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.
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.”