For Remembrance Day: Helping the Australian War Memorial address its future – but to do so in a rather different way’, Honest History, 10 November 2019
[In 2018, distinguished Australian historian, Douglas Newton, responded to an invitation to members of the public from the Australian War Memorial to help set its themes for the next 50 years (Theme 5/Future 50). There was a helpful flyer to guide input and respondents received a copy of the consultation report. (Briefly, but no longer, available on the Memorial’s website.) Dr Newton’s original article was dated 15 August 2018. For similar sentiments, see this 2014 piece by Honest History’s David Stephens and the work of Emeritus Professor Henry Reynolds, such as this from 2018. HH]
The declared purpose of the Australian War Memorial is ‘to assist Australians to remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society [emphasis added].’
My concern is that the current description of the proposed project, under Theme 5/Future 50, is much narrower. It suggests that the Memorial will focus not on the ‘the Australian experience of war’ but rather on the experience of battle – as endured by some Australians.
The case for the project is presented in terms of a self-evident need for more ‘gallery space’ because ‘modern conflicts are under-represented’ and the role of the museum is ‘to display these stories’, that is, the stories of service men and women in places of conflict.
The leaders of the AWM appear to understand the museum function of the AWM as one-dimensional: displaying ‘stories’ arising from our nation’s expeditionary warfare and peacekeeping deployments. This is a narrow focus. The museum could mount displays on ‘the Australian experience of war’ in a much broader way.
What a mature people might look forward to in a museum attached to a war memorial are displays that raise much broader and deeper issues about war: the complex and long-term causes of war and conflict, the manner of our commitments to expeditionary war over time, the exact purposes of the wars in which we have been engaged, controversies generated by our various wars, social changes on the domestic scene occasioned through war, the forces that have prolonged war, the forces and movements opposing war, the functioning of our various alliances, and the building of diplomatic and internationalist institutions to limit war, and so on.
I can imagine a modern museum, for a mature people, that might mount displays on subjects well beyond the battlefield, topics that challenge, such as ‘New Imperialism and the Coming of the First World War’, ‘Enemy Aliens: Internment in Australia during Wartime’, ‘Tooling Up for War: the International Arms Trade and the Road to the Great War,’ ‘Australia’s Alliances in War: Costs and Benefits’, ‘Diplomats at War: Australia’s War Aims in the Great War’, ‘The First World War: A View from Asia’, ‘The Conscription Debates in Australia, 1916-1917’, ‘Civil Liberties in Wartime Australia’, ‘The Experience of Genocide in War’, ‘Aftermath of War: Australia and the League of Nations’, ‘Appeasement in Australia before World War II’, ‘Dissidents: the Australian Peace Movement in the Twentieth Century’, and so on.
One can readily imagine the AWM museum hall mounting changing exhibitions that might probe the causes, purposes, prolongation, politics, diplomacy, controversies, and lessons of war – rather than merely the course of battle.
In my experience, the displays at the museum have been overwhelmingly focussed upon documenting military achievement and the experience of battle.
This, I fear, often serves to narrow rather than broaden a visitor’s understanding of the various conflicts in which we have been engaged. For example, I have often accompanied people to displays on various aspects of Australia’s military commitments during the Second World War. They are impressed. The museum’s exhibits are brilliantly done. But, after leaving the museum, some visitors will be none the wiser about causes and purposes. When I have explained that, of course, Australia fought in the Second World War against fierce nationalists, fanatical racists, and persecutors of left-wing dissidents – fascism in short – some of my companions have been amazed. The AWM displays, apparently, did not make that clear.
My own feeling is that the leadership of the AWM shies away from any display regarded as potentially ‘controversial’, from a sense of ‘respect’ for the troops. This is quite mistaken, in my view. We must respect the warrior; we may disrespect the war. It is a simple distinction, surely. True respect for the Anzacs involves probing incessantly the ‘why’, and the ‘what for’ of modern war, rather than ceaselessly lauding our military achievement.
When the Centenary of Anzac was being planned, the March 2011 official report of the National Commission on the Commemoration of the Anzac Centenary stressed this (page 29):
The most bitter disappointment for the original Anzacs was that their war was not, in fact, the “war to end all wars”. The best way we can honour their memory is to focus our thoughts on how we might reduce the risk that future Australians will have to endure what they endured.
It looked forward to the creation of an Anzac Centre:
The Anzac Centre would not focus on the history of our military operations, which is already so well supported by the Australian War Memorial, nor on the specifics of contemporary defence capability, which are well covered by others. It should focus on the deeper sources and dynamics of conflict itself.
The Anzac Centre’s main focus would be the study of the nature of social conflicts, causes of violence and definitions of peace, as well as research into new structures for resolving conflicts.
Australian War Memorial, November 2015 (Wikimedia Commons). The advertising is for ‘Mephisto, rarest tank in the world’, an exhibit seen by some as signifying the Memorial’s focus on high profile examples illustrative of Australia’s wars – although in this case the tank was German – at the expense of analysis.
The National Commission was led by former prime ministers Fraser and Hawke. The ideals expressed there remain to be realised for the future. Why not at the AWM itself?
I might add that both my father and father-in-law fought in the Second World War, and both my grandfathers fought in the First World War, in the uniform of Australia. There is no shortage of respect for the troops in this family.
* Douglas Newton is among Honest History’s distinguished supporters. He contributed a chapter to The Honest History Book. He taught history at Western Sydney University, Macquarie University and Victoria University, Wellington. He is the author of two books on the beginning of World War I, The Darkest Days and Hell-Bent. For other material written by him use our Search engine or Authors list.