Depicting the Frontier Wars at the Australian War Memorial: perception is the critical factor

Dec 8, 2022
Red poppies Canberra's Australian War Memorial.

While history per se is (or should be) a statement of facts, the impact of history on its audience is the creation or modification of perception. That the ‘ANZAC Cloak’ has come to be as pervasive as it has and equally the fact that it is only in very recent times that the Frontier Wars have come to be appreciated in any depth, are both expressions of perception.

The Memorial should be retained intact as a strong physical record of its time, even if in future that record stands as testimony to an ‘Australian’ developmental period of unjust treatment of First Nations peoples – as indeed it cannot escape either entirely or largely. In future, it might be seen as the Rosetta Stone of a stage of the development of ‘Australia’ to becoming properly aware and eventually inclusive of all of its history and its peoples – the good, the bad and the ignorant.

Sodium and Water

Alongside the facts and the interpretations, the Australian War Memorial is very much a melange of perceptions. Given the nature of war it is impossible that it could be anything else and still present a vestige of truth.

The collection was started as an entirely unscripted, uncurated repository of artefacts from WWI, and I doubt even Charles Bean had any real idea of just how, or where, or even when these could be used to ‘tell the story’ he envisaged. As the Registrar, I had an extremely close knowledge of the collection up to the time I left in 1995 and to say it is eclectic is a massive understatement. It is the job of curators to derive exhibitions around ‘the stories’ and weave meaning and understanding (aka perception) by the use of items from the collection – and to develop the collection to tell stories yet unformulated.

The best curators are not just ‘collectors’ – though some curators are highly expert collectors. They are mostly historians by profession or by nature, for whom the accolade of success really is measured by the depth of engagement with and understanding of the story they have told by its audience: perception.

Perception drives the relationship between the Memorial and its visitor clientele. No better an example of what this means in reality has recently been given by the comments of Kim Beazley, an almost lifelong visitor to the Memorial, on being appointed to the AWM Council: “I have memories that go back to when it was a much sparser institution in the 1950s and 60s. It is now really quite overwhelming compared to those days.”

A great deal of what is on display as ‘war memorials’ (not ‘military museums’) world-wide has an underlying theme of perceptions of ‘mateship’, gallantry, undertones of heroism, perhaps a sort of patriotic nobility even. The AWM does not escape that and never has, though as Beazley said, it has become ‘overwhelming’. Other commentators of recent times have justifiably used less neutral terms.

Two examples: the first, how the Memorial sought to expand the consciousness of its visitors in 1989: the Man in the Mud. I frequently observed people interacting with this work in my time at the Memorial and the overwhelming reaction was a full stop, gaze, conversation stopping, contemplation of what was represented. This work has not gone back on display since 2013 – presumably it no longer fits the narrative the Memorial wishes to present and the perception its visitors may gain from it of what warfare actually entails.

The second: how the Memorial depicted combat in 2014: ‘Pistol Grip’. I have never watched the visitor interaction with this work and prefer not to think what perception the average visitor carries away from seeing it. The considerably larger-than-lifesize image itself imbues great importance from the perspective of the Memorial. We are yet to find out how well that endures scrutiny.

We accept almost without demur that Australian servicepeople are decent folk. That is not an unfair characterisation, though there is growing awareness that sanctification is inappropriate and in some instances, just plain wrong. As Michael Pascoe recently wrote: ‘Who wants to think of their father as a war criminal? Or in time, their grandfather?’ The Memorial is, not unreasonably in view of its purpose, antipathetical to that purpose. Most of the adoration comes from commentators (politicians, ‘shock jocks’, ultra-conservative /populist fellow-travellers etc.) and not from servicepeople themselves – and is self-serving rather than realistic.

The Frontier Wars treatment must be realistic, factual, instructive and provide a path to revealing the fractured relationship between First Nations peoples and the colonising forces. Many of the actions of the colonising forces that together form the Frontier Wars story are brutal, abhorrent by modern thinking, potentially genocidal. That cannot sit comfortably with the tacit acceptance of ANZACS as anointed ‘good people’ – at least by the colonisers and their descendants – for whom the Memorial is the physical expression of commemoration. However, it would be unfair, unjust and anachronistic to repudiate the ‘stories’ that the Memorial tells.

The dichotomy here cannot be negotiated without serious damage to both sets of perceptions, which is unfair and (largely) unwarranted in either case. It is fact that the ANZAC persona played a significant part in the development of a consciousness of Australian (i.e. 1901 forwards, Anglo-Saxon-centric) national identity; it is also fact that the Frontier Wars episodes played a major role in propelling the colonisers of the First Nations Peoples’ lands into the position of utter dominance.

Separate institutions are necessary to do justice to both sets of perceptions. Each should appropriately recognise that the development of the nation we now have did not happen with a simple flipped switch from ‘evil colonials’ to ‘ANZAC heroes’ and due reference must be given to the bad and the good that happened over time – for history is never simple.

This nation’s history needs proper representation of all its important ‘stories’ – to charge the Memorial to also adequately present the Frontier Wars story is an impossible task and an unreasonable expectation. Let us instead concentrate on getting each side of the equation presented fairly, truthfully and empathetically.

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