Stephens, David: Honest History’s Alternative Guide to the Australian War Memorial: what chance is there that the new bigger, Memorial will let these stories be told?

David Stephens*

‘Honest History’s Alternative Guide to the Australian War Memorial: what chance is there that the new bigger, Memorial will let these stories be told?’, Honest History, 26 July 2021

The Australian War Memorial has started to destroy itself. The bulldozers and heavy equipment have begun to fell trees and demolish Anzac Hall, and are getting ready for what is euphemistically called ‘bulk excavation’, but which includes a massive hole across the southern elevation of the building. Accordingly, it is time now to return to some fundamental questions about what the Memorial of the future will contain and what stories it will tell.

  • Does the glossy Our Continuing Story marketing campaign, with its air-brushed pictures of recent Australian service men and women, hint that the new Memorial will be more of the same – how Australians fight and how well we do it – and how, occasionally, we die – and not enough about why we fight, whether it was worth it, and what it did to us and to the people upon whose countries we fought? (The Our Continuing Story narratives are also big on what a great life can be found in the Australian Defence Force; there is a strong career advice element to them.)
  • Does the Memorial’s recent marketing deliberately steer away from the previous visions of vast new spaces filled with retired military kit (You Tube November 2019 version; slightly modified March 2021 version), even while the Memorial’s official submissions still stress the display of war machines, as this evidence shows?
  • Is there another way of looking at what the Memorial has been in the past, to give us an idea of what it can be in the future?

The third of those questions was addressed in Honest History’s Alternative Guide to the Australian War Memorial, first published in 2016, second edition 2017. The Alternative Guide has been downloaded around 3000 times since it first appeared. Cover of second edition. Contents of second edition.

Asking questions is at the heart of historical research. The Alternative Guide asks a lot of questions and does not always provide answers. That is for readers to do; sometimes there are no easy answers. The key themes of the Guide are: recognising that there are many ways of ‘reading’ the Memorial; understanding that war history – any history – is complex, despite attempts to simplify it; reaching out for the context of stories, which often are silences, unwitting or deliberate; aiming for honesty, which in the discipline of history means supporting one’s arguments with robust evidence.

The Guide is organised in sections corresponding to parts of the Memorial. Each section of the Guide has links to suggestions for additional reading, most of them on the Honest History website. We pitched the Guide at middle to upper level Secondary students, teachers and the general public. Users can print multiple copies; see the copyright note on the final page.

2001

60th anniversary of opening of the Australian War Memorial, Remembrance Day, 2001 (AWM ART91794/Bob Marchant)

Three extracts from the Alternative Guide

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.) …

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 …

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?

A challenge to the War Memorial

In April 2021, Honest History took part in a seminar with Memorial staff about the possible future content of the expanded institution. While some of the views expressed on the Memorial side suggested that there might be a chance of the Memorial taking a broader view of our wars than it has in the past, there were other aspects of the process, particularly the lack of transparency and the requirements for confidentiality, that influenced Honest History not to participate further.

On withdrawing, however, Honest History drew the Memorial’s attention to some of the material on the Honest History website, including the Alternative Guide. We hope they follow it up.

Honest History is aware, too, that the Guide could do with a new edition: the thrust should be the same as before but some features need updating, for example, there needs to be a reference to the temporary exhibitions since 2017 and to the significance of the Brereton report and its impact on the Memorial’s current treatment of Ben Roberts-Smith (innocent of war crimes – crimes which he denies – until found guilty).

Honest History’s challenge to the War Memorial, particularly its historians: as part of the content development exercise, produce a new 2021 or 2022 edition of Honest History’s Alternative Guide to the Australian War Memorial, and place it conspicuously on the War Memorial website for downloading. Honest History holds the copyright in the Guide but will gladly show some flexibility in this respect. We look forward to seeing a draft.

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website, and has been convener of the Heritage Guardians group, campaigning against the War Memorial extensions.

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