New Zealand Liberation Museum a memorial to Kiwi soldiers in Europe

  • New museum is Aotearoa’s tūrangawaewae on the Western Front
  • NZ Liberation Museum – Te Arawhata commemorates liberation of French town by Kiwi soldiers over 100 years ago     

New Zealand’s first memorial museum in Europe for Kiwi soldiers who died on the continent during World War One will open in France this October with an innovative visitor experience created by Wētā Workshop.

The New Zealand Liberation Museum – Te Arawhata will commemorate the triumph of Kiwi soldiers who liberated the people of Le Quesnoy from four years of German occupation during World War One.

“The museum will be Aotearoa’s tūrangawaewae on the Western Front,” says Sir Don McKinnon, Chairperson of the New Zealand Memorial Museum Trust – Le Quesnoy (NZMMT) which is behind the creation of the museum and raising funds to complete the $15 million project.

“It will be a memorial that commemorates the approximately 12,500 New Zealanders who died in France and Belgium during World War One,” he says.  

Te Arawhata – which means “the ladder” in Māori – opens officially on October 11. It takes its name from the ingenious way soldiers from the New Zealand Division used a ladder to scale the walls of the town on November 4, 1918. The New Zealanders did not fire over the town’s ramparts, which meant no civilian lives were lost during the liberation of Le Quesnoy.

The name Te Arawhata also refers to a pathway to higher things, which enables learnings from the past to be used to reflect on the price and value of freedom and the importance of friendship to support a better future. 

Sir Don says allied nations such as Australia, Canada, India, South Africa, and the USA built commemorative museums in Europe after the first World War, however New Zealand has never had one.

New Zealand has four battlefield memorials on the Western Front: a sculptured plaque on the rampart at Le Quesnoy, and memorials at Longueval, also in France, and Messines and Gravenstafel in Belgium.

“The New Zealand Liberation Museum is respectfully building on that legacy. It will be a place that honours our past, highlights the importance World War One continues to hold, and tells the extraordinary stories of Kiwi men and women who served in Europe.”

The Wētā Workshop experience

Wētā Workshop Senior Creative Director, Andrew Thomas,says it aimed to create an immersive storytelling experience to highlight the human stories behind the liberation.

“Visitors will experience a mix of cinematic, sensory, and emotive environments. They will be able to immerse themselves in the dramatic storytelling, sculptural artworks, soundscapes, and projections to connect on an emotional level and remember the people involved in what is a hugely significant event.”

Using its world-famous special effects, Wētā Workshop has created a giant soldier similar to the figures in its exhibition Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War at Te Papa.

“Playing with scale allows visitors to get up close to the hyper-realistic soldier, placing them in that significant moment which took place over 100 years ago,” says Thomas. 

Research for the project included having access to interviews with descendants of people who lived in Le Quesnoy at the time and of New Zealand soldiers who liberated the town.

Photos taken by war photographer Henry Armytage Sanders in the days around the liberation gave the Wētā team valuable insights into the French civilians, and New Zealand and German soldiers at the time.

“In a darkened room visitors will encounter the larger than life, hyper-realistic Kiwi soldier, caught in a moment following the liberation. The soldier sits on the cobbles, his rifle placed alongside him. There are autumn flowers in full colour, placed in his uniform by the French civilians. It is as if you have stepped back in time.

“It’s through this lens that visitors will have an insight to the humanity and context of the people that made this liberation story so memorable and impactful.”

The highly immersive exhibition spaces are complemented by interactive and contemplative areas where visitors can learn more about the people involved in the liberation and New Zealand’s wider involvement in World War One and reflect on how these events are relevant in the world today.   

The Kiwi Le Quesnoy connection

The courage of Kiwi soldiers during the liberation of the town more than 100 years ago created a special bond between the people of Le Quesnoy and New Zealand. A number of names in the town are inspired by New Zealand including Place des All Blacks, Avenue des Néo-Zélandais, and Rue du Doctor Averill (named after Second Lieutenant Leslie Averill who was the first soldier to ascend the ladder which led to the liberation).

Each year residents also commemorate the liberation by Kiwi soldiers on November 4 as well as Anzac Day.

The New Zealand Liberation Museum – Te Arawhata is located in a renovated mansion house which was the former mayoral residence and later the headquarters of the local Gendarmerie (French Police). The NZMMT purchased the building in 2017 and have been renovating it over the past two years. 

The trust is two-thirds of the way to reaching the $15 million target with significant contributions from successful manufacturing exporter Richard Izard, Brendan and Jo Lindsay from the Lindsay Foundation, and the Bolton Family.

Members of the public and businesses can donate to have the chance to play their part in creating the New Zealand Liberation Museum. NZMMT is a charitable trust and New Zealand resident donors may apply for a tax rebate on donations. Donations over $5,000 will be highlighted on the New Zealand Liberation Museum website and at the museum in perpetuity.

Must-visit destination

“The opening of the New Zealand Liberation Museum – Te Arawhata will be a milestone of national significance,” says Sir Don. “Le Quesnoy may be 18,000 km from New Zealand, but it is a place where all Kiwis can go to remember those who lost their lives in the World Wars, and it will be a must-visit destination when travelling overseas.

“The history of the area along with the experience Wētā Workshop has created at Le Quesnoy will have a deep affinity with all Kiwis, from young New Zealanders who are the travellers of now and in the future, through to older generations. It will make this story as well-known as Gallipoli.”  

Sir Don says the unique story of Le Quesnoy, and the inventive and formidable force of Kiwi soldiers, also appeals to the people of France and other nationalities.

“Everyone who visits the museum will have their own reason for coming. There will be Kiwis whose family members may have died overseas, locals who still celebrate the liberation of the town, and people from around Europe and beyond who are curious about the legacy of Le Quesnoy and want to find out more. It will be more than just Kiwis who visit.”

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