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World War I: Love and Sorrow – Bruce and Deb

Staff at Museum Victoria discuss the WWI Love and Sorrow exhibition.
BRUCE SCATES: This course has been about the way that war reaches into and damages the social fabric. That’s the focus of the 100 Stories project, and it’s the subject of an exhibition, ‘Love and Sorrow’, fielded by Museum Victoria throughout the centenary years. Why not join us on a journey back to Museum Victoria, to the love and sorrow exhibition. Welcome back to the 100 Stories. We’re going to end this course now where we began, here in Museum Victoria and this acclaimed exhibition ‘Love and Sorrow’. With me today is Deb Tout-Smith, one of the senior curators here at the Museum Victoria, and one of the people behind this remarkable exhibition. Congratulations, Deb.
DEB TOUT-SMITH: Thank you, Bruce. I asked you what your favourite exhibit was, what exhibit most spoke to you, which exhibit told you the most poignant story, and you brought us here– tell me why.
DEB TOUT SMITH: There are so many powerful stories in the exhibition, but this story about Frank Roberts and his lost during World War One is one of the most powerful I think we’ve ever come across. It really shows an intense depth of grief through, for instance, the 27 scrapbooks that his father put together in his memory after Frank’s loss.
BRUCE SCATES: 27 scrapbooks? That’s monumental labour quite literally.
DEB TOUT SMITH: It certainly was, yes. His family said every night he’d sit down and work on, but we know a lot about his pride in sending Frank off to war and we know a lot about how he felt at the moment Frank was lost and then how he coped. For instance, he spent a week sleeping in the bedroom in Frank’s bed after Frank was lost to somehow feel close and almost connected to Frank through that act.
BRUCE SCATES: There’s almost a spiritualism there, isn’t there? The sense of being in the presence of the dead, that the dead aren’t really absent. They’re still part of the family.
DEB TOUT SMITH: I think so, and there would have been so much a sense that Frank had just walked out of that room and just pulled the cover straight and closed the book and walked out, and walking into that space that was Frank space, so for the family I guess that was one way of staying connected. We also know that his young wife and his mother both went straight out and bought mourning clothes. Mourning black was still worn at the time, so for them the public expression of that grief is terribly important.
The thing about Frank Roberts and his tragic loss was that his father’s grief and his family’s grief is reached to us across a whole century, and that’s unique. The fact that the family even today hold on to mementos of Frank’s life like a little lock of Frank’s baby hair. Frank’s granddaughter still treasures the ribbon, the widow’s ribbon that her grandmother and then in turn her mother wore.
BRUCE SCATES: So Frank is still literally a presence then within that family, within that community.
DEB TOUT SMITH: That’s right, yes. His granddaughter actually said when she grew up there were always stories of “Daddy Frank” as he was called, and he was a member of the family. He stayed with them. I think one of the important things about this story is that it cuts across so many different bigger pictures stories and for us that’s really important in choosing those main stores for the exhibition. For instance, Garry, Frank’s father, was very pro-conscription and the conscription badge that he wore was kept by the family as well. The mourning, the whole support of the son overseas and then dealing with the loss of the son, the father, the husband is a story that so many family shared.
It also is a story where we see the women as well as the men suffer and the children and the later generations suffer, so we get this intense poignancy that reaches out across time.
BRUCE SCATES: You mentioned 27 scrapbooks. What did he write in those scrapbooks? How did he keep them?
DEB TOUT SMITH: Well, essentially it’s every photograph, every little bit of writing that Frank did as a boy, even baby photographs. After Frank died, he wrote to so many of Frank’s comrades and met with them who’d fought with him and gathered letters and accounts of the battle and put them in the scrapbook. Descriptions of the front, photographs of service, photographs of Frank training right back to Frank as a boy in the Cadets as well as– the photographs as a child– but also those really poignant baby photographs. He married not long before he went off to war.
