80 years on, the War Memorial is in a battle for its soul

Ian Bushnell 12 November 2021 48
War Memorial redevelopment site.

The War Memorial redevelopment site. Photo: Honest History.

The Australian War Memorial marked its 80th anniversary yesterday as it embarks on the most significant change to the national institution in its history.

The $500 million redevelopment proposal has provoked controversy and bitter argument about the purpose and role of the Memorial.

For many, the key question is whether the Memorial is primarily a place of commemoration and reflection or is expanding into being a museum, something beyond its original charter.

The redevelopment, which will provide more space to tell the stories of more contemporary conflicts and missions such as Iraq and Afghanistan, was driven by former memorial director and Liberal minister Dr Brendan Nelson. He found his contact with recent veterans such a moving experience that he felt their service was not recognised sufficiently.

Dr Nelson’s heartfelt beliefs cannot be doubted, but whether these should have been imposed on a Memorial with an award-winning building barely 20 years old is questionable.

Anzac Hall is now gone as part of the early works demolition and clearance program that somehow was approved separately from the actual construction program or main works that are still to be signed off.

And despite objections from a range of prominent Australians, including former Memorial directors, Dr Nelson will get his bigger Memorial.

But it won’t be a victory without casualties.

The Australian Institute of Architects will lament the loss of a great building and the precedent it sets for disposable architecture.

There will be concerns about how little protection the national capital’s heritage really has when the political will is there to ride roughshod over it.

But probably the most significant collateral damage could be to what may be called the soul of the Memorial, including its growing financial relationship with arms manufacturers.

Brendan Nelson

Former Memorial Director Brendan Nelson was deeply moved by the veteran experience. Photo: File.

This redevelopment will only entrench the now prevailing view that the arms dealers deserve a seat at the table, blurring the lines between government, military and industry in what was meant to be a civilian enterprise to remember the service of citizen soldiers in the defence of the nation.

The expansion, and with it the addition of more war machines as exhibits, will also tip the balance towards the Memorial becoming a military museum and, whether redevelopment advocates like it or not, encouraging a glorification of the nation’s exploits at arms.

The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts also pose problems for how they are portrayed. Some will argue insufficient time has elapsed to tell these stories with detachment, particularly Iraq, which is haunted by accusations of being an illegal invasion that reaped a whirlwind that is still devastating that part of the world.

Will visitors to the new Memorial come away with an understanding of the tragic waste of war as well as the sacrifices made in our name, or will they be dazzled by the artefacts of war and beguiled by the heroics of our troops?

It is said that the first casualty of war is truth, and in this debate about the future of the Memorial the cloak of Anzac has been all too easily cast over it to question people’s respect for the fallen and loyalty to their country.

Those such as federal Education Minister Allan Tudge seem to think that commemoration and an honest appraisal of history are mutually exclusive when it comes to Anzac.

His attacks on the draft national curriculum for allegedly promoting a “negative view of our history” that could affect our youth’s willingness to defend Australia exemplifies the dangers of fostering an Anzac ideology.

“Anzac Day should not be a contested idea. It is the most sacred day in the Australian calendar,” he said.

But without such examination, Anzac simply becomes a cult of ancestor worship that diminishes the sacrifices of war and condemns us to forget its lessons.

If the new Memorial is not to be a monument to militarism, then its galleries must be faithful to the truth, not let the artefacts overshadow the humanity and re-commit to commemoration.

Lest we forget.


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48 Responses to 80 years on, the War Memorial is in a battle for its soul
nobody nobody 12:45 pm 15 Nov 21

The AWM hasn’t lost its soul, all those souls step down from the Role of Honour each night, wander the halls, pull on a uniform, sit in piece of equipment, handle a weapon, share a smoke, tell a yarn, then head back before dawn.

Susan Green Susan Green 9:29 pm 14 Nov 21

Horrible renovation and disrespectful to those who served

Arms merchants building a theme park

Jay Joseph Jay Joseph 9:54 pm 12 Nov 21

Imagine…not… taking into account modern conflicts and modern vets.

