Fathi, Romain: ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ The Sir John Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux: a Frenchman’s reflection on his visit

Romain Fathi*

‘“Look at me! Look at me!” The Sir John Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux: a Frenchman’s reflection on his visit’, Honest History, 12 March 2019 updated

Update 29 May 2019: Philip Goad in ArchitectureAu on the architecture of the Monash centre.

Update 23 April 2019: Andrew Tate in the New Daily on his visit to the Monash centre. ‘The graves out front of the Sir John Monash centre say so much more and deserve better than a commemorative arms race in hokey nationalism.’

Update 15 March 2019: Romain Fathi talks about his book Our Corner of the Somme: Australia at Villers-Bretonneux with Frank Bongiorno at Muse, Canberra, 24 April. Bookings.

Update 16 March 2019: Alison Stewart on Traveller website reports: a mixed view, noting some technology glitches.

Introduction

There is something Kath and Kim about Australia’s newest interpretation centre in Northern France, the Sir John Monash Centre (SJMC). Something that screams with a broad and nasal accent, ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ Unveiled on Anzac Day 2018, Australia’s largest extraterritorial commemorative site came with a $A100 million price tag. The project deserves a close look for what it says about how Australia – or at least the Australian ‘commemorative industry’ – treats the nation’s past. And for other reasons as well.

The chief ambition of the Monash Centre project was to proclaim urbi et orbi the very significant role Australia played in World War I. As retired Major General David Chalmers, representing the project manager, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA), told the Australian Parliament’s Public Works Committee (PWC) 2015 inquiry into the project, ‘It is the Australian government’s view that these remarkable and little-known achievements deserve to be better known and recognised both in Australia and internationally [and the Centre] provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to recognise Australia’s remarkable contribution on the Western Front …[1]

Photo 1The Sir John Monash Centre (author)

An Australian centre

The Sir John Monash Centre was born after 20 painful years of genesis and three years of construction work.[2] The Anzac centenary provided both a clear justification for the Centre’s construction – in the increased number of Australian visitors to the Western Front leading up to the centenary – and the bipartisan political support needed for a project of such scale. Despite some protests in the community,[3] not even the Labor Party questioned this spending on the Anzac civil religion.[4]

When the SJMC was unveiled, a French journalist politely commented, ‘[T]his centre proposes a very Australian version of the war’.[5] Indeed, the Centre comes close to discussing Australians’ deeds exclusively, with the Germans just making an appearance in the background. The British and the French are almost left out of the narrative altogether, as are most other nations involved in the war. By contrast, the Canadian memorial at Vimy focusses on remembering grief and mourning, that of the South Africans at Delville Wood invites visitors to reflect on the difficult past of their country, and that of the British at Thiepval presents the violence of the Somme Offensive and mass death, with no sugar-coating.

The new Australian centre has a different purpose: glorifying the entire Australian nation and engaging in memory proselytism to convince imagined others – non-Australians – of the key role of the Australian Imperial Force on the Western Front. The SJMC explains where and how Australians fought, extols the Anzacs, and presents their courage, their good spirits and sense of humour and all the ‘typical’ Australian qualities of yesterday and today. So, the Centre wants to impress non-Australians, the imagined others, while attempting to make Australian visitors proud of their past.

Because there are pay-offs in this for Australians, too: there is an element of ‘Look at us, Australians!’ as well as ‘Look at me, foreigners!’ As is the case with many commemorative projects, it is not so much the fantasised values of the dead which are historicised, but those of the living. The living project their values onto the dead, who are then presented for everyone to admire. In the SJMC case, the Centre becomes a flattering mirror in which today’s Australian visitors (including schoolchildren) can validate their identity by discovering supposed historical manifestations of Australian values. They see in the past what they imagine to be Australian values today, or rather, what one institution (DVA) wishes Australia’s past and present to be.

