Gallagher, Emily: The first war for country, for nation

Emily Gallagher

The first war for country, for nation‘, Inside Story, 18 May 2017

A review of the For country, For Nation exhibition at the Australian War Memorial. Another review, by David Stephens for Honest History, is here and should be read in conjunction with Gallagher’s.

Gallagher notes that the Australian War Memorial exercises power, as it sanctions some stories and silences others. The story of the Frontier Wars has been a notable ‘silenced story’. Gallagher rightly recognises the hints in For country, For Nation that show that change is afoot. The purchase of the Rover Thomas painting, Ruby Plains Massacre 1, and its placement just outside, but not actually in, the exhibition seems particularly important.

There are clearly constraints on the Memorial’s ability to trumpet a change in direction. One would have loved to have sat in on discussions between curators and management and management and Council, as the exact parameters of acceptability were worked out. (One assumes there were such discussions.)

The exhibition is saturated [says Gallagher] with comments and images that hint at curators’ disillusionment at, and perhaps even resistance to, the conservative interpretation that has previously defined the AWM’s galleries. Indeed, the exhibition clearly recognises a far darker past. Overt references to the frontier wars appear several times.

The present writer referred in his review to the ‘allusions’ in the exhibition; he agrees broadly with Gallagher’s charitable conclusion:

It would be easy to dismiss For Country, for Nation, and the unveiling of Ruby Plains Massacre 1 as empty gestures by the AWM. But that would be a narrow reading of the two actions. Though they might not represent a shift in the AWM’s official remit, they do reflect a willingness to acknowledge the very first war fought ‘for country, for nation’.

But the acknowledgement is still coy and in general terms; it seems to be undertaken with a look over the curatorial shoulder to see how far it can be pushed.

David Stephens

 

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