Ray Mcgee Ray Mcgee 5:30 pm 12 Nov 21

Hoping it stays a memorial, not a museum. I’ve had casual chats with someone high up at the AWM, and the intention seems to be it’ll remain a memorial so one can hope that’s the case... time will tell.

Anne Lafferty Anne Lafferty 5:24 pm 12 Nov 21

so sad its lost its dignity

ChrisinTurner ChrisinTurner 5:07 pm 12 Nov 21

Considering the partial funding of the AWM by armament manufacturers, you have to expect that more display space will be needed for their wares.

Stewart Stewart 4:18 pm 12 Nov 21

Nelson, Stokes et al decide on development of the Memorial – so we get many years of careful site development planning thrown out, an award winning building knocked down, and an over-development of the site that removes much of its prized landscape and impacts the significance of the heritage memorial building. The ‘need’ could have been met with sensitive development without the loss of the recognised values of the place. It is interesting now to reflect on what the Australian Heritage Council said to the Australian War Memorial in 2020 before the development was approved (and still could have been amended). Quote “Regrettably the Council cannot support the conclusion that the proposed redevelopment will not have a serious impact on the listed heritage values of the site and recommends that the matters above [key elements of the development we are getting] be given serious attention”. The Australian Heritage Council is just one of many who were ignored.

Heavs Heavs 2:46 pm 12 Nov 21

Imagine how much good a $500m war museum could have done if it was built in a region. It’s always struck me as bizarre that a government that is always big on the rhetoric of pulling apart canberra and shipping PS departments off to the regions didn’t see the potential that keeping Canberra as the home of the war MEMORIAL and, i don’t know, Wagga, as the home of the war MUSEUM would have.

Teresa Layton Teresa Layton 1:56 pm 12 Nov 21

It’s a shame they do a purpose build war museum somewhere else. The removal of so many mature trees is so sad 😢

Lachlan Gilchrist Lachlan Gilchrist 1:08 pm 12 Nov 21

Wild idea;

1. Memorial stays a memorial offering a respectful place of reflection and remembrance.

2. Museum is a separate building not linked to that place that should be for reflection and remembrance.

    Peter Bee Peter Bee 5:22 pm 12 Nov 21

    Lachlan Gilchrist radical - we cant have this common sense here

Anura Samara Anura Samara 1:03 pm 12 Nov 21

I think we're seeing the outcome of the underlying paradox of trying to combine a museum with a place of remembrance. My view is that it can't be both. A museum is curated, and able to put it's pieces in context - sometimes, that context isn't always "we're the good guys". A memorial should simply allow for contemplate and remembrance. Having visited both the IWM and Cenotaph in London, I think keeping the two apart allows them to both get on and do their respective roles properly.

    Jarrad Irvine Jarrad Irvine 10:45 pm 12 Nov 21

    Anura Samara I completely agree mate. The two need to be seperate. The good and the bad need to be told and remembered and separately we need a place to sit in silence and remember.

    Anura Samara Anura Samara 10:01 am 14 Nov 21

    Jarrad Irvine thanks. Great to hear your point of view.

nobody nobody 1:00 pm 12 Nov 21

Great to see this expansion is progressing, I look forward to visiting.

Noel Benjamin Noel Benjamin 12:24 pm 12 Nov 21

A memorial for fallen warriors or an exhibition hall for weapons of war?

Sharon Cabban Sharon Cabban 11:53 am 12 Nov 21

And how much funding is the federal government providing for social housing in the ACT?

Peter Graves Peter Graves 11:12 am 12 Nov 21

“War Memorial was always a museum”

No it was spec ifically NOT. NOT like the Imperial War MUSEUM in the UK, it was intended to memorialise the participants in Australia’s wars. The militaria in it was intended to provide a context to their experiences.