An emotional and sensory approach to the past

Conceived as ‘a leading-edge integrated multimedia experience’, the SJMC aims to provide an ‘emotional’ experience to ‘Australian and International visitors’ and to immerse them in the war through the many new technologies the Centre features.[6] Upon arrival, visitors are invited to download to their phone an application that activates short videos or soldiers’ testimonies as the visitor proceeds through the Centre. The app also carries abstracts from soldiers’ letters or diaries for visitors to listen to.

The abstracts are neither historicised nor contextualised – situated within history – because the goal is that soldiers speak of their war in their own terms, in order to stimulate the visitors’ emotions. One of DVA’s contractors, Russell Magee, an Interpretive Design Consultant from Convergence Associates, made the intention clear to the PWC inquiry in 2015:

One of the key focuses of the centre and one of the unique approaches we are taking here is that we are not, with due reference to Peter [Pedersen, the chief historian of the project], having text written by historians; all of the text will be first person sourced. They are the people who experienced it and they are the people who can best explain the impact of that terrible event to us.[7]

The SJMC’s website explains: ‘A visit to the Sir John Monash Centre will be a moving experience that leaves a lasting impression’. The Centre showcases ‘Australia’s story of the Western Front in the words of those who served’.[8]

photo 2

photo 3A fascination for weaponry (author)

The highlight of a visit is an eight-minute movie played constantly at short intervals. The three giant screens give a countdown before the movie starts: ‘The next show starts in 2 minutes’. And a show it is indeed, a sound and lights one at that. Flashes and rattles represent artillery and guns, a white smoke like to that found in nightclubs simulates a gas attack. The audience is immersed. The whole production comes with tear-jerking music worthy of a bad Hollywood war movie.

Beyond the ethical consideration of whether it is possible to make visitors believe that they are re-living the war – a question clearly answered in the positive at the SJMC – there is the impossibility of reproducing combat conditions in a flashy and comfortable interpretive centre. Speaking about his experience creating a World War I museum (the Historial of the Great War), eminent historian of memory Jay Winter has written thus:

[W]e [the historians and museography team] have proceeded so that the pitfall of pseudo-realism is avoided, contrary to other museums which reconstitute the experience of war in order to present a reality effect. We thought that it was impossible to reproduce the smell, the light or the sensations of trench warfare without it being kitsch, so we chose to reject verisimilitude.[9]

photo 4The fake gas attack experienced by visitors (author)

The SJMC takes a different tack. All its artifices are arrayed to glorify valorous Australian soldiers and to immerse visitors in what it would have been like to be in an attack in the Great War. None of the visitors will leave the room maimed, crippled, insane or gassed, of course, but the aim is to provide them with the thrill of combat and show what Australian soldiers went through. Apart from the Germans, there is no sign of other soldiers; it is a bizarre conception of a world war. As noted by David Marr in The Guardian, ‘the Monash Centre is not for scholars. This is entertainment, cutting edge and thrilling in its way, but entertainment.’[10]

Museography at Villers-Bretonneux shies away from contextualisation; the objects or anecdotes presented are parochial and do not enable visitors to comprehend the Great War as an event that involved millions of soldiers, and even more civilians, from more than 30 countries.[11] The SJMC’s narrative of the past is not about historical veracity; it is instead, ahistorical and patriotic. The SJMC’s currency is not history. The Centre’s aims are two-fold: to develop the sense of pride that Australians have in their country and, secondly, to let the world know that Australia’s role in World War I – in reality and proportionally marginal, as Australians were just 0.6 per cent of all soldiers in the conflict – was crucial to the outcome.

To achieve these aims, there are short videos displayed through the Centre, mingling archival materials, digital imagery and reconstructions. Visitors can use a planisphere on a touch screen to go through all the places in the world which saw Australian engagements during the Great War. The point is to signal that Australians were everywhere and did everything. There is little to no context provided to integrate these Australian contributions (or discuss their limited sizes) in relation to the global conflict. Thus, one cannot understand why Australians were at Bullecourt, Le Hamel or other places, as these micro-engagements are not properly integrated with the wider battles of which they were a part. Similarly, the allies alongside whom Australians fought are virtually absent.

