Stephens, David: For Remembrance Day: parsing “the Australian War Memorial”

David Stephens*

‘For Remembrance Day: parsing “the Australian War Memorial”’, Honest History, 7 November 2021 updated

Update 11 November 2021: Reprinted on Pearls & Irritations as ‘Australian War Memorial expansion is a disgrace beyond words’.


Recently at Senate Estimates, Senator Ayres (LAB, NSW) was rolling up some gentle questions to the Director of the Australian War Memorial, Matt Anderson. Estimates questions to the Memorial are traditionally soft and the exchanges rarely become even mildly heated.

Thus, when the Senator asked the Director whether the Memorial would be including in its Afghanistan displays something of the work of the local people who had helped Australians during the deployment, it was a surprise to hear the Director – after admitting that the displays would extend that far – say, a little testily, ‘We’re the Australian War Memorial’, with emphasis on the word ‘Australian’ (page 94 of the Proof Hansard).

This article does some parsing of the name of that venerable – some would say ‘sacred’ – cultural institution, the above-mentioned Australian War Memorial. It draws upon more than seven years of collecting evidence for the Honest History website – and, more recently, three years spent on the unsuccessful Heritage Guardians campaign against the $498m redevelopment project at the Memorial.


The Australian War Memorial Act gives the Memorial functions in relation to ‘Australian military history’ which is defined as

the history of:

(a)  wars and warlike operations in which Australians have been on active service, including the events leading up to, and the aftermath of, such wars and warlike operations; and

(b)  the Defence Force.

Now, wars normally have at least two sets of combatants, and the Act specifically requires the Memorial to look at what leads to wars and what follows them. Despite this, in recent years, Memorial management has astutely used its corporate planning process to narrow the Memorial’s focus to ‘Australia’s wartime experience’, not much about combatants opposing us, not much either about what happens before and after our wars.

This shift in focus, though, has allowed the Memorial to highlight pieces of war history which have objectively been quite small, but in which Australians have featured strongly. The battles of Le Hamel in 1918 and Long Tan in 1966 are two examples. Matthew Haultain-Gall has written a book that explores how Australian Great War commemoration has boosted Aussie-rich French battlefields and played down Aussie-poor Belgian ones. And in 2014, commentator Jonathan Green wrote of how Australians venerate the Somme:

It seemed, still seems, disproportionate; in some strange sense setting Australian life and sense of loss above this common muddle of bones and blood that are now the very soil of this place; the simple dirt at your feet. It’s a sense that stirs in these recent Anzac days, a sense of Australia’s desperate lunge for significance, our collective quest for a military history that we can drape around us, like a flag cape at a Gallipoli dawn service: a sense of defiant national self.

That’s where we are led – and left – by that stress on the word ‘Australian’.


As we saw above, the War Memorial Act allows consideration of ‘warlike operations’ as well as ‘war’. The Memorial also has been keen to commemorate and celebrate Australian involvement in peace-keeping operations, many of them under the auspices of the United Nations. Yet, the desultory efforts over the years to broaden the Memorial’s gaze further – even to make it the ‘Australian War and Peace Memorial’ – have sunk without trace.

So, we draw the line at ‘War and Peace’. But not all wars get recognised. There has been long-running resistance from the Memorial to have it explicitly and unequivocally recognise Australia’s Frontier Wars as coming within the scope of that word ‘war’. This resistance is even though upwards of 60 000 of our First Peoples, and a few thousand non-Indigenous Australians, died in these wars from 1788 to at least 1928, some in skirmishes, even battles, others in massacres.

Indigenous soldiers, Victoria, World War II (AIATSIS/AWM)

Historians like Tim Bottoms, Nick Clements, Humphrey McQueen, Robert Ørsted-Jensen and Henry Reynolds have provided ample evidence that Australians at the time referred to these confrontations as ‘war’ or ‘wars’, while talking of ‘wiping out’ the enemies of white settlers. Yet, the best the Memorial has been able to do has been, first, to buy expensive paintings depicting massacres of our First Peoples and, secondly, to marvel at the good grace of Indigenous soldiers who put on the Queen’s uniform to fight for the nation that had dispossessed their people.

That second point, when you think about it, rather disrespects the soldiers concerned. Why, a sceptical whitefeller might ask, should we care about what we did to blackfellers when, despite everything, they still fought for us?


The Memorial’s Act – and spruikers for the place – describe it as being a memorial, a museum and an archive. It has always commemorated the dead, though they are often referred to euphemistically as ‘the Fallen’. It has always displayed objects and artefacts of war, since Charles Bean brought the first batches of them back from the Great War. It has gradually expanded its records and its research facilities (though the National Archives of Australia is actually a much more significant holder of service records).

In 2021, though, the risk is that the balance between these three functions – memorial, museum and archive – will be destroyed as the Memorial undergoes its largest expansion since it was first opened in 1941. During the internal government consultations on the current redevelopment plans, the Historic Heritage Section of the Environment Department said this in September 2020:

These heritage values [of the Memorial] will be impacted by the addition of several large new spaces which will be focused primarily on exhibition of collections, visitor services and functions and events. In this arrangement, the original building’s significance is reduced, as is the significance of the commemorative spaces.

During the same internal consultation, the government’s premier advisory body on heritage matters, the Australian Heritage Council, complained that the new bricks and mortar would intrude excessively onto the landscape setting of the Memorial, leading to ‘the loss of natural areas to designed and constructed spaces’ – another shift in the balance. More recently, among many critical submissions to the National Capital Authority on the Main Works of the redevelopment project, the submission from Emeritus Professor James Weirick, a landscape specialist, stood out. Professor Weirick said at para. 84:

The program for the Glazed Link/New Anzac Hall set by the AWM is too big. Too big for what needs to be displayed and too big in relation to the Main Building as a work of architecture. The scale of the Main Building is set by the Roll of Honour, the wall space needed for the names of all who have died for Australia. The scale of the proposed AWM development is set by a desire to display large-scale weapons of war. This is wrong.

Space expands to be filled with toys for the boys – entertainment. The balance between memorial, museum and archive changes forever.

Destroying the ‘sacred’ War Memorial, October 2021 (supplied)


Words matter and how words are emphasised matters more. Parsing that title, ‘the Australian War Memorial’, shifting the emphasis from one word to the next, helps us to understand more about the place. To make us think. Thinking, rather more than feeling, is important, as historian and Memorial Council member, the late Les Carlyon, knew.

On the feeling side, though, Memorial Director Anderson and his predecessor, Brendan Nelson, have mostly referred to the place in full – ‘the Australian War Memorial’ rather than ‘the Memorial’, let alone ‘the AWM’ – as if spelling out the name like that said something about how Australians should feel about the building and its contents. Like always saying, in a reverential tone, ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’, rather than the short-hand, ‘the Trinity’.

Words and emphases, however, still matter less than actions. Whatever the Memorial’s spruikers call that building and setting at Campbell in Canberra, the fact remains that they – and their sponsors in government and the arms industry – are destroying the place in pursuit of a quite spurious case for expansion. That is a disgrace beyond words. Lest We Forget.

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and has been convener of the Heritage Guardians group, campaigning against the War Memorial redevelopment.

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