Look at all those names on the boards in the Hall of Memory. Continually refreshed with those poppies against so many names.

    chewy14 chewy14 3:32 pm 12 Nov 21

    https://www.awm.gov.au/about/organisation/history

    Peter Graves,
    Simply incorrect. Do some research on Bean’s vision and you will see that it was always intended to have a function as a museum. Just because people aren’t as aware of it and want to change its function to their modern vision doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

    astro2 astro2 4:53 pm 12 Nov 21

    Great unbiased source there mate. The War Memorial justifying an expansion of the…um War Memorial – and hoovering up more of the taxpayers’ dime. History truly written by the victors.

    chewy14 chewy14 6:13 pm 12 Nov 21

    Astro,
    What? My link has nothing to do with the expansion.

    It’s literally the recorded history of how the memorial came about. I can give you plenty of others if you want. It was always intended to have a function displaying the relics of war. Noting that this has nothing to do with glorifying or promoting war.

    Although thanks for highlighting the exact type of ignorance on this project I’m talking about.

    astro2 astro2 10:03 am 13 Nov 21

    No you gave a link from the organisation that will receive the bucketloads of money – it’s called conflict of interest. On a more fundamental level, ask yourself why the Australian War Memorial is called the Australian War MEMORIAL and not Museum/Memorial. Think you’ve missed the obvious here.

    chewy14 chewy14 7:43 pm 13 Nov 21

    Astro,
    You clearly didn’t read the information provided by the link then.

    And you still haven’t explained what the history of the memorial and its museum function have to do with the justification of the expansion which wasn’t even mentioned.

    The history of the War Memorial is not really contested and it always was designed to have a museum function. If you disagree, provide some “unbiased” links of your own then.

    astro2 astro2 12:52 pm 14 Nov 21

    No actually, read both the sanitised article and the source. The source is important here and clearly establishes a vested interested in promoting a museum function where there never was one. In fact, 500 million interests…all that lovely taxpayers’ money for a pointless purpose. It’s not the Australian War Museum. It is the Australian War Memorial, they are two separate things and it is important to keep them separate. There is quite clearly a political move to start promoting war unfortunately and to keenly brown-nose the closest white European country that we can hang on to the coat tails of. Sad really, perpetuating the trauma of soldiers returning from expansionist wars.

    chewy14 chewy14 6:47 pm 14 Nov 21

    Astro,
    And yet you can provide no links opposing the direct evidence provided that has never been historically challenged. Because of the amount of direct source material that shows that the memorial always was meant to have a museum function to display these types of war relics.

    You can look further into the current legislation if you don’t believe me or the people who advocated for the memorial to be built in the first place:

    http://www6.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/viewdoc/au/legis/cth/consol_act/awma1980244/s5.html

    In particular in the functions of the memorial:

    (c) to exhibit, or to make available for exhibition by others, historical material from the memorial collection or historical material that is otherwise in the possession of the Memorial;

    Or the 1925 legislation.

    http://classic.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/cth/num_act/awma1925181925271/

    Time for you to front up some evidence of your own Astro. You keep stating things to be true but won’t supply supporting evidence. Which is exactly the type of ignorance my initial comment was about.

    astro2 astro2 7:59 pm 14 Nov 21

    Refer link from AFR article and previous directors of the War Memorial (not the War Museum) and their concerns about a gross waste of money to repurpose the memorial which was never designed to be a museum. I think most of us would take their opinions over yours, sorry but they’re more qualified.

    chewy14 chewy14 8:59 am 15 Nov 21

    Astro,
    Firstly your article is behind a paywall, although I’ve read similar elsewhere. The former directors oppose the project because they don’t like it. So what? They are free to oppose it but their opinion on the worth of the project doesn’t change the orginal amd ongoing function of the place.

    Secondly I haven’t asked you to take my opinion on anything. I’ve provided you direct links to historic source material and legislation.

    It’s you that is asking me to take the opinion of individuals over literal recorded history and written legislation.

