Nelson blasts War Memorial expansion critics in retirement announcement

Ian Bushnell 16 August 2019 44
Australian War Memorial Director Brendan Nelson

Australian War Memorial Director Brendan Nelson had some strong words for AWM expansion critics in his retirement announcement. Photo: Ian Bushnell.

Australian War Memorial Director Brendan Nelson has launched a broadside against critics of the institution’s $498 million expansion, calling them a facile minority out of touch with the rest of the country.

Dr Nelson took the opportunity of announcing his retirement from the position at the end of the year to lay down some withering fire on those who have questioned the need for the expansion, the loss of the award-winning Anzac Hall in the process and the half a billion-dollar expense.

“If you lived in Canberra you’d be forgiven for thinking that people are opposed to the project. There are a small group of people – intellectuals, academics, some retired public servants, even some former staff member who left this place 20 years ago – that are opposed to the project,” he said.

“I’ve travelled throughout our country … and I have not been approached by a single person who expressed anything other than support for what we are doing.”

Dr Nelson said the critics tended to have a fixed narrative about the Memorial, which was unlike any other cultural institution.

He said the Government, supported by the Opposition, had decided to make a generational investment in creating more space so the stories of 100,000 young veterans and peacekeepers of the past 20 years could be told.

Plans were well advanced, heritage and environmental planning documents would be submitted by the end of the year, primary works would start at the end of October and major works next year.

“The train has left the station,” he said.

He rejected the proposition that space could be found in the World War galleries to tell these stories.

“The last thing we should do is take space from the First and Second World Wars’ stories to create space for East Timor and Afghanistan. That is not going to happen and that’s why it’s [the expansion] absolutely essential.”

Dr Nelson said the advice had been that the least complex and best value for money approach to redevelopment of the rear of the building would be the removal of Anzac Hall.

“What makes Anzac Hall important is not the building, it’s what’s in it, it’s the stories of the men and women told by the artefacts and relics,” he said.

An AWM render of how the expanded institution might look.

Dr Nelson was especially damning of arguments that the Mitchell storage facility could be upgraded to display the bigger objects such as helicopters instead of expanding the Memorial.

“These people are simply facile and need to get real,” he said.

Dr Nelson said the big objects such as the Bushmaster or F-111 warplane held special meaning for service men and women and needed to be displayed at the centre of Canberra, not on the outskirts.

“The Mitchell storage facility if it were your home it would be your garage, it’s like saying ‘instead of renovating and extending our house so we can house some family members we also love we’ll just put on an extension on the garage out the back’,” he said.

“We’re hardly going to say to the East Timor, Afghan, Iraq, peacekeeping generation, ‘oh, by the way, we’re going to put your story on the outskirts of Canberra but we’ll happily tell the First World War and Second World War here.”

Dr Nelson said given the nine-year timeline of the project it was not in the Memorial’s interests to stay on, saying it needed a new Director to see it through.

He said the role was up to the selection process and the Government to fill and when asked about the prospects of Tony Abbott, who looks set to joining the Memorial council, said the two roles were very different.

He would continue until the end of the year but had no plans yet after that.

Dr Nelson has been in the role for seven years and said the highlights were introducing the daily Last Post Ceremony, bringing to life the story of just one Australian named on the Roll of Honour, leading the Memorial through the Great War centenary, establishing the Afghanistan exhibition and advocating the expansion.

“Among the many special moments is the opening of the Afghanistan exhibition; the permanent Holocaust exhibition; John Schumann’s performance of I was only 19 in the Hall of Memory before the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier to 108 Vietnam Veterans on the 50th anniversary of the battle of Long Tan; installation of the Long Tan Cross; presentation of Cameron Baird’s Victoria Cross to the Memorial by his grieving parents; recognition of Australian peacekeepers who are killed on the Roll of Honour; inspiring Lee Kernaghan to the Spirit of the Anzacs; the APY Lands artwork commissioned to tell the Aboriginal story of protecting country and the sculpture of General Sir John Monash,” Dr Nelson said.

“I am proud that young servicemen, women and veterans now regard the Australian War Memorial as being their spiritual home as much as those of earlier generations.”

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44 Responses to Nelson blasts War Memorial expansion critics in retirement announcement
Victoria Edmonds Victoria Edmonds 3:33 pm 17 Aug 19

Meanwhile, ADF veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering & struggling to navigate Veterans Affairs & NDIS to get the help they desperately need to stay alive.


Chrissto Melba Chrissto Melba 1:04 pm 17 Aug 19

There apparently were a number of other options for expansion on the table that did not involve the destruction of the reasonably new, 10 million dollar, award winning ANZAC Hall. But Nelson refused to allow them to be considered.

Deirdre Russack Deirdre Russack 10:55 am 17 Aug 19

Brendan is the facile one. Of what is he thinking?

Cathy Beckhouse Cathy Beckhouse 6:45 pm 16 Aug 19

Brendan has done a great job & is an excellent public official.

    Stephen Page-Murray Stephen Page-Murray 11:13 am 17 Aug 19

    Cathy Beckhouse

    Yeah, by ensuring vets don’t get the funds they desperately need

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 6:14 pm 16 Aug 19

“..the Government, supported by the Opposition, had decided to make a generational investment in creating more space so the stories of 100,000 young veterans and peacekeepers of the past 20 years could be told…”

With ominous signs of economic recession developing, we may be glad of the extra tourism revenue which this could generate for local businesses, and the spinoffs in the construction phase.

