Avoiding entertainment and including a warning to youngsters, the War Memorial does the Battle of Hamel all over again – virtually and immersively

Update 3 July 2018: I saw the Hamel show today and was pleasantly surprised. Despite some moderately lurid advertising, this is a sober presentation. It offers a brief outline of World War I, a summary of General Monash’s plans, and a reasonably balanced judgement on the significance of Hamel in the context of 1918. Overclaiming in the mould of Fischer or FitzSimons is pretty much absent. (Commendations in this respect to the War Memorial’s historians who contributed to the overall package.)

I chose to be a pilot, so possibly saw less ‘stylised violence’ than if I had chosen infantry or tank crew, but the full-on virtual reality – in my case, from the tail gunner’s seat – was only a small part of the overall ten minute presentation. The show is definitely not ‘entertainment’, in the same sense as, say, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, but it is not particularly ‘immersive’ either: the bits on the war in general and the aftermath of the battle hardly needed special goggles to be appreciated. School holiday visitors (age 13 and over) might be fidgeting by the end. I might go again, but join the infantry this time. DS

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The Battle of Hamel in July 1918 took just 93 minutes but, in this time-poor age, the Australian War Memorial is racing punters through it in ten minutes (free), with the assistance of state-of-the-art virtual reality (VR) technology. There was a media event last week to kick off the show and you can book for the show on dates till 22 July.

imagesSeeking immersion 2018 (Medianet)

At the Hamel show, with your special VR glasses and headphones (‘immersive technology’) you can see and hear the battle from the perspective of a soldier on the ground, a pilot flying overhead, or a member of a tank crew rumbling across the blasted ground. There is also material about General Monash’s planning of the battle. There are links to relevant background information.

Despite the media event, the Hamel show sidled rather than burst onto the Canberra scene. The Memorial’s media release was cut and pasted by the Canberra City News, Defence Connect, and Mirage News. There was a brief report on WIN News in Canberra and a disapproving letter to the Canberra Times. Peter Dark of Queanbeyan described the advertising for the show as ‘utterly shameful’ in its references to ‘this exciting, virtual reality experience’, being ‘transported back to 1918’, and ‘fully immersed in the Battle of Hamel’, but these were the aspects that appealed to WIN’s interviewees.

The Memorial’s press release and webpage promise that ‘the French countryside of the First World War will be brought to virtual life in the Memorial’s theatre. Audiences will be immersed in the story of this key action fought on 4 July 1918 on the Western Front … [The show provides, says Memorial Director Nelson] “a unique insight into the events at Hamel almost 100 years ago … [and lets us] learn a bit more about what men like Monash did for us”‘.

Many photographs from the Memorial’s collection are worked into the VR show or inspired it. We’ll go along to try the show out, bearing in mind that, according to Director Nelson, it avoids ‘any semblance of entertainment’. Perhaps that is why it is not recommended for people younger than 13 years of age, though there is also a hint of confronting content: ‘The VR experience contains descriptions of war and stylised battle scenes which may adversely impact some visitors’. Not as much as the men who were there, though. ‘Stylised’ gives a hint that punches are pulled. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, the Hamel show touches a few bases covered in the recent publicity about where the Memorial gets its corporate donations from. First, sessions are held in the Memorial’s BAE Systems Theatre. This facility carries the name of the world’s fourth largest arms manufacturer and has done so since 2008, despite BAE in 2011 becoming notorious for its massive fine of $US400 million in a case brought under United States anti-corruption legislation. The naming agreement was renewed in 2013, so the Memorial at that point either did not know of the 2011 case or did not care about it. Also, BAE products are today allegedly being used by Saudi Arabia to bomb Yemen, something that the Memorial could not possibly be unaware of.

Secondly, the Hamel show is being ‘developed with the support of Boeing Australia’, the world’s second largest arms manufacturer, and one of the Memorial’s favourite donors. (Boeing’s CEO was made a Fellow of the Memorial in recognition of Boeing’s donations.) Respected anti-corruption body Transparency International (TI) warns us (p. 51) that ‘Charitable Contributions and Sponsorship’ is one of a number of ‘key corruption issues’. In 2015, nevertheless, four of the Memorial’s six large arms manufacturer benefactors scored more than 90 per cent from TI for their ‘policies and codes’, including those relevant to corruption. The two exceptions were Thales (67 per cent) and Boeing (58 per cent). Boeing was particularly weak on evidence that it had ‘a zero tolerance approach to corruption’, ‘a policy that explicitly prohibits facilitation payments’, and ‘a clear policy on engagement in lobbying activities, in order to prevent undue influence or other corrupt intent, and discloses the issues on which the company lobbies’, as well as on evidence that it ‘prohibits or regulates charitable contributions, in order to prevent undue influence or other corrupt intent’. It also scored less than full marks on the giving and receipt of gifts.

4231300Risking immersion, Flanders 1917; one of the photographs used in the development of the Hamel show (AWM E01220)

We wondered, thirdly, whether any of the development work for the Hamel show was done in the Memorial’s Kingold Education and Media Centre, the $500 000 facility funded by Dr Chau Chak Wing, who has come under notice for a number of reasons recently. (Like Dennis Muilenburg from Boeing, Dr Chau is a Fellow of the Memorial.) Apparently not, as we understand that all the technical work for the Hamel show was done in-house at Start VR.

We’ll keep these latter aspects of the Hamel show in mind as we don our fancy eyeware and headphones and decide which role we’ll play. No semblance of entertainment, though; just immersion.

David Stephens

28 June 2018 updated

Notes

We sought information from the Memorial’s Communications and Media (C&M) team about the use of the Kingold Centre and the nature and dollar amount of Boeing’s support. Over the course of a week, we had two telephone contacts with the C&M team and sent them two emails. There was no response to our queries, as has happened with most of  our questions to C&M over the years. As always, should the Memorial wish to comment on this piece, we will print its comment without amendment.

Honest History will shortly post a review of two books about Hamel.

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