The redeveloped Australian War Memorial will provide gallery space to tell the story of the frontier conflicts between First Nations and British authorities and white settlers.
Veterans’ Affairs Minister Matt Keogh and outgoing Memorial Council chair Dr Brendan Nelson confirmed the move at a press conference to announce an innovative geothermal heating project for the Memorial that will save it $1 million a year in energy costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Pressure has been building on the Memorial to include the frontier conflicts in its coverage of the nation’s military and peacekeeping history, particularly since the announcement of the controversial redevelopment, which now comes with a price tag of $548 million after a $50 million top-up to cope with soaring construction costs.
It also comes as SBS/NITV screens The Australian Wars series about the frontier conflicts.
Mr Keogh said the Memorial already recognised First Nations’ defence of their land to some extent, but the redevelopment offered the opportunity to do much more.
“I’m aware that as part of the expansion program, the council is looking at how it can have some greater reflection upon that,” he said.
“I think that the recognition and reflection on frontier conflict is something that is a responsibility for all of our cultural institutions, not just here in Canberra, but across the country.
“It’s important that we do raise awareness for people across the country about the importance of frontier conflict and the impact that that had on our First Nations people and properly reflect upon and understand our history. There are already some elements of that here in the War Memorial and that will be expanded upon as part of the overall expansion project.”
Dr Nelson said the Memorial housed 63 artworks depicting violence on the frontier and the importance of the defence and protection of land to Aboriginal Australians.
But this recognition would be expanded to be part of the new galleries.
“The Council has made the decision that we will have a much broader, much deeper depiction and presentation of the violence committed against Aboriginal people, initially by British and by pastoralists, then by police and by an Aboriginal militia that will be part of the new galleries, and so we will have more to say about that in due course when the gallery development is more advanced,” Dr Nelson said.
It appears to be a significant concession from the Memorial which has argued previously that the frontier conflicts were not part of its mission.
Mr Keogh said the $10 million geothermal heat exchange would be the world’s largest closed loop system of its kind and an Australian first, making the Memorial a showcase for sustainability.
He said the project would replace the current gas system to provide heating through winter and cooling through summer and cut carbon emissions by 1000 tonnes.
“It’s a great example of how the government, through its own projects and through the public service, can be contributing to the 43 per cent reduction in fossil fuel emissions by 2030,” Mr Keogh said.
“This is building that’s not just about the past. It’s a building that is also about our future.”
The geothermal project will complement a 235-kilowatt solar energy array and a 580,000-litre rainwater harvesting system.
The $10 million cost will be funded with the current budget and should be recouped in about seven years.
Memorial Director Matt Anderson, when asked whether the redevelopment would need more money from government, said the project team was doing all it could to stay within its $548 million budget.
Mr Keogh said the government would look at any request through the normal budget process but was not expecting one.
Mr Anderson said the overall project was on track to be completed in 2028.
He said all of the major excavations and early works had been completed and Canberrans would soon see structures coming up from the ground.
“We’re now at the stage where we have signed with Hindmarsh to undertake the Bean Building and the central entry point work and the geothermal work. We are in the process of finalising with our preferred tenders the other major works packages,” he said.
There are three major work packages, the front of the Memorial; the southern entrance, including the Bean Building Research Center and the central energy plant behind; and the new Anzac Hall and glazed link.
Dr Nelson, the former Liberal minister and Memorial Director who championed the redevelopment, will step down as chairman and as a member of the Memorial’s Council following the next meeting in November.
He has been appointed to the London-based role of President of Boeing International and made a member of the company’s leadership executive council.
Dr Nelson was expected to see the Memorial redevelopment through to its completion.
“It’s the one thing that I do have regrets about,” he said. “But I can assure you that with the minister’s guidance and with the Council members that we have … I have every confidence in the project.
The timing and appointment of a replacement are up to the government and Mr Keogh.