Stead, Naomi: Australian War Memorial

Naomi Stead

Australian War Memorial‘, The Saturday Paper, 8-15 May 2021; (pdf from our subscription)

A thoughtful and comprehensive evisceration of the War Memorial project from the Professor of Architecture at Monash University. There is an edited version in the paper’s hard copy. Professor Stead’s doctoral thesis, ‘On the Object of the Museum and its Architecture,’ examined the cultural politics of architecture in recent social history museums.

Professor Stead makes these points among others:

  • The War Memorial is at the centre of a civil religion in Australia. ‘In light of the proposed redevelopment, though, the question is whether such religiosity is being manipulated to political ends. After all, architecture is especially useful in materialising political ideology.’
  • The fly-through on the Memorial’s website gives an impression of the project. ‘This apparent call  to action [from the emotive use of the music of ‘Waltzing Matilda’] is also, pretty transparently, an appeal to jingoistic nationalism … [But, the extensions will be] luxurious, cavernous and pretty bland.’
  • The huge spend is hard to fathom in the face of needs in other areas. Other cultural institutions would not get this largesse.
  • ‘Anzac Hall has won several major architecture awards, and is a still fully functional public building, recognised as part of the heritage value of the AWM ensemble. Knocking it over rather than retaining and adapting it seems needlessly wasteful.’
  • ‘[Opponents of the project] worry the redevelopment is excessive and unnecessary. They argue it changes the nature of the AWM from a place of commemoration to one that glorifies war; that the redevelopment’s vast funding is an “ambit claim” representing poor value for money; that it’s like a theme park, where superannuated military hardware (planes, helicopters and armoured vehicles) are set up as props without real opportunity for interpretation or engagement; that there will be many mature trees lost, damaging the sense of a monument within a landscape setting; and that the redevelopment is too big and will dwarf and ruin the character of the place and impugn Bean’s vision that it should be “a gem of its kind” and “not colossal in scale”.’
  • ‘In Morrison’s words, the AWM “transcends politics”. But does it also transcend accountability? Does it transcend fiscal responsibility and due process? Because that’s how it’s looking. If the War Memorial truly is our nation’s most sacred site – which is arguable – then it’s irreligious to overpower it with a cavernous, wasteful and scandalously expensive new development.’
  • ‘[T]he redevelopment also makes a mockery of consultation and heritage protections, building a giant boondoggle right next to one of our most revered monuments. The process has damaged public faith in our bureaucratic structures, our proper checks and balances, our good governance and our democracy. If this can get through, what next?’
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