Choosing sensory immersion, using essentially the same strategies as cinema and video games, blurs the lines between fiction and reality and perhaps even generates in visitors’ minds an equivalence between the real war and the imagined war. Films, music, smoke, sounds, flashes try to ‘immerse’ visitors, giving them access through their senses, but without perspective, let alone understanding. The adjective ‘immersive’ appeared 14 times in DVA’s 20 page submission to the PWC in 2015, as if each repetition would make the impact on future visitors more certain.[12] But understanding does not come from being plunged into a sound and light show, even one with imitation gas.

That museographical choice prevents reflection and active thinking because it appeals not to the visitors’ intellects but to their emotions and senses. Sensationalism prevails over reasoning. A visit to the SJMC is an episode of cultural consumption, producing an emotional reaction and not an understanding of the past. In the words of DVA’s contractor, Russell Magee, just after the Centre opened, ‘We’ve observed people walking out crying on a daily basis and that’s what we wanted to achieve’.[13]

Photo 5A video game-like approach to the past (author)

An official and patriotic ‘history’

Outside the SJMC, in large golden letters on the entry wall, visitors can read a quote from a former Governor-General, Sir William Deane, for whom Anzac ‘is about courage, and endurance, and duty, and love of country, and mateship, and good humour …’. The museography of the centre is in perfect conformity with this vision and attempts to convey its reality through carefully selected objects and stories. The SJMC is not a World War I museum like others in this area of the Western Front such as Péronne, Meaux, Ypres (Ieper), Lens or even Verdun. Those museums favour a pedagogic approach of comprehension and reflection regarding the Great War, indeed about war in general. Located at the exact opposite – the antipodes, if you wish – of this approach, the SJMC is a showcase for the exploits, imagined or established, of Australian soldiers, thus developing an emotional and sentimental approach to an idealised past.

The image of the Anzacs is carefully monitored and controlled by Australian government agencies. Any historical reality which could have damaged the Anzac legend has been removed by those in charge of the project. There was no need seen to discuss venereal diseases, the Anzacs’ assiduous use of brothels in Amiens, or the theft and looting they committed at Villers-Bretonneux. Australian desertions are ignored, as is the help provided by the Canadians at First Villers-Bretonneux. As for the way the Moroccan Division of the French Army rescued and saved battalions of the Australian 13th Brigade at Second Villers-Bretonneux and won from the Germans territory which Australian soldiers had not managed to seize, not a word is spoken. A hundred years after the event, Australian authorities still cannot accept the idea that their men were rescued by non-white French colonial troops.[14] Nor do they want Australians to know about such events. As Major General Chalmers said to me in a 2013 meeting at the Australian Embassy in Paris, ‘Australians do not come to Villers-Bretonneux to hear about Moroccans’.[15]

This selective memory does not come about by chance. Indeed, some of the Anglophone academic historians initially consulted were either bypassed or deliberately distanced themselves from the project, as they felt the requirements of the representatives of the Australian government were increasingly in conflict with the ethical practices of their discipline. Monash University historians Rae Frances, Bruce Scates and Alistair Thomson, plus Jay Winter of Monash and Yale, were approached by DVA’s contractor, Convergence Associates, to collaborate in the creation of the historical narrative of the SJMC. Government representatives then explained to them that the point of the Centre was to affirm that Australians had won the war and that the Centre ought to inspire pride in Australian visitors with ‘just a touch of sadness’. After DVA refused a number of short biographies proposed by the historians for the Centre – because the biographies did not advance the type of glorifying narrative DVA wanted – those historians, finding it impossible to do their work, withdrew from the project.[16]

Photo 6A dead German soldier (author)

Official Australian ‘history’, then, wishes to please Australians, to make them proud of their ancestors and of themselves. In the Australian context this is, of course, not new.[17] But it means that the principles of liberal democracy Australians hold dear are not applied when it comes to remembrance. No French historian was invited to take part in the SJMC project and, when I asked the then French Ambassador to Australia, Christophe Lecourtier, why this was the case, he told me that the SJMC was a centre created for Australians by Australians.[18] In France, interactions with French historians, or local institutions such as the French-Australian museum at Villers-Bretonneux, were avoided, so that DVA had total control of the story that would be told at the SJMC.

