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World War I: Love and Sorrow – Rebecca and Judith

Staff at Museum Victoria discuss the WWI Love and Sorrow exhibition.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Today we’re at the “Love and Sorrow” exhibition with the producer Judith Penrose, and she’s brought us to this part of the exhibition. Would you be able to tell us a little about this exhibit and what it means to you as the producer?
JUDITH PENROSE: Sure, Bec. One of the things that we did with this exhibition was not back away from displaying confronting content, because the story is confronting, and we wanted to convey that in a way that’s still personal. So this part of the exhibition is an area where people choose to step in in, if they’re willing to do so. And it’s really focusing on the stories of facial injury and reconstruction, so for people who’d suffered horrendous injuries in the wartime, and the work that was done to give them some sense of life or even survival after that.
And in here, we display what are the facial casts and the medical documentation through the process of the work that was done at Sidcup to restore these faces of these men and give them some sense of life. So what’s interesting here, from my point of view, is that we’ve shown what is phenomenally detailed and confronting content in an area where you can choose to engage with it, and the visitors have been coming through, willing to take that on, which is great.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Yeah, because these items are very confronting, and there are items throughout the whole exhibition that are confronting, but it’s really interesting the way they manage to create a space between the visitor of today and the ordeal that was the Great War in that aftermath period. And I think that One Hundred Stories does that as well. And you said that this is a particularly confronting space; has any visitors complained that perhaps it’s too confronting or too challenging?
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Yeah that’s, I suppose, an issue that we come across as historians and museum curators, of whether you can indulge in the horror of war.
JUDITH PENROSE: We spend a lot of time debating that, don’t we, in the preparation for putting on a display about what you choose to put in or not, where you draw that line and how far you go in telling the story. And I think we should never underestimate the visitor and what they’re actually prepared to take on, and sometimes it’s about how you unfold the story. So very much, a it’s a deliberate decision as come through the rest of the exhibition that you’re starting to build up an intensity and the emotional mapping that we’ve done through the exhibition space.
The stories you encounter as you start to engage more and more and get more immersed in it– and very personal, so you feel like that that person has just stepped away from that bit of story. There’s a lot of contextual image to the background to those objects, but they’re displayed in a way that’s like you were almost there. And then here we’ve gone for the stark kind of hospital environment feel, so you know you’re taking a moment out of that pathway for something a little more intense.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Yeah, to take the time to consider, and that’s something we’ve come across with the One Hundred Stories. Every time we present it to the public, they’re so open and so willing to engage with these challenging stories which are really confronting and really difficult– but exactly, don’t underestimate the public and the viewer and the visitor, because it’s part of the war story.
JUDITH PENROSE: And we get a lot of the feedback at the end, so we have ways to collect the responses from visitors. We also felt at the end of the exhibition because it builds up in the intensity and comes back down to the final sort of emotional feel– resilience, a little bit, at the end, but also it’s holding the memory. And then we know that the end of going through an emotional journey like that, because it’s only 200 square metres, and that’s a lot in here to take on, that we need to give visitors a chance to take a moment and reflect, and so we have our reflection space outside where they write comments.
And they write ‘thank you’s’ to the soldiers or they write their feelings on the war– World War I or war in general as that chance to take a moment. And then– the sharing of what fantastic feedback with us on that basis.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: That is really fascinating. Judith, would you be able to personalise this exhibition, tell us about one of the men involved?
JUDITH PENROSE: Absolutely, Bec. I think the story that’s very strong in here as well is Bill Kearsey He’s one of the people who you meet in the journey through the rest of the exhibition and in here his story’s absolutely the story of Sidcup, because he was wounded at battle near Glencorse in 1917 incredible facial damage to him, and look, there’s this incredibly good looking soldier when he headed off to war went through the absolute trauma of the facial injuries and then the work done at Sidcup to repair, which is what’s documented here and the therapy work that he did while he was at Sidcup He then– he made it back from the war; he still had battles for the rest of his life with infections and general coping, but according to all the stories of the family he was incredibly positive.
He actually had great resilience, so even though his fiancee at the time when he went to war left him because he was injured, he later fell in love again and he married. And the end of his story is in the rest of the exhibition as well– so he lived through to 1971.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Overcoming– yeah, this terrible trauma of war, so really impressive to have the trauma and the resilience of that story.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Well that brings us to the end of the MOOC. Thank you so much for your company; thank you to our film crew, to Museum Victoria, and most of all, thank you to you for taking part.
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