Sir John Monash World War I recreation so real it will make you cry

Villers-Bretonneux: “We’ve observed people walking out crying on a daily basis and that’s what we wanted to achieve.”

Russell Magee is a lead designer for Australia’s newest – and most gut-wrenchingly innovative – museum.

The $100 million Sir John Monash Centre in Villers-Bretonneux, France, officially opens this week, but Magee has been watching visitors try it out for the last seven days, and he can see it hit them on an emotional level, just as he intended.

The Sir John Monash Centre is not your traditional museum. It’s a multimedia, digital Aladdin’s Cave.

“It was a very tight line to walk in terms of not wanting to scare people to death, but telling something that was true to fact,” he said.

“We didn’t want to shy away from the reality of war.”

The Centre is not your traditional museum. Instead it's a multimedia, digital Aladdin's Cave: an underground bunker that aims to put visitors eyeball-to-eyeball with the history of the Anzacs on the Western Front in World War 1, in full surround-sound (and guided by a dedicated app).

So when visitors walk behind the Australian National Memorial, on the site of one of Australia’s first victories on the Western Front on Anzac Day 1918, they will find themselves going down narrow trenches, the concrete marked like timber, into a dark, vaulting space.

The bunker entrance to the $100m Sir John Monash Centre in Viller-Bretonneux.

They will walk past huge video screens, where large-as-life soldiers tell their stories (the figures are actors, but their words are genuine).

Then they come to the dark heart of the Centre: a 360-degree immersive cinema that over 12 minutes tells the story of the battles of Villers-Bretonneux and Le Hamel.

Screens and speakers positioned in front, above and behind the visitors play re-enacted scenes with Hollywood-level production values (Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson lent his advice and collection of working First World War planes, tanks and artillery for the filming, which was done in New Zealand and Australia).

At the height of the battle, smoke billows out into the room. Spotlights recreate the deadly aim of machine-guns, and bright lights flash with the detonation of grenades.

Serge Ou, executive producer at Wildbear Entertainment, said he wanted to immerse visitors in the war and to make it “slightly unsettling”.

Sir John Monash Centre, set on the grounds of the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery in northern France, tells the story of Australia’s involvement on the Western Front battlefields during World War I.

“It subconsciously puts you in the action,” he said. “There’s a sense of being in the moment, part of the narrative rather than an observer of the narrative.

“I was hoping that you can understand the pure experience of the men and women who served. I wanted you to feel something. War is awful, it’s ugly, it’s confronting.

"I don’t think I wanted to scare people but I wanted to at least have a taste of what the experience might have been like.

“We had to be very careful… to go to a point where you felt slightly uncomfortable but couldn’t make it unwatchable for the general public.”

He also wanted to convey the complexity of the battles the Anzacs fought on the Somme: much more than the traditional “over the top from the trenches into No Man’s Land” cliché. And he wanted to finish with a message about the bond that was forged between the Anzacs and the French.

Magee said the key to their creative choices was respect: “we all have a huge amount of respect for the people who fought here, and we wanted to do them justice without glossing over it,” he said.

The immersive cinema is bracketed by more “didactic” video – and objects from the era (including some dug up while the museum was being excavated).

They tell the stories of the soldiers’ background, and how the war affected the rest of their lives – as much as possible sourced from first-person accounts.

The centre's screens play almost 70 different films, which took more than a year to conceive and produce.

All the digital content can be updated at any time, remotely from Australia.

The Villers-Bretonneux war cemetry seen from the Sir John Monash Centre memorial tower.

Magee found out just two weeks ago that the body of his great uncle may have been identified in a Belgian war cemetery – until now he was a name on the Menin Gate in Ypres, now he might get a headstone with a name on it.

But Magee hopes his museum can be a kind of digital headstone. He hopes that Uncle Ray will also have a place in this Centre, a part of the story where visitors can discover how he fought and died.

It’s like a mirror of the war cemetery on the same site: there they lie in peace, but here too they live forever.

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