Oliver, Bobbie: For Remembrance Day: Another gaffe inflicted on the Australian War Memorial with Tony Abbott appointment

Bobbie Oliver*

‘For Remembrance Day: Another gaffe inflicted on the Australian War Memorial with Tony Abbott appointment’, Honest History, 10 November 2019

[Bobbie Oliver comments on the appointment of former prime minister, Tony Abbott, to the Council of the Memorial. This issue has been addressed also by Guardian Australia’s Paul Daley, Honest History’s David Stephens, and Sue Wareham, President of Medical Association for Prevention of War. More, including minister’s announcement of the appointment. HH]

The news that the Australian War Memorial has had recently appointed to its Council former prime minister and federal Member of Parliament, Tony Abbott – amid rumours that he will succeed Brendan Nelson as the Memorial’s Director – is disquieting and disappointing. While the media describes Abbott as ‘a military buff’, one has to question the wisdom of his appointment. What credentials does he have to advise the Memorial’s Director and staff? Even more importantly, what expertise does he possess to lead one of the nation’s foremost museums and research archives?

330px-Tony_Abbott_October_20142014 Wikipedia

The Memorial states that it ‘combines a shrine, a world-class museum, and an extensive archive. The Memorial’s purpose is to commemorate the sacrifice of those Australians who have died in war or on operational service and those who have served our nation in times of conflict’ and its mission is ‘to assist Australians to remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society’. Maintaining such a mission requires the expertise of eminent professional historians and curators. None of these serve on the current Council.

It is disappointing to see the Memorial being steered in a direction that suggests Council appointments go to individuals on the basis of ‘who they are’, rather than whether they are qualified to direct or advise a major museum and research institution, whose purpose is honouring Australia’s war dead and former service personnel.

When I was employed as a Research Officer at the Memorial during 1995 and 1996, the institution occupied an esteemed place in the public mind. To be a Memorial employee was regarded as something special. At that time, we were engaged in a major renovation of the Second World War gallery to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the war’s end and to make the displays more relevant to a new post-Vietnam War generation of visitors. The staff were aware that many visitors had no first-hand experience of any of the 20th century wars in which Australian troops had fought. Consequently, the strategy was to assume that visitors arrived with no prior knowledge and to ensure they left with some understanding of Australia’s war experience. The Memorial has always experienced tensions between its roles as a shrine (aiming to honour military sacrifice) and a museum (trying to tell stories as truthfully and objectively as possible). With sensitive guidance by historians and curators, I believe that the required balance was largely achieved in 1995.

What is happening today? During the tenure of the outgoing Director, Dr Brendan Nelson, the Memorial took a new direction in fundraising. In mid-2018, there was a public outcry about the Memorial being partly funded by weapons manufacturers, including BAE Systems, whose names and logos were prominently displayed. Has the Memorial lost the respect with which it was once regarded?

Media articles and public comments indicated the Memorial’s new fundraising policy was in conflict with its stated aims of honouring Australia’s war dead and telling their history. Paul Daley, writing in The Guardian (23 May 2018), asked, ‘Manufacture. Sell. Deploy. Commemorate: is this how we should memorialise war?’ Toni Hassan’s Sydney Morning Herald article of 9 June 2018, titled ‘Should arms dealers be funding the Australian War Memorial?’, cited comments by defence force personnel as well as the general public, indicating disquiet about the source of donations and the high profile given to donors at the Memorial. Listeners to a radio talkback show said they were appalled, with a former naval officer commenting he wouldn’t be surprised to see Brendan Nelson handing out show bags on Anzac Day. Questions were raised about the appropriateness of taking money from ‘merchants of death’ to fund the commemoration of war dead and injured. The Memorial was accused of suffering from an institutional loss of moral compass.

Is this disgust reflected among the wider public? It’s hard to tell from the visitor numbers recorded in the Memorial’s Annual Reports. I checked figures for the years 2004-05 (733,975); 2005-06 (721,000 – down two per cent from the previous year); 2014-15 (1,142,814) and 2017-18 (1,089,000). Without comparing these figures with visitor numbers for other Canberra museums and galleries, it is impossible to ascertain whether the Memorial’s overall share of visitors is increasing or declining. The 2017-18 report stated that there was a one per cent decrease on visitors from the previous year. While most categories of visitor had increased, the category ‘relatives of ADF personnel’ had fallen by seven per cent on the previous year. This may be an aberration or it may be significant.

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The Memorial’s 2018-19 report gives less detail than previous reports and changes the measurement methodology, making year-on-year comparison difficult, although overall visitor numbers seem to have declined on the previous year: 1,089,000 visitors to the Memorial and its Mitchell annexe in 2017-18; 881,380 to the Memorial alone in 2018-19. (Mitchell visits are not shown separately but would only be a tiny proportion of the whole.) The 2018-19 report introduces a comparison with an average of the three previous years, which enables it to conjure a two per cent increase on the average. [More on attendance at the Memorial. HH]

Time will tell, but a hard-nosed, corporate attitude that it doesn’t matter where funds come from as long as they are used to further the Memorial’s aims and maintain its visitation figures (however massaged from year to year), plus high profiling of corporate donors, plus a lack of appropriate expertise on the Council, do not add up to a good strategy for maintaining the public’s respect and interest in the Memorial.

* Associate Professor Bobbie Oliver is Honorary Research Fellow in History, University of Western Australia. Her most recent book is A Natural Battleground: The Fight to Establish a Rail Heritage Centre at Western Australia’s Midland Railway Workshops. A list of her other publications is here.

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