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Love & Loss - Exploring Emotional Connections Through Personal Messages And Letters

The new exhibition Love & Loss, from Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum’s rich Documentary Heritage collection, explores expressions of love, loss, hope and longing shared between lovers, friends, and families from the 1800’s through the world wars up to present day.

Opening to the public on Wednesday 28 July, the exhibition features objects from the Museum’s manuscript collection as well as loans from the public, all of which explore human emotions and the need to share how we feel. Over half of the contemporary objects that form this exhibition were sourced through Auckland Museum’s public call out in 2020. The call out resulted in hundreds of submissions of personal communication that ranged from letters and scribbled notes to Facebook messages and emails.

Nina Finigan, Curator Manuscripts at Auckland Museum, says, “All of these objects bear witness to the emotions shared between lovers, friends, and families. Through all of them the same themes and questions apply across generations, such as why do we create these documents, and why do we choose to keep (or destroy) them?”

The exhibition is divided into two main themes of Love and Loss, and as visitors move through the exhibition they will be able to relate to many of these objects in their own lived experiences; this intimate and deeply personal exhibition is an opportunity for personal contemplation and reflection.

“This exhibition explores these objects through their value as intimate spaces, sites of emotional expression and exchange between individuals that get to the heart of what it means to be human and examine the universal need that drives all of us to reach out and communicate with others,” adds Nina.

The Love section, which focusses both on romantic love and love between family and friends, the story of Richard Tukino Grace’s correspondence with his sweetheart Alice Crump from the Western Front is brought to life through an animated film based on Richard’s sketches. Some of the stories told in this section include: a father enclosing a flower in a letter to his daughter, hoping the scent of the bloom will transcend their distance; a birthday card sent back and forth between a father and daughter over 20 years; a young child receiving illustrated stories from their father at war; a young Jean Batten sending her father a series of handwritten notes and drawings depicting her imaginings of his life on the Western front’; an audio recording and score of the moving waiata Hine e Hine, recognised by kiwis everywhere as the ‘Good Night Kiwi’ theme song; and much more.

Four deeply moving short films feature first person narratives from the public submissions, exploring the expressions of love, loss, hope and longing in the objects they have contributed to the exhibition. The films contain the story of the first love letter written to a partner who later passed away due to complications related to HIV; coded telegrams between Antarctica and Aotearoa that included a marriage proposal; a wife’s year-long correspondence with her husband while he was in jail; and a young woman in Zimbabwe sending love letters to a young man in Aotearoa she later marries and then immigrates with to New Zealand.

Between the love and loss sections are two booths containing letter-writing stations offering a chance for visitors to put pen-to-paper to write the message they’ve been meaning to. Visitors can choose to post their letter with a free custom Love & Loss stamp courtesy of NZ Post Collectables, share it for others to read, or – for those messages that that need to be written but should never be read – shred it to oblivion.

Within the Loss section, focussing on grief and longing, visitors will find the story of a mother whose letters to her son during WWII are returned to her unopened after his death. Kept under her bed, in a glory box until her passing, this exploration of why we keep things and the power they hold is expressed through the letters, the glory box and a video interview with the niece of the deceased solider.

Also contained in this section is KoehigoahaakuHiapo a contemporaryhiapowork consisting of ten individual pieces of hand-beatenhiapo(Niuean bark cloth) printed with freehand design by artist Cora-Allan Wickliffe and a printed poem by Dr JessPasisi, 'KoehigoahaakuHiapo'. The poem, written from the perspective of a piece ofhiapo,explores its own grief at being separated from its home in Niue, where it was created, and movement to museums overseas, a journey that echoes the movement of many of Niue's magnificent large-scalepieces that have come to be found in museum collections around the world, and yet are largely absent in Niue.

Some of the other stories told in this section include letters between a woman and her sister in 1851 after the passing of her husband, leaving her in a new country with three small children; a series of condolence letters expressing difficulty in finding the right words to console a woman after the loss of her husband in a car accident; a woman writing a letter to her brother who has committed suicide; another woman sending her deceased mother a Facebook direct message sharing her experiences on holiday in Vietnam; a Facebook Messenger thread of a husband and wife separated during while in the process of migrating to Aotearoa from Mexico; and a poem left in the windscreen wipers ending an affair; and more.

Exhibition Interpreter Kavi Chetty says, “This exhibition was developed through the COVID-19 lockdowns last year. Unable to travel and isolated in our bubbles, digital messages threads, texts and video calls quickly became our lifelines to loved ones around the world – and we really wanted to reflect the importance of these new mediums of expression today. Consider that email you go back to read time and again, or a message log of a conversation with a lost loved one you can’t bring yourself to delete. As much as old letters, these are the relics – archives of relationships, of people – of emotions we want to remember or hold on to.”

Love & Loss investigates why we keep these letters and scribbled notes to Facebook messages and emails. As we face new challenges, this exhibition is a timely exploration of our unchanging need to say what we must, especially when time, distance and circumstance keep us apart.

Accompanying Love & Loss is a companion publication Archives of Emotion which explores the wider themes of the exhibition. This book contains the story of Richard Tukino Grace and Alice Crump, the feature story in the Love Section, the hiapo work by Cora-Allan Wickcliffe and Dr JessPasisi, on display in the Loss Section, and a commission specifically for Archives of Emotion from noted contemporary poet Mohamed Hassan and illustrated with the 19th century magic lantern slides of Clement Wragge.

Love & Loss is free with Museum entry and opens to the public on Wednesday 28 July 2021.

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