As well as being narrowly based, the museography of the SJMC is the heir of the official version of Anzac found in the galleries of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.[19] Like the Memorial, the SJMC has a double purpose. In both cases, we have a place for contemplation and a place to display historical artefacts. The SJMC is located next to the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, which is itself placed within a cemetery. Similarly, the War Memorial is both a museum and a shrine. Yet, even with this combination of purposes, neither the Memorial nor the SJMC try to tell the history of the Great War; their goal instead is to commemorate those Australian soldiers who took part in the war.

Photo 7Medals, more (large) medals (author)

The Australian War Memorial joined DVA as the two main agencies which conceived the narrative presented at the SJMC. The creation of this patriotic narrative of the past was supervised by two retired employees of the AWM, Peter Pedersen and Peter Burness, who worked under contract with DVA.[20] It is therefore unsurprising that the ‘historical’ narrative presented at the SJMC is akin to that displayed in the galleries of the War Memorial: a history of Australia in the Great War with little contextualisation of the causes, stakes and consequences of the conflict, with a museum journey that is based on individual stories of Australian soldiers, presented as war heroes (along with appropriate relics) in whom Australian visitors should feel pride.[21] Put succinctly, the aim was to increase the prestige of Australia’s engagement in the World War I and to deliberately silence any aspect which could tarnish the Anzac legend, a characteristic the SJMC has inherited from its Canberra counterpart.

The unveiling of the SJMC on Anzac Day 2018 also fitted within a process, initiated in the Howard years, of redesigning the Anzac legend to shift the heart of Australia’s national narrative from Gallipoli (a defeat in a non-European, non-Christian foreign land) to the Western Front, where Australians were part of the 1918 ‘victory’.[22] As well, this shift rejuvenates Anzac Day so that it does not stand for an ultimate defeat (like Gallipoli) but for a victory, that of Second Villers-Bretonneux, which, in the Australian narrative, was an engagement won by Australians, appropriately on 25 April 1918.[23] (But note that both loci of national consciousness – Gallipoli and Villers-Bretonneux – are extraterritorial, and both enable the construction of an Australian national identity which avoids addressing the dispossession of Australia’s Indigenous people after 1788.)

Photo 8The Anzac industry and the commodification of Anzac (author)

The SJMC was unveiled in the midst of laudatory yarns replete with historical mistakes, such as that of popular history writer Jonathan King. King wrote a piece for Fairfax papers on 21 April 2018 which attracted much attention, forcing Fairfax to remove the article from its website.[24] King was made to issue a clarification and apology a few days later. Historians and non-historians alike knew, contrary to King, that John Monash had played no role in Second Villers-Bretonneux, nor had he delivered ‘an impassioned pep talk’ to Australian soldiers about to fight in this engagement. Even Prime Minister Turnbull’s speech opening the Centre was not free from errors, attributing to Monash things that he did not do.[25] As one letter to the editor put it, ‘We have emerging here the worst jingoism of the First World War reappearing a century later in 2018. Australia is the lesser for it.’[26]

When the SJMC opened, DVA commissioned a special edition of the local (Amiens) newspaper Courrier Picard. The first 20 pages of the ‘souvenir edition’ were in English, a language the overwhelming majority of locals do not know. The special edition was commissioned for the benefit of Australians visiting the Somme, who could see themselves featured in the local press. The front page of the souvenir edition enjoined ‘Lest We Forget’ and was followed by short articles and dozens of pictures of the Dawn Service and the unveiling of the Monash Centre. Interestingly, in the French edition of the paper, it was only on page 6, in the regional section, that Anzac Day was discussed in French, between an article on a beekeeper taking it out on Monsanto and Bayer on page 5, and an article on juveniles in Amiens train station on page 7.[27]