His wife was pregnant when he left, perhaps they didn’t know it at the time because he left quite soon after marriage and his little daughter was born less than a year before he was killed at Mont St-Quentin in September 1918. So you get these very poignant pictures of his wife and little baby in the hospital, which is actually for the time a real rarity in itself, but they were sent overseas to Frank. But one of the most heart-breaking parts of the story is the story of a little pair of booties that his wife decided to send over to Frank to connect him with you his little daughter, Nancy.
So she kept one bootie and then sent the other bootie over to him with a little note purporting to be from his daughter saying, “dear daddy, I bet you can’t fit your foot into this shoe, but someday soon the pair will come back together again.” But the real tragedy was that by the time it arrived in France where Frank was fighting had already been killed, and so that very parcel was returned to the family marked “return to sender,” and the family have still held onto it and it’s on display in this exhibition.
And I think when you think about an object which expresses the poignancy of war, those two little booties– one wrinkled from that trip to France and the other smooth from staying at home and being treasured– they are just heart rending. It’s similarly heart-rending thinking about these 27 scrapbooks, and the other side of this too is these are an extraordinary resource for historians. Many of them have used these scrapbooks and Frank’s father, Garry’s, diary and also have pulled together a really extraordinary insight into what it was like to have a son at war, what it was like to get the news and Garry was at work when he got the news and it was accidentally.
He opened a telegram saying we can’t deliver this telegram because you’re son is killed in action. That was how he found out after he set down at his office one morning at the tram way where he worked. So you get this ability to see what it was like, and then see how a father– one particular father– and his way of coping was to hold onto that memory, draw the grief closer and closer to him by understanding better and better what Frank’s life was like and what Frank’s death was like.
One of the extraordinary things that he did manage to do, because the family was connected with the artistic community, was to actually get a sculptor by the name of Gilbert to sculpt a memorial at Mont St-Quentin where Frank was killed in Frank’s likeness, and that I think was an extraordinary testament, not only to Gary’s connections, but to the whole family’s heart-break in a way that’s really difficult to articulate.
BRUCE SCATES: So we have a monument in bronze. We have a monument in cloth– that little bootie– and in a way, a monument paper with that great pile of scrap books as well, but when you talk about these exhibits and you talk about them with such an intimacy I’m reluctant to call them “artefacts.” I’m reluctant to use that clinical term. I’m reminded of what C.E.W. Bean said when he was setting up another great museum– the Australian War Memorial– he refused to call those things “artefacts.” He called them “relics,” and he was really aware of the sacred property of that word “relic.” Would you describe that lock of hair as a relic?
DEB TOUT SMITH: That’s a really interesting thing to suggest, and I really understand the almost spiritual connection that some people have with the body of the past, in a way of putting it. I think the interesting thing is a connection between spirituality, remembering, grief, and time. One of the interesting things we’ve tried to do in ‘Love and Sorrow’ is actually to avoid the sort of religious language that’s has tended to help people understand, support, and cope with war. For instance, when someone’s killed it’s a death for us, but at the time they might have said that person fell in battle, or they were sacrificed in battle.
So we’ve avoided that, because we don’t want to have value-laden terms, but at the same time we really deeply understand that these have such power and poignancy and so connect to the individual that I can understand that reading. The other thing I should say is it’s terribly important, I think, for us in this exhibition to connect those objects with the context in the stories.
So you could arguably say a lock of hair from a baby who grew up and was killed in battle, or you could look at this extraordinary rich case with the depth of the story and a sense of that grief, and the photographs of Frank as a teenager, and as an adult that really the context is what brings it to life and bringing that object into a display case we’re deliberately not separating it from its context.
BRUCE SCATES: Yes. Deb, thousands of people have already passed through this exhibition. I know how moved and how enriched they are, and I know that thousands more will come through this centennial year, so congratulations to you and all your team.
DEB TOUT SMITH: Thank you, Bruce. Thank you.
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