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War Memorial’s grand design

A $500 million white elephant? Source: Wikimedia


There wasn’t much bipartisanship in the last Parliament, but both the LNP and the Labor agreed to fund the Australian War Memorial’s (AWM) grandiose $500m redevelopment.

Barring late announcements, it seems likely this will be the major cultural infrastructure project for the next federal government.

The plan involves the controversial demolition of Anzac Hall, an award-winning extension that is less than 20 years old.

The rationale is that the Memorial needs to double its exhibition space so it can interpret more recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and peacekeeping missions to East Timor and the Solomon Islands.

Public interest ignored

Australia has spent more than $600m commemorating WWI.

This includes $100m on the Sir John Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux, where visitor numbers have fallen far short of predictions.

Political appetite for war commemorations seems to be higher than the public interest.

Add in the AWM’s $500m redevelopment and public spending on war commemorations will top $1.1b.

After so much money has been spent commemorating WWI, is this really Australia’s highest cultural infrastructure priority?

While the AWM director Dr Brendan Nelson skilfully wrangled both parties to endorse his grand design, he has not cemented public support.

Indeed, opposition to the scheme continues to grow.

When the plans were launched last year many argued the money would be better spent supporting veterans. In March, 83 prominent Australians signed a public letter opposing the project, including a former AWM Director and Deputy.

And recently a group of Australia’s most eminent architects penned an open letter criticising the design guidelines requiring the demolition of Anzac Hall.

The most compelling objection to the Memorial’s lavish expansion is the refusal of the AWM’s Director and Council to include the frontier wars of resistance.

Dr Brendan Nelson has variously cited the lack of a formal declaration of war, the AWM’s focus on overseas conflicts, and suggested the issue is the National Museum’s responsibility.

All nonsense excuses.

Where other countries such as the USA and New Zealand have publicly recognised the frontier conflicts with Indigenous people as wars, the leadership of the AWM is hiding from the facts.

It is untenable for the AWM, as the nation’s pre-eminent public war memorial and history museum, to be evasive about the foundation wars of modern Australia.

The Memorial’s extravagant plan to interpret recent military and peacekeeping engagements only magnifies the institution’s gaping silence about the frontier wars.

New historical research on Aboriginal massacres is expanding our understanding of the conduct and impact of the frontier wars.

We’re learning the names and stories of Aboriginal warriors.

Public interest in the wars of resistance is growing, especially in regional Australia.

Family descendants of combatants are discovering their shared history and reconciling.

As new massacre sites are identified, communities are building memorials to mark the sites.

Some veterans’ groups are supporting commemoration of the frontier wars on Anzac Day, and the frontier wars are remembered at many Anzac Day services.

What does it mean for the AWM’s engagement with Indigenous Australians when their policy implies that Aboriginal warriors who bravely fought to defend their land and people are not worthy of recognition and remembrance in the nation’s war memorial?

And what does this mean for the nation as a whole if the AWM won’t be truthful about the history of this country?

Priorities for reconciliation

It is not tenable for the AWM to stick to the wars that suit what is now an outdated narrative of the nation’s military history.

Respect, reconciliation and cross-cultural understanding require honesty and truthfulness. Australians are ready for it, even if the old guard at the War Memorial won’t face the facts.

The next government in Canberra needs to take a good look at that $500m of taxpayers’ money and think about how the scope of the AWM’s plan fits with national priorities for reconciliation with Indigenous people.








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