DAVID STEPHENS. This is why the $498m extensions to the Australian War Memorial should not go ahead

Saturday’s Nine (Fairfax) newspapers carried a story about 83 distinguished Australians signing a letter opposing the plan to expand the Australian War Memorial in Canberra at a cost of $498m. The letter says the extensions cannot be justified, they show the Memorial is being given preference over other national institutions, and the money could be better spent. The letter and the full list of signatories.  

Among the signatories to the letter are renowned Australian authors, Richard Flanagan, Thomas Keneally, and Don Watson, leading historians Marilyn Lake, Stuart Macintyre, Mark McKenna, Henry Reynolds, and Clare Wright, three former heads of Australian government departments, two former Australian ambassadors, a former Director and Deputy Director of the War Memorial, and the founding Chair of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. Out of the 83 signatories, 24 have been honoured with awards under the Order of Australia.

The case for the extensions has been promoted vigorously by the Memorial’s Director, Dr Brendan Nelson, who has received bipartisan support, following a consultation process conducted largely behind closed doors. The plans were unveiled at a lavish media opportunity in Parliament House in November.

Yet, the arguments for the extensions are deeply flawed and in part misleading. Spokespersons for the Memorial have focussed sharply on the need to display recent conflicts and for a ‘therapeutic milieu’ and contemplation space for veterans of these conflicts. In fact, the Memorial’s own promotional videos show that much of the extra space will be used for a grandiose entry foyer or to ‘park’ decommissioned helicopters and aeroplanes that the Memorial has been bequeathed by the Department of Defence. This includes an F-111 aircraft, a type which has never been used by Australia in conflict.

The Memorial also complains that only a fraction of its holdings can be put on display at any one time. Yet, most museums around the world are able to display only between five and ten per cent of their holdings. The Guggenheim in New York manages to display only about three per cent of its holdings at once, the Louvre in Paris around eight per cent. The Imperial War Museum in Britain probably displays a larger proportion, but that is because it has five separate sites.

It is legitimate to compare the War Memorial with museums because increasingly the Memorial’s display elements are coming to overwhelm its role as a memorial. The emphasis on acquiring military ‘kit’ – large toys for the boys – is an example of this. Increasingly, critics of the Memorial have applied terms like ‘Disneyland’ and ‘theme park’ to it.

People have been reluctant to criticise the Memorial, however, for fear of being seen as unpatriotic or disloyal. Of course, the Memorial is ‘sacred’ to some people, but Anzac is not a state religion. Australians are free to be agnostic or atheist about Anzac.

There is much more to Australian history than Anzac and overseas wars, but Dr Nelson, on behalf of the Memorial, persists with the furphy that the Memorial tells ‘our story’. There are, in fact, many Australian stories; Australia is more than Anzac, and always has been. Even the story the Memorial tells about our overseas wars is incomplete: it concentrates heavily on what Australians have done in war rather than on what war has done to Australia and Australians.

The Memorial has traded on its ‘sacred’ status – and Dr Nelson’s networks with government – to achieve better financial outcomes than other national cultural institutions. It has suffered less from the efficiency dividend than have other institutions and it gets an easy run through accountability mechanisms like Senate Estimates and annual reporting. It needs to be held to account more rigorously than it has been. The letter signed by 83 Australians was an attempt to apply some of the rigour that has been lacking and to open debate on important issues like how we commemorate our wars and how we preserve our heritage.

More than a century after Gallipoli we are still commemorating in much the same way (gazing at artefacts; weeping at stories of ‘the fallen’; muttering ‘Lest We Forget’) while today’s veterans suffer homelessness and suicide and mental illness in higher numbers proportionately than the rest of us. There are far better things on which to spend half a billion dollars, such as increased expenditure on mental health services for recent veterans and on help for their families. That would be a practical form of commemoration.

Within the cultural field, there should be equity between institutions and an end to special deals for the Memorial. Governments – and the people who vote them in – should no longer be taken in by arguments founded on spurious ‘sacredness’ and promoted by skilled spruikers.

David Stephens is the editor of the Honest History website (honesthistory.net.au) and a member of Heritage Guardians, a small committee coordinating a campaign against the Memorial extensions.

 

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8 Responses to DAVID STEPHENS. This is why the $498m extensions to the Australian War Memorial should not go ahead

  1. Michael Flynn says:

    I signed the petition. Today on page 10 The Canberra Times published a comment by Stan Grant that the ” Memorial not all about war”. I agree with him.

  2. Ed Cory says:

    I am on record, in a Letter to the Editor of the Canberra Times, but I’ll be signing that petition too. Sure, spend the money on something else. Museums move exhibits around, put some in store and take others out. You don’t need to show it all, all the time.

    Above all, respect the Memorial as a war memorial – it is the Australian War Memorial, not the Australian War Museum, after all. If you have an embarrassment of artefacts, and really NEED to show them off, then build a military museum separate to the memorial – very separate. In fact, you could always loan them out (back?!) to the services that provided them to the AWM in the first place, or which might be a ‘natural’ home for them. Then they could distribute them around the country, and rotate them back to the AWM as/when required.

  3. Gerard Hore says:

    Can anyone name any other country which presents its national war memorial as No 1 or 2 among places to see when visiting the capital city? This indicates the extent to which over the last hundred years our participation in (mostly) other people’s wars has been portrayed by powerful people as essential to Australian identity and to the forging of the Australian character. Consciously or not these powerful ones (politicians, financiers, industrialists, media moguls) have duped us and we have allowed ourselves to be duped.

  4. John Doyle says:

    If the argument is pinned to a question of money, like saying it needs to be spent elsewhere then it is of no consequence. Reading this says money is very important.
    The reason for downgrading financial argument is that the Federal Government is monetary sovereign and can afford all the memorials ever desired. All it has to do is pay the invoices as they come in, basically forever. The gov creates its money by the act of paying its invoices., through actions in the RBA. Just budget for it and go!

  5. Kerry Goulston says:

    Agree completely. A very good piece. Why accept funding from the Armament Industry. And why the refusal to commemorate the Indigenous Massacres? The new Director May have a more open mind.

  6. Ken Dyer says:

    What a waste of money for projects that do nothing but aggrandize war.

    My father would not have countenanced it, nor would his brothers, and I suspect just about every person whose name appears on the Roll of Honor would feel the same way.

    Enough is enough!

    Let our diggers rest in peace!

  7. Jim KABLE says:

    Were my name prominent enough I would certainly have added it to the list. A relatively recent visit (a year or two back) to the War Memorial was to check out the exhibition space devoted to our Special Forces. It was so noisy with the sound of tanks that I felt myself enveloped by the dust they must have been churning up. It blanked out my brain – added to which it was sketchy in presentation – “no names no pack drill” and though there were people known to me from its earliest origins – of significant rank – where were they? David Stephens here speaks of “Disneyfication” and that is spot on. And another thing – where are the galleries devoted to the Frontier Wars and the Massacres of Indigenous Australians as part of this land’s invasion and conquest. Prof. Lyndal RYAN’s epic tracking of the hundreds of massacre sites will entail an entrance gallery of its own – and indeed the The Guardian (Australia) has even to-day yet another tale of such a massacre in the Victorian western districts. It’s time Nelson was ejected – the beautiful structure already as the iconic Memorial left alone – and all the large matériel housed in a new site relatively close by – and no F111s please!

  8. There’s a petition against the extensions. You can sign at http://chng.it/SD5Vd7WgRy

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