Questioning the received view: Honest History’s Alternative Guide to the Australian War Memorial
Which word should we use to describe what happened on 25 April 1915: ‘landing’ or ‘invasion’? Why do we refer to dead soldiers as ‘the fallen’? Does the ‘freedom’ we are said to have fought for in our many wars include the freedom to have awkward views about how we should commemorate these wars?
For 75 years, the Australian War Memorial in Canberra has been the leading proponent of an official version of war commemoration. Some observers have even described it as the cathedral of the ‘secular religion’ of Anzac. Certainly, spokespersons for the Memorial often sound like bishops, intoning liturgies about sacrifice and patriotism and unwilling to engage in debate.
There has always been an alternative view, one that sees Australia’s wars as being about what happens at home, what happens afterwards, and what happens in the rest of the world, as well as what happens to Australian soldiers on battlefields. The Memorial tends to steer away from these subjects, to the detriment particularly of school students who visit the Memorial in their tens of thousands every year and who deserve to hear and see a balanced and honest depiction of what wars have done to Australia and Australians.
With these issues in mind, Honest History has produced an Alternative Guide to the Australian War Memorial, directed at senior students and their teachers, as well as at members of the general public. The Guide can be downloaded here. At the time of writing, it had been downloaded 1000 times in three weeks.
The Guide recognises the Memorial’s aims – and comments occasionally on how well these aims have been met – but it is primarily intended to encourage critical thinking and questioning. Honest History vigorously advocates the ‘contestability’ of history. Contestability is a key concept in the Australian Curriculum: History for Years 7-10 and is at the core of the historiography issues tackled in senior years.
What are you supposed to feel when visiting the Memorial [the Guide asks], when looking at an object or a diorama or an exhibit? Do you feel you are being manipulated? Is an object or display offering you historical evidence or just giving you a warm and fuzzy feeling or making you feel sad or making you feel proud to be an Australian? Should the Memorial make you think as well as make you feel?
The seven sections of the Guide take visitors through the Memorial, asking questions and raising issues. The Guide concludes with some difficult questions about the use of language, about whether people can die in vain in wars, and whether sometimes it is better to forget.
Honest History welcomes feedback from users of the Guide and will be looking to produce revised editions. Meanwhile, it will be sending a copy of the Guide to every member of the Memorial’s Council.
David Stephens is secretary of the Honest History coalition and editor of its website (www.honesthistory.net.au). The views in this article are not necessarily those of all supporters of Honest History. The Alternative Guide is here.