‘Review note: An exhibition on averting war and keeping the peace: new at the War Memorial’, Honest History, 23 October 2019 updated
The Courage for Peace, a new exhibition at the Australian War Memorial, is a modest attempt to get beyond the Memorial’s customary emphasis on the heroic deeds of Australians under enemy fire. It is about the work of Australians in averting war and keeping the peace, mostly since 1945, though there is a nod to the Treaty of Versailles 1919, which was supposed to ensure that the War to End Wars did just that.
At the entrance to the exhibition, next to a slide show of Australian peacekeepers (credits to Defence and DFAT, as well as the Memorial), we find these words: ‘As a country deeply committed to all humanity, we are at our best when we do everything we can to avert and build peace’. Further in, LT COL Gary Stone, former peacekeeper, says it rather better, when he stresses that personal courage is all very well but ‘moral courage is what we really need in everyone’.
Averting war is mostly depicted through some items on the 1945 San Francisco Conference that set up the United Nations. There is a picture of external affairs minister, HV Evatt, with the secretary of his department, John Burton, and delegate, Jessie Street, in a formidable hat, plus some pamphlets. From later decades, we see EG Whitlam as prime minister and Gareth Evans as foreign minister, who get a run for their efforts at regional diplomacy, as does the shattered window and crest of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, blown in by terrorists in 2004. Diplomacy can be dangerous, even when wars are averted.
Reverting for a moment to the Versailles Treaty of 1919, it is interesting that Joseph Finnemore’s massive painting of the signing makes an effort to put recognisable faces on hundreds of those present. Lloyd George, pen in hand, is clearly present but it is difficult to see Australia’s WM Hughes anywhere. None of the sets of ears are right.
Australian peacekeepers, East Timor (ABC)
On peacekeeping, East Timor and Bougainville get most coverage, as efforts where Australians played a major role. This is to be expected, though it is good that the curators have made an effort to say something about the causes and nature of these emergencies and not just about what Australians did there. Too often in the Memorial, Australian ‘service and sacrifice’ is painted in bold colours with no background.
Beyond Timor and Bougainville, there is less full coverage of mine clearance, Cambodia, Somali and Rwanda. There are some striking paintings – Marilyn Havini, ex de Medici – and photographs, and some perceptive vox pop from military and civilian peacekeepers.
As one has come to expect with downstairs exhibitions at the Memorial (For country, for Nation, Reality in Flames) this one was virtually free of visitors when this reviewer went – a Sunday afternoon – though upstairs was crowded. The exhibition also seemed to include less exhibits than its predecessors in this space, perhaps indicating the Memorial’s relative lack of resources on the topic.
One side effect of a deserted floor, however, is that the maudlin ditty about the teenage singer’s grandfather floats down the stairs from the World War I galleries on the floor above, again and again and again. Surely, it is time for another song up there.
One final thought: given the flimsiness of the UN and ‘the rules-based global order’ (also mentioned in the exhibition) as means of keeping the peace, perhaps a future exhibition on this subject might look into the prospects of not going all the way with the USA, not signing on as Deputy Sheriff, not being joined at the hip, as means of keeping at least us out of wars. That would be something to see.
The exhibition was opened by Senator Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs. The exhibition is open until September next year. The final volume of the history of Australian peacekeeping was launched this week.
* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and has written many posts for the site. Use our Search engine.