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Lest We Forget#5: Recognising our common humanity by doing commemoration in a less Australia-centric way: Honest History’s Alternative Guide to the Australian War Memorial

Honest History’s Alternative Guide to the Australian War Memorial has had two editions (2016 and 2017) and has been downloaded more than 3000 times by school students and their teachers. We would love to have done more editions to keep up with the temporary exhibitions that the Memorial has held since 2017 but resources did not permit.

Here is a link to the second edition of the Alternative Guide. There is an explanation of the differences between the first and second editions; the second edition is essentially an expanded version of the first, but takes account of the temporary exhibition, For country, For Nation, which was on at the Memorial for some time and then became a travelling exhibition.

When we knew in 2021 that the Memorial’s history team were working on some new approaches to the Memorial’s content to go with the expansion of its space, we suggested they do a third edition of our Alternative Guide; there was no reply to our email.

The main themes of the Alternative Guide were clear from the beginning and we reckon they still apply now. The following paragraphs are from the introduction.

ag2View from the Australian War Memorial steps, opening day, 11 November 1941 (AWM 130300/RS Conrow)

The themes of the Alternative Guide

Reading the Memorial

The Australian War Memorial is a complex ‘site of memory’ and it can be read in different ways, many of which may be legitimate or justifiable. The Alternative Guide recognises the ‘readings’ the Memorial offers but then offers alternative readings.

This Alternative Guide wants to help change public expectations of the Memorial. Look, for example, at the definition of ‘Australian military history’ in section 3 of the Memorial’s Act: ‘the history of: (a) wars and warlike operations in which Australians have been on active service, including the events leading up to, and the aftermath of, such wars and warlike operations; and (b) the Defence Force’.

Reading this, you might think that ‘the history of … wars’ would include something about why these wars occurred, the experience of the people Australians fought against (as well as of Australians), and the effects of war on Australia and other countries. Yet the Memorial’s ‘Mission’, as set out in its Corporate Plan, is a lot narrower than the words in the Act. It says this: ‘To assist Australians to remember, interpret, and understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society’ (emphasis added).

Does this emphasis on ‘the Australian experience of war’ and its ‘impact on Australian society’ allow the Memorial to take a parochial, Australia-centric view, ignoring the rest of the world? Should the Memorial focus more broadly? You could keep these key questions in mind during your visit. (None of them imply any disrespect to Australians who went to war.)

Complexity

‘Official’ interpretations of history need to be challenged and corrected, not just because they are unduly dominant – due to their endorsement by powerful interests – but to offer alternative readings. The discipline of history is all about a contest between interpretations. History – ‘what happened’ – is not a single narrative. Nor is history, the discipline. The more interpretations that contest with each other, the more complex history becomes. That should be welcomed.

Context

A key theme of the Alternative Guide is ‘context’. Are there ‘silences’ in the Memorial’s galleries which need to be filled? We suggested above that the Memorial presents an Australia-centric or parochial view of the wars in which Australia has been involved. The Guide will point to where the Memorial could consider the impacts of war on people other than Australians.

The Memorial also emphasises the deeds of men and women in uniform. You could ask whether this emphasis is at the cost of describing what was happening on the home front, to women, children – and men. These people were the majority of the population, the ones who did not go to war. For example, Joan Beaumont in Broken Nation points out that, during World War I in Australia, ‘[a]mong men aged 18 to 60, nearly 70 per cent did not enlist’. So the Guide suggests where there is room to look at what was happening at home.

Honesty (and evidence)

The final key theme of the Alternative Guide is ‘honesty’. The Honest History coalition deliberately included the word ‘honest’ in its title to emphasise the importance of honesty in the way all of us should approach history. History means interpretation; ‘honest history’ is interpretation robustly supported by evidence.

But honest history is also about telling the full story, not holding evidence back, not sanitising. Look for places where the Memorial presents (or fails to present) evidence in a way that produces sanitised or misleading or partial stories. (Here we mean ‘partial’ in both senses – not telling the whole story and favouring just one side of the story.)

What are you supposed to feel when visiting the Memorial, when looking at an object or a diorama or an exhibit? Do you feel you are being manipulated? Is an object or display offering you historical evidence or just giving you a warm and fuzzy feeling or making you feel sad or making you feel proud to be an Australian? Should the Memorial make you think as well as make you feel?

ag3Anzac Day ceremony, Australian War Memorial, 1971 (AWM ART27772/William Dargie)

Lest We Forget that there is a lot more to the wars of the last two centuries than what has directly affected Australia and Australians. Humanity has suffered, not just Australians; we should commemorate war in a way that recognises this.

David Stephens

22 April 2022

*David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and co-editor with Alison Broinowski of The Honest History Book (2017) .