    Just displaying the level of wilful ignorance that seems to be an ongoing pattern for you, highlighting my exact points on this issue. Thanks.

    astro2 astro2 12:46 pm 15 Nov 21

    Sorry about the paywall on the AFR article. However none of the links you provided supports building a War Museum on the site that is currently designated for a War Memorial. Previous Directors have made this clear. There are only two possible reasons for your eager support of blowing $500 million of taxpayers’ money on a project such as this: either you don’t understand the politics going on around the issue; or you do understand the politics and are simply doing some jingoistic flag-waving.

    chewy14 chewy14 2:35 pm 15 Nov 21

    Astro,
    I finally get it, you don’t understand what the word “Museum” actually means.

    Here, I’ll help educate you once again.

    Museum (noun) : a building in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored and exhibited.

    So you can put your fingers in your ears and go “la, la, la” all you want. But to anyone that can read and comprehend the written English language, that is literally one of the functions of the War Memorial as set out by its founders and through legislation.

    Facts that you haven’t even bothered to attempt to address. Because it’s so obviously true that it’s incontrovertible.

    And now that you’ve attempted to claim that I support the project or the cost as an attempted obfuscation is just further proof of your weak argument.

    I specifically have not said I support the project, my argument has always been against the weak and ignorant points being used by the opposition to it.

    Below, I even say:
    “Complaining about the cost of this project is the only legitimate argument against its construction”.

    If you can’t address the direct evidence presented, don’t bother replying again. You’re making yourself look as silly as when you showed how you couldn’t understand basic numbers a few months ago.

    astro2 astro2 1:12 pm 19 Nov 21

    Oh dear you’re getting yourself all worked up. The simple point, and one which most people on this thread understand, is that the War Memorial (not the War Museum) was established to remember Australians who fought in, and died in, previous wars in which Australia was involved. You don’t seem to understand that, although others, particularly those who are more qualified than you to speak on the matter, ie previous War Memorial directors, do. It isn’t that difficult to understand the difference and as you have shown that you can access a dictionary perhaps you should look up both terms and have a think about it.
    So far you’ve presented no evidence to the contrary.

Steve Smith Steve Smith 9:47 am 12 Nov 21

It is supposed to be a museum though and has had multiple wars and conflicts happen since it was built. People have this personal romance for the place in Canberra but in its current form space limits the amount of display space and I would really like to see the history we have on display rather than leaving it in storage.

    Cleve Gabriel Cleve Gabriel 6:42 am 13 Nov 21

    Steve Smith they could have developed the space they have at Mitchell instead of what I see as a monument to a Director, very sad with what has happed to ANZAC Hall. Anyway too late now the damage has been done. Turning into an audio visual demonstration.

    Having worked there in that very special place for over ten years, I think I am certainly entitled to my opinion .

Sharee Schultz Sharee Schultz 9:37 am 12 Nov 21

The War Memorial should be a reflection on what our past & present Army, Navy & Airforce personal have experienced. I have taken my children there many times to visit & educate them on how our family members & many others have contributed to our freedom.

I am very happy with our the War memorial is displayed.

Matt Sposito Matt Sposito 8:55 am 12 Nov 21

It wouldn't be the first museum that relied on big buisness, why is is it such an issue that arms companies that have profited heavy from war atleast give back to help remember the fallen.

I highly doubt we will be seeing big neon signs with Lithgow arms plastered over it

Steve Whan Steve Whan 8:05 am 12 Nov 21

What a load of garbage.

Ppl go to the memorial to reflect on the experiences and struggles of those that sacrificed for the nation.

Ppl were not at Gallipoli, or the Western Front in WWI, all those veterans have now passed.

Current generations, because they were not actually there have an opportunity to comprehend it’s lived experience thru the artefacts of the era, the equipment used of that era.

Current living veterans may wish that further generations beyond today have the same opportunity of understanding and appreciation of their experiences, as the WW1 veterans have today.

The British museum has relics of the Roman era, swords, armour, shields.

Is that a museum of that era, or an ancient armaments expo?

What’s the difference?

    Margaret Freemantle Margaret Freemantle 2:20 am 13 Nov 21

    Steve Whan it is supposed to be a memorial, not a museum.