Photo 9The fear of being forgotten results in the injunction to others to remember Australia (author)

Conclusion

The Sir John Monash Centre is a missed opportunity. It could have showcased Australia’s best historical practices. It could have reflected on whether this war was worth the costs for Australia. It could have integrated Australia’s numerically small contribution into that of its allies, reflecting upon the global dimension of the conflict. It could have avoided the Disneyland approach in favour of an intellectual and critical – in its positive sense – comprehension of the past.

The SJMC does none of these things. Here, war produces heroes, mateship, medals, courage – good Australian values to be proud of, ‘the warm fuzzy feeling’ the Anzac centenary should pass on to Australians, courtesy of the Australian government (and the taxpayer).[28] And the reflection of today’s Australians in yesterday’s. ‘People now seem to believe’, author Michael McGirr said in 2004, ‘that in looking at the Anzacs they are looking at themselves. They aren’t. The dead deserve more respect than to be used to make ourselves feel larger.’[29]

But beyond this need for a few Australians to see themselves reflected in the SJMC’s exhibits (a need encouraged and subsidised by DVA for decades now), beyond even the militarisation of Australian history, there lies the colonial syndrome of an insecurity about themselves, where Australians, as an indirect means to gauge their own worth, need to look to how they are perceived by others. Nearly 20 years ago, historian Graeme Davison said Australians’ ‘habit of seeing [themselves] through the eyes of the imaginary other is the most lasting mental relic of colonialism’.[30] In 2019, that desperate cry for attention is still manifest in the narrative provided at the Centre. A sombre, analytical and respectful set of displays would have better served to commemorate those Australians who fought and lost their lives at Villers-Bretonneux and elsewhere. It would also have provided an understanding of Australia’s contribution to the war.

* Dr Romain Fathi is a Lecturer in History at Flinders University, South Australia, and a Research Associate (chercheur associé) at the Centre d’Histoire de Sciences Po, Paris. His book Our Corner of the Somme: Australia at Villers-Bretonneux is just published by Cambridge University Press. For other work by Dr Fathi use our Honest History Search engine or the author listing.

Endnotes

[1] Australia. Parliament, Official Committee Hansard, Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works: Sir John Monash Centre, Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux, France, Friday, 26 June 2015, Canberra, p. 1 (hereafter ‘PWC Hansard’).

[2] It was initially proposed at Le Hamel in 1998 but failed, and then at Villers-Bretonneux in 2006 and failed again. For the history of the SJMC from 1998, see Romain Fathi, Our Corner of the Somme: Australia at Villers-Bretonneux (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2019), pp. 136-37, 144-45, 152-58.

[3] Paul Daley, ‘Keeping place for stolen Indigenous remains should take priority over Anzac centre’, The Guardian, 13 October 2015; David Stephens, ‘Money, Monash and motive: the Sir John Monash Centre, Villers-Bretonneux (Immersion I of II)’, Honest History, 7 July 2015.

[4] KS Inglis with Jan Brazier, Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape  (Melbourne University Publishing, 3rd ed, 2008), p. 433.

[5] Antoine Flandrin, ‘Dans la Somme, les Australiens ouvrent un centre high-tech sur 14-18’, Le Monde, 24 avril 2018. Translation from the French.

[6] PWC Hansard, p. 1.

[7] PWC Hansard, p. 5. ‘Reference’ possibly should be ‘deference’.

[8] Website: ‘Sir John Monash Centre: Australian National Memorial France’.

[9] Jay Winter, ‘Montrer la souffrance (Show the suffering)’, Caroline Fontaine, dir., Les Collections de l’Historial de la Grande Guerre (Paris: Somogy éditions d’art, 2008), p. 35. Translation from the French.

