Stephens, David: Allusions in Beanland: two exhibitions at the Australian War Memorial

David Stephens

Allusions in Beanland: two exhibitions at the Australian War Memorial‘, Honest History, 21 March 2017 updated

This is a combined review of For Country, for Nation, about Indigenous service in defence of Australia, and A Home on a Southern Hill, a series of small exhibitions commemorating the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Memorial in November 1941.

On the first, the reviewer is struck by the difficulties the Memorial continues to get itself into by trying to distinguish between recognising the ill-treatment of Indigenous Australians by settler Australians (particularly in the Frontier Wars) and commemorating the Frontier Wars (which requires some specificity, of the type the Memorial has been good at with our overseas wars). The Memorial compounds its difficulties by its further desire to recognise the service of Indigenous warriors before as well as after 1901.

The Memorial still cannot – for whatever reason – bring itself to go beyond these two forms of recognition and embrace commemoration. (The heavily brass composition of the Memorial’s Council may be part of the reason.) The review points to a number of allusions in the For Country, for Nation exhibition and asks some important questions, like:

  • Can defending Country at home only be recognised to the extent that it can be presented as a precursor to uniformed service after 1901?
  • Why should the massacre stories passed down through Indigenous families not be told to the Memorial’s largely white Anglo-Celtic visitors?
  • If the desire to serve, to defend Country, is the same now in 2017 (and since 1901) as it was in colonial times, and is recognised as such, it could reasonably be asked: Why is Indigenous defence of Country in colonial times not commemorated in the same way as Indigenous defence of Country now?

The Memorial’s treading of fine lines has been chronicled previously in our 2016 piece about its promotion of the John Schumann song, ‘On every Anzac Day’, which includes these memorable lines put by a settler soldier to an Indigenous comrade:

I asked him once why he volunteered for that hellhole far away

To fight for someone else’s king and the land they took away

He said “One invading mob’s too many” and then he walked away

The 2016 piece also includes discussion of whether recognition and commemoration of Indigenous service is likely to lead to recognition and commemoration of the Frontier Wars. There are also some notable remarks from Director Nelson, including this one:

It is certainly my view and I certainly don’t say this with anything but immense respect for Indigenous peoples, and a sense none of us will ever be able to understand what they went through when that first fleet arrived and everything that came afterwards and to some extent still happens today.

It seems disingenuous to make admissions like this (however tortuous in their language) but to balk at commemoration.

Turning to the ‘southern hill’, the rest of the review remarks on some divergences between the earliest concepts for the Memorial and how it has turned out today, and on the Memorial’s accustomed over-attribution of Charles Bean. Finally, the review takes advantage of the proximity of the exhibition area to the Memorial’s BAE Systems Theatre to make some points about the eponymous arms manufacturer BAE Systems, which is one of the Memorial’s notable donors, but which by no means has a history of model corporate citizenry.

Update 21 March 2017: Shirley Macnamara, one of the artists in the exhibition, is interviewed by Dan Bourchier of ABC Radio Canberra.

Update 24 March 2017: National Archives and Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance exhibitions on the same subject. See a review by Michael Piggott.

Update 27 March 2017: Minister Tehan, on behalf of the Rona Tranby Trust, is seeking descendants of Indigenous members of the Light Horse who were involved in the Beersheba charge in 1917. An oral history project is under way.

Update 28 March 2017: Not explicitly about Indigenous soldiers but notable nevertheless is the Memorial’s acquisition of the large painting, ‘Cure for pain’, by eX de Medici. Built around empty helmets, foliage and other finely drawn features, the work is less explicitly about war than much of the rest of the collection at the Memorial and thus is more likely to provoke thought than emotion.

Update 20 May 2017: Another review in Inside Story by Emily Gallagher, which comes to similar conclusions.

Update 14 July 2017: The Memorial buys another massacre picture, Queenie McKenzie’s ‘Horso Creek killings’ (1996) and hangs it next to the Rover Thomas referred to in the main article.

Update 17 November 2017: The purchase of another Indigenous ‘defence of Country’ painting raises the same questions about the Memorial’s motivations.

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