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The Weight of Grief

Scrapbook G.Roberts. Source: Museum Victoria courtesy of State Library of Victoria

Peter Stanley, ‘Ten Kilos of First World War grief at the Melbourne Museum’, The Conversation, 26 August 2014

The Melbourne Museum’s World War I: Love & Sorrow exhibition, which opens this weekend, explores the various experiences of Victorians in the Great War, and the war’s effects on them.

Museums have a hard job conveying often fleeting human interactions and experiences using their stock-in-trade – the artefact. How can you convey friendship or hatred through objects? What can you use to show fear, hatred, comradeship or idealism? How can a museum convey in an artefact what grief felt like?

WWI: Love & Sorrow tells the story of, among many others, the Roberts family, of Hawthorn and South Sassafras (now Kallista, in the Dandenongs). Their story embodies what this exhibition is about, and how museums can best tell human stories.

The Roberts family scrapbooks

The experience of the Roberts family was both unique and representative – and seemingly made for a museum. Indeed, in planning how the Melbourne Museum would reveal and explore how Victorians lived through the Great War – or not – their story became one of the “must haves”.

In 2009 I published Men of Mont St Quentin, a book that tried to show how one 12-man platoon (number 9, of the Victorian 21st Battalion) experienced the final attack on the German-held Mont St Quentin, the way it affected those who survived as well as the families of those who died in the attack.

In telling this story the papers of Garry and Roberta Roberts, preserved in the State Library of Victoria, were crucial. In fact, without them the experience of that platoon would have been indistinguishable from the other 60-odd platoons involved in it.

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