War archives decoded

Auckland Museum: Pou Maumahara

Pou Maumahara

Auckland War Memorial Museum's Pou Maumahara, the Memorial Discovery Centre, is a place for visitors to research New Zealand servicemen and women. It is home to the Online Cenotaph database of military records.

Our task was to craft three interactives for the new space to inspire our visitors in their own research and help them understand what’s possible.

The audience is older, perhaps less confident with technology, and we know that they’re drawn to good stories. They are likely to be already interested in stories of those who went to war.

Decoding the official records

The first interactive uses the service records of Piki Kotuku Te Kuru, who served with the New Zealand (Maori) Pioneer Battalion. Military service records are the files users are likely to find once they start researching. The trouble is they’re full of jargon!
By looking at Te Kuru’s service records, you can unpick his story, and each field in the record is explained; codes and shorthand are translated into plain English. There are accompanying photographs and blurbs that bring the record alive.

For the user, these incomprehensible records suddenly start to make sense.

The power of a personal record

The second interactive uses the power of a hand-written diary to tell the story of Harold Butterworth - a young man with a passion for planes who served in the Royal Airforce. He kept a detailed diary for much of this extraordinary time.

The hand-written diary is challenging to read; it’s hard to find the most interesting bits (not every day was eventful), and it’s a precious object so can’t be left out for visitors to handle.
We used scans of Harold's diary and highlighted passages to help the visitor find the most compelling parts. Clicking between the “chapters”, you get beautiful page flipping animations adding to the feeling that you’re browsing through his record.

Harold's diary ends before his fate is clear, so the second part of this experience is to read through some of the additional documents that researchers have found. The letters advising that he’s missing, the story from his co-pilot who made it out alive, and his commendations. By the end you discover the truth of what happened.

Pictures that represented a whole community

The third interactive features a photo album. As the wife of the local doctor, Alice Mickle knew many of the 'Birkenhead boys' who left for the First World War – and she collected her correspondence with them in a large album.
Auckland Museum wanted to bring this artefact to life in the gallery with an interactive experience. An interactive map shows where they lived, and local school students wrote biographies of all the men. The interactive shows users how Online Cenotaph can tell the story of a whole community’s experience of the war.

The results

These interactives each tell a compelling story in a unique way, and together they help users to uncover the powerful stories that are in Online Cenotaph, and how to find and decode those stories.

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