[10] David Marr, ‘Blood and poetry on western front as Turnbull beaten in battle of the words’, The Guardian, 25 April 2018.

[11] Romain Fathi, ‘World politics explainer: the Great War (WWI)’, The Conversation, 3 September 2018.

[12] Stephens, ‘Money, Monash and motive’.

[13] Nick Miller, ‘Sir John Monash World War I recreation so real it will make you cry’, Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), 22 April 2018.

[14] Romain Fathi, ‘“They attack Villers-Bretonneux and block the road to Amiens”: A French perspective on Second Villers-Bretonneux’, Tristan Moss & Thomas Richardson, ed., New Directions in War and History (Sydney: Big Sky Publishing, 2017), pp. 53-71.

[15] Fathi, Our Corner of the Somme, p. 201.

[16] Bruce Scates, Keynote address: Beyond the Stage: a creative arts symposium, State Library of South Australia, Adelaide, 14 June 2018. The credits for the SJMC include (among a list of historians under Convergence Associates) the names of Professors Frances, Scates and Thomson, recognising their participation before they withdrew from the project.

[17] The ‘history wars’ between Paul Keating and John Howard were a key factor in John Howard’s decision to turn to Anzac for the provision of a ‘three cheers’ national narrative: Mark McKenna, ‘Different perspectives on Black Armband History: Research Paper 5, 1997-98, Politics and Public Administration Group, Parliament of Australia, 10 November 1997’.

[18] Conversation between Romain Fathi and Christophe Lecourtier, French Ambassador to Australia, 20 March 2015, at the Ambassador’s residence, Canberra.

[19] Romain Fathi, Représentations Muséales du Corps Combattant de 14-18: L’Australian War Memorial de Canberra au Prisme de l’Historial de la Grande Guerre de Péronne  (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2013); Margaret Hutchison, Painting War: A  History of Australia’s World War I Art Scheme (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2018); Michael McKernan, Here is Their Spirit: A History of the Australian War Memorial 1917-1990 (Brisbane & Canberra: University of Queensland Press & Australian War Memorial, 1991); David Stephens, ‘Is this “our story”? Another look at the Australian War Memorial’s refurbished World War I galleries’, Honest History, 3 March 2015.

[20] They are thanked on the SJMC’s website in the credits section.

[21] Fathi, Représentations Muséales, pp. 81-192.

[22] Romain Fathi, ‘“A piece of Australia in France”: Australian authorities and the commemoration of Anzac Day at Villers-Bretonneux in the last decade’, Shanti Sumartojo & Ben Wellings, ed. Nation, Memory and Great War Commemoration: Mobilizing the Past in Europe, Australia and New Zealand (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2014), pp. 273-90.

[23] A strong theme in the speeches of then Prime Minister Abbott. See, for example: Katharine Murphy, ‘Tony Abbott questions mythologising of the Gallipoli campaign’, The Guardian, 25 April 2014.

[24]Correction and apology’, SMH, 28 April 2018. Gleeful New Zealand commentary.

[25] David Stephens, ‘Some schadenfreude about Picardy (une joie malicieuse à propos de Picardie)’, Honest History, 30 April 2018.

[26] Martin Williams, ‘Modern casualty’, The Age, 30 April 2018.

[27] Courrier Picard, 26 April 2018.

[28] This is a reference to the official view on the Anzac centenary discussed in Bruce Scates, Rebecca Wheatley & Laura James, World War One: A History in 100 Stories (Melbourne: Viking, 2015), p. viii.

[29] Michael McGirr, Bypass: The Story of a Road (Sydney: Picador, 2004), p. 246. The remark was provoked by war memorials encountered during a cycling trip down the Hume Highway between Sydney and Melbourne.

[30] Graeme Davison, ‘The imaginary grandstand’, Meanjin, vol. 61, no. 3, 2002, p. 6.

 

 

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