Rebecca Britt, Acting head of Military Heraldry and Technology at the Australian War Memorial, shares the details of a very special exhibition currently on display at the Glasshouse. Of Love and War will inspire both tears and smiles – an exhibition that should not be missed …
What’s your official job title, and what’s involved with this role on a day to day basis?
My job title is Acting Head of Military Heraldry and Technology at the Australian War Memorial. This means I look after the Memorial’s collection of objects, ranging from medals and uniforms through to aircraft and tanks. I manage a team of curators who research and catalogue this collection and answer questions from the public. I also undertake my own research into the collection, which includes working on exhibitions such as Of Love and War.
Where did the idea come from to form the exhibition Of Love and War?
The Memorial is committed to telling a variety of stories about our military history. There can be a tendency to focus on what happened on the battlefield, but war has had a much bigger impact on our society as a whole. We wanted to look at how war has affected people’s personal lives during and after the war, and exploring personal relationships was a great way of doing this.
How many and what types of pieces are on show?
The exhibition has around 300 individual items. These include beautiful photographs, artworks, souvenirs and gifts, heartbreaking letters and the stars of the show, four wonderful wedding dresses, including a Japanese kimono and a dress worn by six brides.
The pieces in the exhibition are described as “primary source material”. How, and from where, were most of these items sourced?
Some items, such as the artworks, have been purchased or commissioned by the Memorial as part of our Official War Art scheme. However, the majority of items on display have been donated to the Memorial, either by the couple featured, or by their family. The Memorial’s collection has been built on the generosity of the public, and I’m always touched that so many people are willing to share their lives and their memories with other Australians.
What are the themes the exhibition aims to convey?
The exhibition has a number of themes. It looks at how romantic ideals were used to entice men into uniform (the man in uniform gets the girl!) and also explores how war time situations could bring people together. We think of war being a very destructive thing, and it certainly causes a great deal of pain and suffering. Yet wars can also bring people together and heighten emotions, leading to long and happy marriages or perhaps just a fleeting romance to cheer things up in dark times.
The exhibition also looks at the ways in which weddings were influenced by war time, from rationing and grooms in uniform, to the speed of some courtships and unusual venues such as army camps.
From there we examine the heartbreak of saying goodbye and how couples coped with loneliness, fear and in many cases loss and grief when loved ones did not return home. Letters, gifts and tokens of remembrance were a very important way of alleviating anxiety and loneliness and continue to play an important role today.
The exhibition concludes by looking at the aftermath of war. These conflicts have an ongoing effect on the people who have served or lived through them, including widows and war brides, men with new outlooks of life and hope for the future and those who battled the ongoing mental strain of war. Love and war is a huge topic, but the wonderful stories in the exhibition and the extraordinary couples featured I hope go some way towards exploring the complexities.
Given Australia has been involved in a number of military conflicts, which war time periods does the exhibition actually cover?
The earliest piece in the exhibition is a painting from 1885 showing the departure of the NSW Contingent to the Sudan War. We trace love in war from there, right through to our recent and current conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
The items on display would no doubt all have fascinating stories to tell – but what is one (or perhaps two) particular item/s with stories that particularly fascinated you?
There are so many stories in this exhibition that resonate with me. One of the saddest surrounds the wedding dress of Violet Glover. She married Alan in June 1941 and he left for service in Malaya soon afterwards. She wrote to him each week, but after the fall of Singapore in February 1942, her letters began to be returned. She was plunged into a period of fear and waiting, but it was several years before she learnt his fate.
Alan had been captured by the Japanese and following an escape attempt, had been executed. Violet’s dress was carefully packed away in its original box and kept under her bed until 2004, when it was discovered following her death. This dress is important to me, because even though Violet and Alan never had the chance to start a family, their story will still be remembered for generations to come.
On a more light-hearted note, I’m always intrigued by the way people kept in touch, and we have some wonderful examples in the exhibition. They include letters written on biscuits, or recorded on tape, funny gifts like dolls and coconuts sent from exotic places and beautiful jewellery which has been handcrafted with great devotion.
What is something you feel the public may learn from this exhibition that could come as a surprise/or be an unknown fact?
I think the most surprising thing may well be how profoundly war has affected Australians, not just those who served, but their sweethearts and spouses and then their children. The impact of war is not confined to the battlefield; it is played out in homes across the country.
I think it is also surprising, but also encouraging, to discover that love has blossomed amid some of the most brutal and distressing of circumstances. No matter how bleak these conflicts may have become, or the heartbreak that some couples endured, the hope and joy of romance and love remained strong.
How far and wide around the country is Of Further information:
I wrote a companion book to the exhibition, Stories of Love and War, which can be purchased from the Memorial’s website or at the Glasshouse. It covers all the stories in the exhibition and more from the collection of the Memorial.
Interview by Jo Atkins.
Rebecca’s photo courtesy of Kerry Alchin, Australian War Memorial.
This story was published in issue 81 of the Greater Port Macquarie Focus