“War is hell” said US Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman – who knew what he was talking about.

In April 1915 New Zealand entered hell as our soldiers waded ashore at Gallipoli. A hundred years on we commemorated that terrible day.

A few months later, in July of this year, it was time for a completely different anniversary: 150 years since the city became New Zealand’s capital (see Happy Birthday Dear Wellington). For the team* involved in the project this was a chance to do more than just celebrate the city. We wanted Wellington to be saying “thank you” to New Zealand – that it is an honour to be the place where our democracy has its headquarters.

Right at the start of the process of creating the show, our main sponsors the Wellington City Council asked for iconic imagery which could be released to the media to build interest in the event. The examples they gave were visualisations created for the other anniversary – the successful opening of Wellington’s Pukeahu War Memorial Park in April: crosses projected onto the cenotaph, masses of poppies on the facade of the old Dominion Museum.

That got us thinking: What are the equivalent icons for the more positive sides of our national story? And realizing with a bit of a shock that there weren’t any.

Neil Price, Wellington City Council

Neil Price, Wellington City Council

Neil Price, Wellington City Council

Neil Price, Wellington City Council

There’s a theory called “Loss Aversion” which basically says that people hate losing more than they love winning. Losses are twice as powerful psychologically than gains. Maybe that’s why poppies and crosses are instantly evocative and moving.

But as a country we can’t just define ourselves by terrible events on distant battlefields. We need to celebrate our achievements (without ignoring our shortcomings) as a free country uniquely founded on bicultural principles. If we don’t love what we’ve won, one day we will surely lose it.

We worried a bit about our missing icons, and then got on with making the show. In the end, the message got through. Even without the democratic equivalent of crosses and poppies, parliament grounds were packed for the big Capital 150 birthday party, and thousands more watched the projections over the next two cold rainy nights. We do want to celebrate.

“Latch on to the affirmative”, as the famous song goes on to say. Out of curiousity I looked it up on Google. It was written in 1944, while World War II was raging.

James McLean – August 2015

*The Wellington Capital 150 Big Birthday Party was conceived of by Grant Stevenson of The Whiteboard. Story Inc acted as creative directors, working with Jon Baxter from Perceptual Engineering and Massey University’s Open Lab to create the projection for the event.