War History Signage, Kokoda Track

The office was buzzing when we received the news that we had been awarded this prestigious war history signage contract by the Australian Federal Government. The contract was for the provision of interpretive services to the Australian Government Kokoda Initiative Taskforce. They have a saying in PNG…”expect the unexpected”and our PNG experience was just that.

Kokoda Track, Owers Corner interpretive signageThe Kokoda Initiative

Working with the Australian Govt and the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority (TPA) we consulted with key partners from both nations to develop an interpretive display that presented the wartime experiences of the Papuan and New Guinean people. Workshops, capacity building, story writing and design. This project had it all.

Expect the unexpected … we experienced warm smiles, generosity and savvy intellects. It was a strange mix of enthusiasm, friendship and sweat against a background of social unrest.

The Kokoda Initiative is a partnership between the Australian and PNG Governments to protect the environment, help develop local communities and maintain opportunities for tourism along the Kokoda Track. The installation was completed in April 2016 with the official unveiling on Friday 6 May 2016.

The group of dedicated professionals working at the Tourism Promotion Authority should be applauded for their persistence. They work on the fifth floor with a capricious elevator, no air-conditioning and you cannot open a window. Trying to keep your ‘cool’ during a meeting was impossible and we often retreated to a local bar. Everyone cheered when we left on a trip to the cooler climes of the Sogeri Plateau. The humidity was suffocating. Although at times we felt we were all herding cats, everyone chipped in, united by a common cause…a passion to finally tell the PNG stories of WWII.

War History Signage

With our first trip to PNG set for November 2015 and a deadline of ANZAC Day 2016 we had to hit the ground running. Researching and writing for this project was both stimulating and challenging. As there was no clear objective, other than some signage at Owers’ Corner that would portray the WWII experiences of the people of PNG, we had to start from scratch in workshops and engaging with the local communities.

Stakeholder engagement and community consultations

Prior to arriving in PNG we developed a stakeholder engagement strategy in partnership with John Pastorelli of Ochre Learning. It was great to have a framework that guided formal and informal engagement with stakeholders. It helped us to focus and drill down to the key themes and messages very quickly.  After two workshops in Port Moresby and one community meeting we were able to set about researching content, sourcing images and getting the design process going. With so much already written on the Kokoda experience our challenge was to find the stories of the Papuans and New Guineans and, in particular, traditional land owners…the Koiari.

Capacity Building

On our second trip to PNG we held two day long capacity building and training sessions with the government stakeholders – the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority, Kokoda Track Authority and representatives of the National Museum and Art Gallery and the Dept of the Environment. We also spent a day with the local community and were able to show them the preliminary designs we had put together in less than a month. The designs were full size mock ups and proved invaluable in getting the conversation going and focusing on the themes and messages. We were able to determine what to include and, importantly, what to leave out.  This is where John Pastorelli’s skills really came to the fore. His style of ‘learning is doing’ got everyone out of their comfort zone but resulted in some great outcomes for the locals as they built their confidence to lead discussions and engagement sessions. John made it good fun for all.

John’s work can be viewed here http://johnpastorelli.com.au/

Kokoda Museum Training

Design and installation

The designs for the interpretive panels were developed using the letter K as a graphic element across all six panels…K for Kokoda and K for Koiari, the local landholders. Miller Metal Imaging did a fantastic job of fabricating the CORTen steel frames (each weighing 120Kg) and their photo-anodising process produced panels with rich colour and detail. The fact that they are guaranteed for 10 years was an added bonus for this harsh environment.

In late April 2016 Peter travelled to PNG  to assist the TPA with the installation of the interpretive frames and panels. Alas, although the hardware had landed in Port Moresby we could not get the signs out of customs…”expect the unexpected.” We dug a very expensive hole on that trip.

A week later Peter was back in PNG and with the help of local landholders the signs were installed just in time for the official unveiling the following day.

The opening

The unveiling ceremony took place on 6 May 2016 and included a welcome by local Koiari elders, speeches from Government ministers and the Australian High Commission and a sing-sing performed by  the local community. The unveiling was a joint effort by PNG Ministers John Pundari and Tobias Kulang, the Australian High Commission and Koiari landholders.

