Professor Maartje Abbenhuis (left) with guest curators Catriona McCallum (centre) and Tanlin Liu (right) in the Special Collections Reading Room

On the front line and on the home front: History postgrads curate new display with Special Collections

History postgraduate students Tanlin Liu and Catriona McCallum are guest curators for the latest Special Collections display. Tanlin and Catriona completed Professor Maartje Abbenhuis’ ‘Topics in the History of War and Peace’ course last year, during which they selected an item from Special Collections relating to the First World War as the focal point for a 3,000-word research essay. Now they are showcasing their historic objects and converting their essays into succinct display-case captions.

Western front trench map: Active service August 1918

Tanlin chose a trench map used by ‘sapper’ Lieutenant Acland Thomas (1888-1962), a former student of the University of Auckland (then known as Auckland University College), at the bloody Battle of Bapaume in northern France, August 1918.

For Tanlin, the fascinating aspect about using the map as a piece of historical evidence was learning how Thomas employed contemporary engineering technology in a complex, fast-changing battlefield. The map details contours, roads, ditches, railway lines, farm buildings, towns, villages, enemy gun positions and trenches – all features Thomas had to understand in a very dangerous terrain. Tanlin got to know more about Thomas:

‘When he was using this map, he had already been injured four times. Although he survived the war, he was injured a fifth time just days before the war ended in November 1918, losing his left leg.’

Trench map insert: Allied trenches in red, German in blue, MSS & Archives 2023/21

Trench map insert: Allied trenches in red, German in blue, MSS & Archives 2023/21

Sir Robert Stout ministers to citizens left on the home front

Delving into the significance of a speech given by Sir Robert Stout (1844-1930), former Premier and Chief Justice, in January 1917 (which was then published and widely circulated) informed Catriona’s research.

Catriona was surprised by the prosperity war had brought to many New Zealanders. She notes, ‘By Christmas 1916, soaring exports and state funding of large infrastructure projects resulted in an economic boom, stimulating demand for luxuries like imported electric cars and lavish entertainments such as the Auckland Cup racing carnival.’

Catriona was struck by Stout’s admonishment to those at home who were not sharing in the sacrifice, offering his audience (and readers) glimpses of not only the patriotic, but the grieving, the apathetic, the war weary, the agitators and the profiteers. According to Catriona, ‘Sir Robert Stout’s appeal restores individual experience to the home front narrative. It moves us beyond our traditional understanding of New Zealand’s social cohesion during the war to the people themselves, showing us that the reality of their support was complex. In doing so it enables us to gain a richer understanding of life on New Zealand’s home front.’

Sir Robert Stout, 'Peace or War?', NZ Pamphlets 79-267

Sir Robert Stout, Peace or War?, NZ Pamphlets 79-267

Historian’s reflections

Maartje redesigned her assignment last year, replacing a standard research essay, using published, secondary sources, to one where students choose a single historic document from Special Collections. She observed: ‘We are very fortunate to have such a rich archive, incorporating a wide array of materials, and have expert staff on hand to liaise with students as they delve into the background of their chosen item. This research exercise has fast become my favourite history assignment, and I’m looking forward to seeing what this year’s crop of graduate students come up with. It’s wonderful to see Tanlin and Catriona sharing their research for a wider audience through this display.’

  • Visit the display until 28 June, Special Collections, Level G, General Library.

Ian Brailsford, Special Collections

Feature image: Professor Maartje Abbenhuis (left) with guest curators Catriona McCallum (centre) and Tanlin Liu (right) in the Special Collections Reading Room

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