Depicting the Frontier Wars at the Australian War Memorial: why it is a bad idea

Nov 16, 2022
Indigenous group on the banks of the River Torrens, 1850

The issue of recognition, exhibition, explanation and duly respectful commemoration of the conflict between invading colonial ‘forces’ and this country’s First Nations peoples at the Australian War Memorial has had growing exposure of late.

The now departing Chairman of Council, Brendan Nelson, recently indicated that the Memorial Council would include depiction of these events as a part of the current expansion project at the Memorial – a 180-degree shift of his previous position.

What may seem a good step along the path to redress this exclusion in the history of our national development may well be anything but. With history, context is vital. The context here is very complex.

To provide dependable context I recommend the work of Dr. Peter Stanley, the widely respected military historian. Other highly qualified authors have of course contributed much; Peter’s work contains a good coverage of all the important elements.

Mostly, I use terms in their generic, currently-understood meaning. The term ‘Frontier Wars’ (Frontier Wars for brevity) covers everything from organised militia/police unit operations to a local Squatter gathering a few men together to go down and destroy an encampment / gathering etc. of local indigenous tribespeople.

The Contrary View:

The issue of Frontier Wars demands a full, appropriate and honest in fact and ambience presentation. The Memorial is not the best place to do this; placing it within that ambience will largely negate the message(s) of the realities of the Frontier Wars.

As an additional factor: the Memorial has appropriated Frontier Wars as a justification for the abhorrent expansion project. The intent is duplicitous and entirely self-serving. This is manifestly obvious from the Memorial’s own documentation produced at every stage of its development and presentation to support government approval and funding.

Source Documentation (#1)

Frontier Wars mention was never included in any of the documentation presented to government to secure approvals. Those interested can pursue this in detail at:

1728-Llewellyn-FINAL.pdf (honesthistory.net.au) and:

1743-Llewellyn-The-Australian-War-Memorial-Development-Program.pdf (honesthistory.net.au)

There is much more, of course: primary source documentation for Senate Estimates and the Public Works Committee hearing [ summary at: Australian War Memorial development: a quick guide – Parliament of Australia (aph.gov.au) ], the AWM submission to the EPBC [ reference at: https://www.awm.gov.au/ourcontinuingstory/ourplans] In none of those does any reference to the Frontier Wars appear.

A commitment to including Frontier Wars at the Memorial has arisen without trace – but not without intent.

Why is this important to note?

That justification of the expansion project does not contain any mention of the Frontier Wars highlights that Frontier Wars inclusion is just a new grab for relevance. That would inevitably result in a cursory exhibition tucked away in some corner and the gravity and impact of Frontier Wars would be depreciated, subdued, relegated to an ‘oh, and also..’ statement. That is the worst possible outcome.

The Memorial is and always was intended to be a memorial to and a museum of the ‘Australian experience of war.’ It has adopted as its primary raison d’etre, the home of ANZAC. The ANZAC spirit, to quote John Menadue, is mythically ‘the starting point of our nation, … our coming of age’.

The ANZAC myth has evolved into the ‘ANZAC Cloak’; shamelessly used by the Memorial (and indeed, the government) in recent times. While the Brereton Enquiry has torn a much-needed hole in the ANZAC Cloak, the Frontier Wars does not in any way fit the narrative. That does not mean that the spirit of the ANZAC narrative is wrong in terms of the effect it has had on Australian society at the time.

Either the Memorial would have to change its entire persona or the Frontier Wars would be a vast anomaly, the antithesis of the ANZAC myth in every possible way. To co-exist, one would have to be radically re-imagined and represented in a less than truthful way. That is unquestionably the wrong way to go.

Does an imperative for the AWM to represent the Frontier Wars really exist?

Most commentators consider it a given that the Memorial should take on the task of presenting the ‘story’ of the Frontier Wars.

That the Memorial has previously differed in its view has been taken as intransigence – which is a very far from unfair comment. However, it is not the absolute that it might appear to be.

The Australian War Memorial Act 1980 details the functions of the Memorial. It raises significant questions as to the mandate of the Memorial to extend coverage to the Frontier Wars.

Bean witnessed the realities of war, in which Australians – serving as Imperial Force soldiers, yet imbued with a spirit of serving their new nation – were slaughtered. He understood that an institution needed to be created to inform that new nation of the facts.

Successive governments in this millenium have supported war/warlike action in theatres of operation of dubious legality; by inclusion at the Memorial, the mantle of ANZAC purity becomes the agency of justification. Frontier Wars could not fit with that malfeasance – and the current Memorial development project is tightly focussed on perpetuating, expanding and cementing the concept that ‘no Australian Soldier has died in a bad cause’ (a staggeringly stupid pontification by any standard).

To materially alter the Memorial to make it even remotely conducive to any appropriate representation of the Frontier Wars considerations would require the destruction of the backstory of the social development of the nation for most of the 20th century.  To use the venacular: to try to combine both the ‘ANZAC myth/legend’ and the Frontier Wars has a huge risk of creating a half-arsed treatment of each which does neither justice. There are better solutions.

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