  • Client: Australian Government Kokoda Initiative Taskforce
  • Date: November 2015 – May 2016
  • Specs: – review of existing historical research to develop an overview of the Kokoda campaign
    – identify existing stories that convey the perspective of PNG and Australia
    – identify key messages for interpretation about experiences on the Kokoda Track
    – develop and implement a Stakeholder Engagement Plan
    – on-the-job training and capacity building for the TPA and employees of the National Museum and Art Gallery
    – create 6 interpretive signs and installation design (artwork panel 500mm wide x 1310mm high, frame above ground 500mm wide x 2000mm high)
    – production of a simple ‘How To’ step by step guiding document on the process of developing, designing and producing interpretive signage for TPA staff to adopt as a reference for future projects
    – project manage production and installation of the interpretive display
  • Service: Interpretive services

Update 28 October 2018

Much has been written about our involvement in this project since we completed the installation in May 2016. There has been criticism from one individual of how the language was phrased and what the political motivation was for the language. Also criticism of how I referred to our first trip to Port Moresby,

Port Moresby is a confronting city and rated as one of the most violent places on the planet. It accosts the senses with its obvious social inequity. When the security agency describes recent events of rape and brutal assaults you cannot help but experience fear.

I think you have to understand the context before you judge that comment. We were briefed in Australia and it was made clear that if we breached our security responsibilities our contract would be terminated. First day, first hour we were shepherded into the offices of a local security agency and briefed on the dangers of insecure roaming in Port Moresby. We were equipped with mobile phones with all the security contacts and two-way radios as direct contact with security in case of an emergency. We were to go nowhere without them. Graphic tales of brutal abduction, rapes and assaults followed. On our team were three women and two men. It was a confronting and downright scary introduction to Moresby.

After 5 trips to PNG, Port Moresby became less confronting and more intriguing. There were the security guards outside every restaurant, hotel and shop. The signs were still there but accompanied by Nathan Lati the danger seemed diminished and I was able to travel and talk more freely to the locals. I visited their markets, worked beside them in the field and became totally Immersed in their way of life. For many it is not a great life but that is not the fault of any current Australian Government agency it is the fault of successive PNG governments who have ripped off their people.

As to the historical accuracy of the installation at Owers’ Corner I can only submit that the content was assessed by DVA, The Department of the Environment (Australia and PNG), PNG Tourism Promotion Authority, The PNG National Gallery and Museum staff and DFAT. If it is not correct don’t kill the messenger. Most of the content was worked up by the people of PNG and Koiari villagers during engagement sessions over 4 days and assessed subsequently by those same people before the final designs were signed off. It is important to remember that the installation is not a memorial to the men and women of the Australian Defence Forces, and in particular, those who fought and died on the Kokoda Track. Is it a track or a trail?…the debate rages with no conclusion in sight.

We worked extensively and very closely with the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority, members of the Kokoda Initiative, the land owners at Sirinumu and Australian Government agencies. It was a wide ranging group of stakeholders and a broad brief which referenced the environment, the PNG experiences of WWII, the work of PNG and Australian Government agencies and the culture of the landowners at Sirinumu, the Koiari people. PNG became unified in 1975, but during WWII there was Papua and New Guinea. That is how they are referred to on the installation.

As to the quotes from local villagers along the track, they came from Dr Jonathan Ritchie’s work collecting oral histories of memories of the war. These PNG experiences had never been formally collected and preserved but now they provide a rich resource for the PNG people.

Finally, interpretation is meant to invite thought and reflection. It is designed to tell well, not all. It promotes debate and is not meant to pander to any political motivation.  Our greatest critic is also our only critic to my understanding. No-one else has ever commented unfavourably to my knowledge. Of course with a project like this you cannot satisfy everyone. When criticism is motivated by self interest, narcissism and egotism then it it superfluous in our lives and is best dealt with by silent head shaking. Why let such a person take up space in your life?

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