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Illuminating and commemorating WWI for the modern era

For the first time in nearly a century, a collection of significant World War I lantern slides belonging to the University of Canterbury (UC) is freely available for the public to view.

Designed by the UC Arts Digital Lab, the new Illumination and Commemoration website showcases the digitised lantern slides depicting the construction of New Zealand’s five WWI battle memorials overseas. Featuring an online database and digital exhibitions, the open-access website highlights the work of the architect of the memorials, Samuel Hurst Seager (1855–1933), who was appointed by the New Zealand government in 1921.

Seager made the lantern slides from photos he took while overseeing the memorials’ construction between 1921 and 1925. (Lantern slides are projection media made with glass that are projected using a magic lantern, which is the precursor of the digital projector.)

The slides contain rare images of the battlefield memorials at Chunuk Bair in Turkey, Longueval and Le Quesnoy in France, and Messines and Gravenstafel in Belgium. After his return to New Zealand, Seager used the lantern slides in a nationwide lecture tour to show how New Zealand’s involvement in each of the five battles had been commemorated.

“The images are important records of New Zealand’s first state-sponsored, post-war commemorative project overseas, and reveal how each memorial was constructed,” says project leader and UC Arts researcher Laura Dunham.

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The war memorial slides were discovered in Seager’s collection of around 4,000 lantern slides, which has been held by the University’s Art History and Theory department since he gifted his collection to Canterbury College (now UC) in 1928, she says.

In addition to being one of New Zealand’s most celebrated architects, Seager, who is a UC alumnus, was a lecturer in the University’s School of Art for 24 years, and served on the board of governors from 1910 to 1919.

“A consistent theme that emerged throughout the project is how Seager’s methods of visual communication were used to increase New Zealanders’ engagement with artistic forms of commemoration after the war – a campaign that he continued beyond his retirement in 1927,” Ms Dunham says.

In the late 1920s, he also worked on the designs for the memorial to Prime Minister William Massey and the Citizens’ War Memorial, both in Wellington.

Illumination and Commemoration, produced in collaboration with the UC Arts Digital Lab, enables people to view the lantern slides as objects, as well as the images they contain, to show how viewers would have originally seen them in the 1920s.

The collection was digitised as part of the UC Art History and Theory department’s Illumination and Commemoration project, exploring how the memorials and the lantern slides functioned in New Zealand’s climate of ongoing commemorations during the first decade following WWI.

The website includes three digital exhibitions, which provide an overview of each memorial’s development. Each digitised lantern slide is free to download under a Creative Commons license. The 18-month project was funded by a grant from the Lottery Grants Board and supported by Canterbury 100.

Illumination and Commemoration can be viewed at www.seagerlanternslides.nz.

Caption: One of Samuel Hurst Seager’s lantern slides, showing the sculptural centrepiece of the New Zealand battle-exploit memorial at Le Quesnoy, in France, on the day of its unveiling on 15 July, 1923.


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