    Ian Kelly Ian Kelly 7:37 am 13 Nov 21

    Margaret Freemantle Sorry Margaret, it's both, always has been and was always intended to be.

    Margaret Freemantle Margaret Freemantle 11:39 am 13 Nov 21

    Ian Kelly ridiculous! Two totally different things....

    Ian Kelly Ian Kelly 11:48 am 19 Nov 21

    Margaret Freemantle No Margaret, not ridiculous. Read up on the history of the place, particularly Charles Bean's vision for the Memorial. It is, always has been, and can and does fulfill both purposes.

    Margaret Freemantle Margaret Freemantle 2:13 pm 19 Nov 21

    Ian Kelly I am Canberra born and bred!

    Always, always a memorial

    Ian Kelly Ian Kelly 2:20 pm 19 Nov 21

    Margaret Freemantle and I worked there. I know the history!

chewy14 chewy14 7:57 am 12 Nov 21

It really is disturbing when people complain about the tone of the war memorial and recognising “history” without acknowledging that the War Memorial was always a museum and was founded as such.

But I suppose that fact needs to be conveniently ignored now that politics has gotten in the way.

Complaining about the cost of this project is the only legitimate argument against its construction. Everything else is pure political whinging from people who don’t like that others think differently to them.

    JS9 JS9 10:15 am 12 Nov 21

    It is what it is by this stage.

    I do think there were far better options available then what has been chosen – I would of liked to have seen a proper move made to set up a separate permanent facility at the Annex (or elsewhere) that could have taken on more of the ‘museum’ aspect, leaving the original building to be more about the ‘memorial’.

    I don’t think the need has really ever been strongly established for the project, especially in times when other national institutions of just as much importance to the nation have been under severe pressure themselves – I would of liked to have seen the money spread out more equitably.

    But it is what it is now.

    chewy14 chewy14 3:42 pm 12 Nov 21

    JS9,
    That sort of aligns with my opinion. There were better options available and the money could have been better used elsewhere. But the level of shrill complaining about this project is far in excess of what is deserved or applied to other far more wasteful areas.

    Brisal Brisal 10:33 am 12 Nov 21

    “others think differently”? About the only people in favour of this folly were the bigwigs who’ll get their name on the shiny “opened by” plaque. The opposition to this folly was large, and wide-ranging. There were legitmate questions about the spending of half a billion dollars on this folly when veterans health is so badly underfunded, which were conveniently ignored. If one of the F/A-18’s that was gifted to the memorial ends up in the new display hall then you’ll know all this spin from Nelson about being moved by the story of recent theatre veterans is so much hot air and crocodile tears.

    Apparently “whinging” about those who “think differently” means that the great unwashed should just shut up and let those at the trough spend our money as their whims dictate, without complaint. The great unwashed in this case including several former memorial directors who probably know a thing or two about the site.

    Incidentally, the memorial’s service charter does not mention the word “museum”.

    chewy14 chewy14 3:41 pm 12 Nov 21

    “The opposition to this folly was large, and wide-ranging.”

    Really? Where. I think most people don’t care.

    The main opposition has been specifically from certain political elements and I’d hardly call them representing the majority.

    “There were legitmate questions about the spending of half a billion dollars on this folly when veterans health is so badly underfunded, which were conveniently ignored.”

    As I’ve said, questions of expenditure are legitimate but it’s purely whataboutism to bring up veteran’s health.

    The money for this project has not come out of expenditure for veteran’s health and would not go there if the project was cancelled. They are completely separate topics.

    “Apparently “whinging” about those who “think differently” means that the great unwashed should just shut up and let those at the trough spend our money as their whims dictate, without complaint.”

    No, it means people who’ve had their say and still can’t get over the fact that the democratically elected government has made a decision they don’t like. It’s time they deal with it rather than concocting myths in their heads.

    “Incidentally, the memorial’s service charter does not mention the word “museum”.”

    Incidentally, you should read up on the history of the Australian War Memorial Museum if you think it wasn’t always intended to have this type of function.

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