Stephens, David: Is this ‘substantial’? War Memorial finds another two square metres for the Frontier Wars (and four other Pre-1914 conflicts)

David Stephens*

‘Is this “substantial”? War Memorial finds another two square metres for the Frontier Wars (and four other Pre-1914 conflicts)’, Honest History, 5 May 2023

For some time now, Australian War Memorial Council Chair, Kim Beazley, has been making encouraging noises about the Memorial’s intentions to properly recognise and commemorate the Australian Frontier Wars. In a recent example, on 10 April, Mr Beazley was quoted in the Canberra Times that the Frontier Wars should ‘get its own “substantial” section’ at the Memorial.

The Times editorial commented, ‘Mr Beazley wants a “substantial” representation – but how substantial is substantial? It is a slippery word whose interpretation would give lawyers endless fun and income.’

Yes, indeed. At the time Mr Beazley talked to the Times, there was on record this statement from Memorial management to Senate Estimates on 8 November 2022:

[T]he precolonial galleries, as they are called – and they will now be called the pre-1914 galleries – are about 408 square metres of space. That’s what we’re talking about. In those 408 square metres of space we’ll also discuss the Boer Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, Sudan, and the New Zealand wars. (page 35)

Honest History confirmed this space figure (and the proposed content) with the Memorial in March and we were further advised that the 408 square metres was just 23 square metres (or six per cent) more than these conflicts – Frontier Wars plus the other four – had occupied in the Memorial before the redevelopment project began. That did not sound to us like ‘substantial’.

Now, we find this in the obscure corners of Hansard, the Memorial’s response (dated 3 May) to an Estimates Committee Question on Notice from Senator Dorinda Cox (Australian Greens WA):

Senator Dorinda Cox asked:
Regarding the Frontier Wars being added to the War Memorial. I note and welcome the strong
commitment from Kim Beazley to ensure there is proper recognition of the frontier wars.
1. How much floor space will be dedicated to this display?
2. How will this display cross over and complement the displays at the National Museum
and other key institutions about the frontier wars?

1. Part of 410m2 allocated to Pre-First World War gallery. Planning the content will commence in
2025. The decision on space allocation specific to frontier violence, will be made during the
interpretive design process in 2026.
2. Content planning will begin in 2025. Content decisions will be made during the design process
commencing in 2026.

So, if Mr Beazley believes in that word ‘substantial’, he needs to work on his Council colleagues and Memorial management to make it happen. Memorial management has had ample chance to adjust its plans in response to the Chair’s public statements. It has done so by adding a derisory two square metres and fudging the fact that the Frontier Wars will still share the Pre-First World War space with those expeditions on behalf of Queen Victoria to the New Zealand Wars, the Sudan, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Boer War. (‘Pre-First World War’? Most historians and other observers date the Frontier Wars as running from 1788 to at least 1928.)

There was more in the Memorial’s response and we have attached the full question and answer. It is vague on the important matter of seeking advice from historians and it confirms that the Memorial’s Indigenous Advisory Group is narrowly based in that one membership criterion is ‘connection to the Australian Defence Force’. (Five out of nine current members show an ADF connection.)

The main point remains: Memorial management’s current plans for Pre-First World War space in the redeveloped Memorial will add just 25 square metres to the space that those conflicts – all five of them, including the Frontier Wars – occupied in the Memorial before the redevelopment. That is effectively presenting a raised middle finger to the Australians who looked to our premier commemorative institution to lead the way to honest and proportionate depiction and commemoration of this part of our history.

The Memorial provided answers to 17 other questions on notice. None of the answers gave much away, except for the 47 pages on the Memorial’s $10m geothermal heating project. All of the questions came from the hearing of 15 February 2023 and all of the answers were late.

*David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and convener of the Heritage Guardians campaign.

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