The NZ Liberation Museum – Te Arawhata opens in France 

Aotearoa’s tūrangawaewae on the Western Front

The New Zealand Liberation Museum – Te Arawhata has opened in Le Quesnoy, France, commemorating the liberation of the town from German occupation by Kiwi soldiers in World War One. 

Hundreds of Kiwis travelled to the small town in north-east France for the opening of the museum on October 10 and 11. While many were already in France for the Rugby World Cup, others travelled specifically for the opening and to be among the first to visit the NZ Liberation Museum – Te Arawhata.

1) The Last Post; 2) Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Waewae; 3) Mme Marie Sophie Lesne, Mayor of Le Quesnoy and Sir Don McKinnon, Chair of the New Zealand Memorial Trust; 4) Lt Gen. Rt Hon. Sir Jerry Mateparae addresses the opening, on the stage. Left to right behind Sir Jerry, Felicity Wilson, Celia Caughey (obscured) Marie Sophie Lesne and Sir Don McKinnon; 5) May Upton; 6) Sir Jerry Mateparae and Marie Sophie Lesne cutting the ribbon.

Officially opened by the Rt Hon. Sir Jerry Mateparae and Marie-Sophie Lesne, the Mayor of Le Quesnoy, attendees included dignitaries, descendants of Kiwi soldiers, donors who have supported the $15 million project, and members of the public. 

“The museum acknowledges a friendship that began over 100 years ago, highlights the importance of learning from the past to support a better future, and commemorates the 12,500 Kiwis who died in France and Belgium during World War One,” says Sir Don McKinnon, Chairperson of the New Zealand Memorial Museum Trust – Le Quesnoy (NZMMT-LQ). 

“The opening ceremony was extremely moving, but it was also a celebration of the many passionate people who have supported the project to get the beautifully hand-crafted front doors of the museum open,” says Sir Don.

1) Andrew Thomas – Senior creative Director Wētā Workshop and Sir Don McKinnon; 2) Rachel Lindsay; 3) Inside the Museum.

Wētā Workshop, best known for its screen work on Lord of the Rings, Avatar, and Dune, created the immersive visitor experience including a large-scale, hyper-realistic soldier, which is one of the first figures visitors see when they enter the museum. 

Another centrepiece of the experience is Te Arawhata (The Ladder), a 7.4m structure that extends up through the museum stairwell. 

“The museum is beautiful,” says Sir Don. “Wētā Workshop has created an experience that is poignant and emotional yet educational and entertaining. When people walk inside the building they are moved to silence. They become quiet and reflective as they walk through the many different rooms. It is very special.”

Twenty-three-year-old Felicity Wilson, whose great-great uncle died at Le Quesnoy, spoke at the opening about how the museum acknowledges the Kiwi soldiers who fought in WW1 and their legacy which still resonates and shapes how we live today.  

She also paid a touching tribute to her great-great uncle: “You will be remembered in Le Quesnoy as a soldier who gave everything, you will be remembered in New Zealand as a soldier who fought and died for his country, and you will forever be remembered by me because you are my great-great uncle, and we share the same last name.”

The museum takes its name from the way Kiwi soldiers used a ladder to scale the walls of the town on 4 November 1918, during the liberation. While this approach helped to ensure no civilian lives were lost, many New Zealand soldiers died and are buried in the cemetery in Le Quesnoy.

The liberation created a special bond between the people of Le Quesnoy and New Zealand that endures to this day. Several names in the town are inspired by New Zealand including Place des All Blacks and Rue du Dr Averill (after Second Lieutenant Leslie Averill who was the first to ascend the ladder).

1) Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence,  Sir Don McKinnon, Sir Lockwood Smith; 2) Lockwood Smith, Colin G Gibbons, Sir Don McKinnon.

The museum was blessed on October 10 by Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Waewae before the official opening on October 11. The blessing in Le Quesnoy also revealed the pounamu cleansing stone at the entrance of the museum which was donated by Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Waewae.

The official opening was attended by dignitaries including: 

• Vice Admiral Sir Tim Laurence (husband to Anne, The Princess Royal)

• The Rt Hon. Dame Patsy Reddy (Chair of New Zealand Rugby)

• Sir Don McKinnon and Clare de Lore, Lady McKinnon 

• Sir Lockwood Smith and Lady Alexandra Smith 

• George Hickton (Chair of Wētā Workshop)

• Andrew Thomas (Senior creative director Wētā Workshop)

• Tracey Collis (Mayor of Tararua District Council)

• Susan O’Regan (Mayor of Waipa District Council)

• Grant Smith (Mayor of Palmerston North City Council)

• Founding partners Brendan and Jo Lindsay, of the Lindsay Foundation

• Sir Wayne “Buck” Shelford (National President NZ RSA)

The project has been privately funded through generous donations and fundraising continues with the aim of reaching beyond the $15 million target.

Founding partner Richard Izard, who has contributed $3.5 million spoke at the event via video message and was represented in Le Quesnoy by his great niece, Felicity Wilson. Eleven-year-old May Upton from New Zealand helped Sir Jerry and Madame Lesne to cut the ribbon.

Rugby exhibition, From the Field to the Front, which is located in a separate gallery inside the museum, also opened on October 11 and tells the story of All Blacks who served in World War One and highlights the place the game holds in New Zealand’s cultural fabric.

All photos: Anna Birchall

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