m there, there’s a collection of letters that’s enough to kick-start another set of tears. A wish list for Santa. A letter to a recently deceased grandparent. A terse note to coronavirus – “please, go away.”
Someone has written out the opening lyrics to All Too Well by Taylor Swift, another has written a letter to an ex-lover, forgiving them both for their actions with the sign-off “we were both kids.” It’s a reminder of our shared humanity and the emotional loads we all bear – and how useful writing is as a tool to get it out.
“That concept started with the idea of catharsis, and thinking about why we write diaries,” Nina says. “We don’t send them; they’re not for anyone to read. So why do we do it? It’s because the act of writing helps us articulate ourselves and understand our emotions. Hopefully, when people come through the exhibition, they’ll feel like ‘I should have written that letter to someone.’ Maybe to send it, maybe to not. Maybe to shred it. But a letter, in a way, is a vehicle to connect us with other people. And it’s an interesting thing to think about, the things we leave behind.”
The Love & Loss exhibition is open at the Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira until March 6 2022. An interactive version of the exhibition is also available online to view now, click here.