Spittel, Christina: Australia in the Great War (review of AWM WWI galleries)

Spittel, Christina*

Australia in the Great War‘, reCollections, vol. 10, no. 2, October 2015

This review of the refurbished World War I galleries at the Australian War Memorial was published in the online journal of the National Museum of Australia. It explores themes also taken up in reviews in Honest History published in February and March 2015. The author lectures in English and Media Studies at the University of NSW, Canberra.

The author recognises the Memorial’s perennial starting point with the ‘inspired’ but ‘demanding’ vision of CEW Bean to combine in one institution commemoration and historical understanding and research. She goes on:

The relationship between memory and history can be prickly, and the new galleries don’t always succeed in keeping the two in a productive tension. Nor does the Australian War Memorial take its visitors to the cutting edge of new research (much of which, we should add, is funded by Australian taxpayers). For all its sleek and shiny new looks, this new permanent exhibition does not offer any genuinely new perspectives.

Spittel notes the Memorial’s failure to portray the Great War accurately as ‘total war’ or to deliver on its claim to represent Australia’s past, present and future.

Instead, the Memorial’s galleries exclude the majority of Australians who experienced the war, narrating it as a string of battles, in chronological order, from early engagements in the Pacific to the Western Front, via Gallipoli and the Middle East, leaving little room for those back home.

Spittel suggests the Memorial failed to consult widely enough among academic historians. Despite this, the new galleries make some strong attempts to explain aspects of Australians’ military experience and there is some limited recognition of the impacts upon other combatant countries. There is some restraint shown in simulations (compared with the refurbished Imperial War Museum), the refurbished dioramas mostly work well but the ‘immersive soundscapes’ are less than impressive.

Several photographic displays, with accompanying iPads, offer glimpses of different war experiences. The panel explaining the complex conscription debates admits that: “clearly the opinions and motives of the troops were as diverse as those of the general population”. But the focus is generally, even unremittingly, on the common experiences of men in uniform and, overwhelmingly, of infantrymen.

Spittel collects a handful of the more tendentious promotional remarks by the Memorial’s Director, Brendan Nelson, though she misses what is perhaps his best (or worst) about how the Memorial embodies the soul of Australia. (Admittedly, the Director seems not to have used that one for a while.) She notes though that ‘[o]ccasionally, his team is a little too eager, too teacherly, in its attempts to satisfy the perceived need for moral lessons’ – Honest History has seen this in spades – and that ‘the new galleries are very reluctant to engage with damage and destruction’. She does find some bullet holes and shrapnel damage and some passing attempts to confront the cost of war after the shooting died.

Spittel ends up, as visitors are expected to, in the final chamber of the new galleries, ‘a brightly lit room of proud, defiant nationalism’. She notes one final Nelsonian zinger:

“Every nation has its story”, I am told. “This is ours.” The need for royal endorsement, sourced from a speech by Queen Elizabeth, delivered in 1954, and a copy of the plaque given to Prince William and Princess Kate in 2014, is strangely at odds with Lee Kernaghan singing “Waltzing Matilda”. But I’m more concerned with the exhibition’s bizarre efforts to put a lid on the past in this way, to close it off to interrogation and investigation, to pretend that it exists as one single story, with one fixed meaning.

Spittel is not the first to home in on this eminently silly soundbite, presumably one market-tested with a selection of the Memorial’s visitors. As Honest History has noted a number of times, the National Museum of Australia has got much closer to what Australia is all about; its motto is ‘Where our stories live’. That’s stories, plural.

David Stephens

* Christina Spittel reviewed J P McKinney’s war novel, Crucible, for Honest History.


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