“I remember…sitting myself down and giving my heart a stern talking to. It didn’t listen. It’s no good being a world-wise philosopher with a heart that’s only human.” – Welby’s love letter to Kevin, 1983.
Crying is not necessarily something that we like to do in public. However, at Auckland Museum’s Love & Loss that may not be something you can avoid. Bring tissues and someone you like to this exhibition: you’ll be proclaiming your love by the end of the tour.
This intimate collection is made up of all sorts of different forms. There are postcards, telegrams, letters, notes, birthday cards, Facebook messages, and poems, along with short films that explore these inspiring stories in more detail. Nina Finigan, the Museum’s Curator Manuscripts, explains the commonality that these pieces share, stating, “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 space moves between two distinct sections. Love explores various moving and funny romantic exchanges, such as the cryptic telegram engagement confirmed between lovers in Antarctica and New Zealand. There are also some instances of familial love, with a soldier sending his daughter illustrated stories from an overseas war and another father mailing a flower with his letter, trying to relay the sweet scent from a million miles away. Richard Tukino Grace’s sketches have been crafted into an animated film to bring to life his correspondence from the Western Front with his love, Alice Crump.
“Only human… thank God for human hearts eh? At present mine runs on memories and letters and evening phone-calls… but it doesn’t grow weaker for not seeing you.” – Welby’s love letter to Kevin, 1983
The Loss section of the exhibit is, of course, quite an intense experience. There are letters detailing the heartbreaking story of Maurice, where delayed correspondence between a soldier and his sister leads to a complicated grieving process. The section also includes Koe higoa haaku Hiapo, a contemporary hiapo work. It consists of ten pieces of hand-beaten hiapo (Niuean barkcloth), as well as a poem from the perspective of a piece of hiapo that has been separated from its home and transported to museums overseas.
Hine e Hine, a well-known waiata that was used as the ‘Good Night Kiwi’ theme song for many years, scores the space, firmly situating the exhibition in our locative context and creating a melancholic mood.
A surprising aspect of this exhibition is the ephemeral nature of nearly all of these letters. The notes jump forward and backwards in time, and while some are dated by a mention of key historical events (World Wars or pandemics, for example), the sentiments contained between the loopy, messy, and neat handwritings all remain very similar. Writings from our century and the last two are joined by a consistent confessional tone, cataloguing our need and want for connection.
This exhibition is a lesson in the importance of honesty. Hard times, which we’re overly familiar with, have the capability to carve us into these intensely sarcastic and cynical beings. Love & Loss reminds us of the emotional rewards that come with being earnest. It even offers up the opportunity to confess your own feelings with an interactive letter-writing table… How brave are you feeling? Will you send or shred?
“I tried not to protect my heart in it, I tried to tell the truth.” – Welby speaks about his letter, 2021.
Love & Loss closes on Sunday the 6th of March. Free with Museum Entry (free for all Auckland residents!). Masks, distancing and vaccine passes needed for entry. A virtual version of the exhibition is also available online!