Tony Whelan Tony Whelan 4:48 pm 16 Aug 19

This member of the “facile minority” is an ex-serviceman, who thinks the AWM is getting way too much money at the expense of the other national institutions.
If Brendan Nelson hasn’t met anyone opposed to his extravaganza, he must have been keeping his head down for fear of meeting them. He didn’t ask me for my opinion.

How convenient for a politician with no military experience to suggest that opponents of his plan are mere “intellectuals and academics” – trying to paint opponents of his plans as being antagonistic to our defence forces.

Pandy Pandy 2:06 pm 16 Aug 19

Fantastic news about the expansion. Vast majority of Australians support this.

Augmented reality museums are flips. People want to get up and personal to real equipment and dioramas. Best thing about the AVM.

Trish Roberts Trish Roberts 8:40 am 16 Aug 19

“A facile minority out of touch with the rest of the country.” I’m sorry, I must have missed something! What about the rest of the country”? The other national institutions, that have to put buckets on the floor when it rains? Someone is out of touch, Brendan, and it isn’t the rest of the country. That expense you plan is monstrous.

Jim Culbertson Jim Culbertson 8:28 am 16 Aug 19

Spend the money on veteran welfare.

Bas Gintings Bas Gintings 7:34 am 16 Aug 19

It seems that there are always money for killing people instead of helping them survive.

Mark Oldrey Mark Oldrey 7:30 am 16 Aug 19


A disgraceful waste of funds...glorifying war, from an ex politician suffering from irrelevancy syndrome.

A typical symptom of nationalism from the LNP.

Rod Holesgrove Rod Holesgrove 7:14 am 16 Aug 19

Nelson is the one out of touch - no other country in the World has put so much money into remembering war . $500 m would have been great for a natural history climate change education centre

Guy Be Guy Be 6:20 am 16 Aug 19

I'd be cool with the half a billion spend of the national gallery wasn't leaking water damaging the collection, the library and film and sound archives having no staff to manage collections etc.

Reidar Jorgensen Reidar Jorgensen 10:27 pm 15 Aug 19

Such a monumental water of money

Gabriel Spacca Gabriel Spacca 10:01 pm 15 Aug 19

Facile Minority. Right. I’ll add that to my resumé.

    Graham H Pratt Graham H Pratt 8:46 am 16 Aug 19

    Gabriel Spacca I thought he was naming you in the article! Hahahaha

Beth Mansfield Beth Mansfield 9:57 pm 15 Aug 19

Is there anyone who goes to the war memorial and comes out going 'what they really need is more gallery space'? It's already far too huge for a single visit.

Frederica Heacock Frederica Heacock 9:00 pm 15 Aug 19

Is this what the vast number of Australians really want? Surely what’s on display can be minimised and the rest can be developed using new technologies like augmented reality to tell truly immersive, virtual stories that everyone can access? I’d rather the money was spent on free education so Australians can be the best they can.

    Elroy Jones Elroy Jones 4:13 pm 16 Aug 19

    Frederica Heacock yeah we should also augment the Louvre

Ben Graham Ben Graham 8:41 pm 15 Aug 19

He surely must see the irony in what he’s saying right?

Mathew Ryan Mathew Ryan 8:25 pm 15 Aug 19

This is our Eiffel Tower, our Statue of Liberty, our Tower Bridge, our history in one building. Nearly every school kid in Australia visits here either with their school, or like me, with their parents. I drive past it every day and am proud to do so. I took my wife (new Australian Citizen) and she was in awe. This is the best monument in Australia, it's our best advertisement. Whatever is needed it should get.

    Dianna Nixon Dianna Nixon 8:35 pm 15 Aug 19

    I think the Sydney Opera House, Harbour Bridge, and Uluru are far more recognised overseas. Most people overseas don't even know the name of Canberra, or that it is our national capital, let alone what or where the War Memorial is. (Having just been at a international conference where next to no one recognised the name of Canberra).

    Jared James Jared James 8:35 pm 15 Aug 19

    Mathew Ryan you are delusional. Do you have any idea why it was put in place?

    Mathew Ryan Mathew Ryan 8:40 pm 15 Aug 19

    ....and Bali doesn't count as leaving the country.

    Mathew Ryan Mathew Ryan 8:42 pm 15 Aug 19

    I can just see old mate "Jared" frantically typing away. "of course i've been overseas, 8 times." Until i said Bali doesn't count. He had to delete.

    Stephen Page-Murray Stephen Page-Murray 9:28 pm 15 Aug 19

    Mathew Ryan

    It’s already got it. The veterans would much prefer the half billion be spent on them!

    Margaret Freemantle Margaret Freemantle 9:38 pm 15 Aug 19

    Mathew Ryan doesn't mean it has to expand!!

    Elroy Jones Elroy Jones 4:12 pm 16 Aug 19

    Mathew Ryan 100% agree with you. Well said. Fortunately we’re not part of the ‘out of touchers’

Stephen Page-Murray Stephen Page-Murray 7:56 pm 15 Aug 19

Most ex servicemen like myself are disgusted at the cost of the expansion. First time I’ve been called a ‘facile minority’

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