I'll often kiss your keepsake,
And in the time to be,
I'll often kiss the giver,
When he comes back to me.
Reed Gallery presents a collection of World War I memorabilia from the Dunedin Public Libraries' Heritage Collections. There are no brass buttons or spent bullets in this exhibition. In fact, all the artefacts are made of either paper or card. The keepsakes date from when City Librarian W. B. McEwan began collecting for a "New Zealand European War Collection". According to his own recollection, from 1916 onwards he wrote between 450 and 500 personal letters to seek donations. Parcels of pamphlets, magazines and souvenirs arrived from his contacts all over the world. Training camp, military hospital or transport magazines were gathered for our unrivalled Troop Ship Magazines Collection, and some pamphlets went into the main McNab Collection. Other pamphlets and ephemera found their way into two scrapbooks, also known as Archive 281.
A disadvantage of scrapbooks is that items are often glued in, making it hard to examine an artefact front and back. The only item glued into these scrap albums is McEwan's own military enrolment certificate. Fortunately, everything else can be temporarily removed, allowing us to observe them as individual treasures. Many are in mint condition, while others have been carried in a soldier's uniform pocket, or sent through the mail. From the names of donors written on them, we can see that some items honour librarians' relations and friends who served in the war. Several staff at Dunedin Public Library had loved ones on war service. For example, there is material relating to the Mornington War Memorial, where librarian Elizabeth D. Bryant's brother was commemorated.
Arguably, Otago region sent more men to the Great War (in proportion to our population) than any other area in New Zealand. Over 1,500 Dunedin people died because of the War and many more were permanently disabled. To look at these artefacts takes us on part of their journey. We wonder whose hands held these gems, and how do they come to be in this library nearly 100 years later.
"The value of such a collection is not for the present moment. [Its] usefulness will be more apparent in future years when our children and our grandchildren come to read … the papers that have been gathered in the New Zealand European War Collection at the Public Library".
William Barker McEwan, 1922
The exhibition includes documents relating to soldiers' welfare, training and health, and the impact of war on families left behind. There are campaign souvenirs from Turkey, Europe and the Middle East. All pieces have clear New Zealand connections. One curious item is a tiny cardboard cigarette box, posted to Wingatui, Otago, in 1916. On the inside is a letter. Even with a shortage of paper, any letter might be a soldier's last. There are also non-combat activities witnessed in these souvenirs, such as theatre programmes, sports events and menus. These not only tell us about the entertainment arts of the time, but they take us into the hospitals where soldiers and medical staff worked to rehabilitate wounded bodies and minds.
We are reminded that this war was the first mechanised war: there is one piece of propaganda dropped from a German aeroplane in the final days of the war. Other items are clearly part of the British publicity machine.
Souvenirs are still a favourite way to remember past events and people. But, being made of paper, and collected in war-time, many of these souvenirs are now rare. Some are unique. The people connected with the documents step out of the shadows, their mementos placing them at the scene of historic events.
Curator: Delyth Sunley