National Army Museum, Waiouru, New Zealand : Military History & Army War Museum

The Many Meanings of Museum Objects

By Chris Rapley, Assistant Curator Social History & Accoutrements

One of the amazing aspects of material culture is that items often change their meanings and roles.

A great example in the National Army Museum is a railway spike from the infamous Thailand Burma Railway of World War II. The Thailand Burma Railway, often referred to as ‘The Death Railway’, was a Japanese project where Prisoners of War (POWs) and labourers were forced to construct a 420 kilometre track in appalling conditions. The estimated 60,000 POWs and 100,000 Asian labourers who worked on the railway were treated savagely by their Japanese masters. It is estimated that a quarter of the POWs and an even greater proportion of the labourers died during the construction – literally worked to death.

The museum’s spike started its life as an element of that railway, a small but vital cog in the Japanese military machine as it undertook its campaign in Burma. However, after the war it took on a different role. In 1984 the spike was sold by the River Kwai Christian Mission to raise money for their hospital in a remote part of Thailand. The spike, labelled number 2607, appears to have been brought by Charles Fowler, who wrote his details on a leaflet accommpanying the spike. Fowler served on the USS Houston, an American heavy cruiser sunk by the Japanese in the Battle of Sunda Strait in 1942. It has proved impossible to confirm at time of writing, but it is extremely likely that Fowler endured the Thailand Burma Railway while a POW. Fowler passed away in 2000 and then several years later the spike made its way to the National Army Museum, where it is part of the Social History Collection.

And so, the spike has made an interesting journey and taken on several different meanings while it travelled. It was created as part of the Japanese war effort and was an element of a particularly dark episode in the treatment of POWs. A turn of events then saw it become a fundraiser; a very peculiar role for an item with such a bleak background. Under his details in the fundraiser leaflet Fowler wrote a single word; ‘survivor’. When he brought the spike its role changed again, one imagines to him it represented his fallen comrades and also the memory that he endured what must have been a hellish experience – he was a survivor. The spike had evolved into being an item of personal remembrance and physical memory. When it was accepted into the National Army Museum the spike changed again, this time becoming an item of communal remembrance; a link to an important piece of shared memory. However, it also maintains all of its other meanings and, no doubt, it will continue to gather more as the years go on.

The spike is by no means unique. In our personal lives we often collect items that become meaningful and vital to our memory of the past, especially things such as jewellery or souvenirs. A Grandmother’s wedding ring, which began life as a symbol of committment and love, can evolve into a link to the Grandmother herself if it is passed through the generations. In this museum the displays and stores are packed with items waiting for different people to engage and make meaning out of them.