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May 03rd 2010 print

Merv Bendle

Targeting the War Memorial

When What’s Wrong With Anzac? came out, why was there not even one eminent military historian apparently prepared to enter the lists to combat the deluded but highly destructive claims being made by its authors?

Anzac and the ‘Militarization’ of the Australian War Memorial 

There are misgivings and controversies over the current direction of the Australian War Memorial, at least according to a recent feature article in the Sydney Morning Herald (“Last post: the battle for our national memory”, 23/4/2010). Apparently, far-left radicals like Marilyn Lake, Henry Reynolds and other historians engaged in the campaign against Anzac allege that the AWM and “its masters in the Department of Veterans Affairs”, have connived with the Howard and Rudd governments to misappropriate the past and promote the ‘militarization’ of Australian society; while “traditionalists” are concerned about commercialization and sponsorships, and the introduction of multimedia installations designed to provide immersive experiences at the AWM.

The article goes on to describe the exhibitions at the AWM, ranging from the older and still, extremely impressive Great War dioramas, to the child-friendly Discovery Zone, and the recently opened multi-media Vietnam War display based on an actual 1967 helicopter mission. It also includes an interview with the director of the AWM, Major General Steve Gower, who fielded various questions about these issues, including the claim that “some of the memorial’s own historians [are] unhappy at the emphasis placed on Gallipoli [and] on the Anzac spirit”.

I have always been a fan of the AWM and my great uncle is listed amongst the 102,000 names in the Roll of Honour. It has proven to be not only an extremely effective and evocative memorial but also an excellent museum and research centre. It is also one of Australia’s most popular tourist destinations, attracting some 800,000 visitors a year, and it is always a gratifying experience to visit the AWM on weekends and walk amongst the thousands of people from other countries who are exploring its exhibitions and learning about Australia’s military history.

Nevertheless, as the centenaries of the outbreak of the Great War and the Gallipoli campaign approach in 2014 and 2015, it is clear that the AWM faces some serious challenges. These lie in basically three areas.

Firstly, the AWM obviously has a central leadership role to play over the next 4-8 years and the Australian people will look to it as the public face of our remembrance activities. It will need to maintain its balance as the ideological assault on Anzac and ‘militarization’ intensifies, while also resisting the temptation to assume a low profile and avoid the various challenges and controversies that will emerge. Here, I believe we can be confident, given the adroit professional and entrepreneurial manner in which the AWM has performed over the past decade or so.

Secondly, it will have to continue to maximize the use that can be made of modern technologies, concepts, and techniques to enhance its exhibitions. In 2009 I undertook a seven-week study tour of wartime memorials, museums, documentation centres, and battlefields in Britain and continental Europe, and was able to make some assessment of how the AWM compares to similar institutions overseas. These included the Imperial War Museum in London, Duxford, and Manchester; the National Army Museum; HMS Belfast; the Fleet Air Arm Museum; the D-Day Museum and the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard; the Bovington Tank Museum, the Circuit of Remembrance in the Somme; the Somme Heritage Centre; the South African National Memorial and Museum; the Historial [sic] of the Great War; the Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial Museum; the Hooge Crater War Museum; the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery and Australian National Memorial, and the Franco-Australian Museum; the Newfoundland Memorial, Museum, and preserved trench system; the Menin Gate; the Thiepval Memorial and Exhibition Centre; and many other sites in France, Germany and Poland. These visits complemented a 2007 trip to Gallipoli and to the Atatürk and The War of Independence Museum in Ankara, which boasts a brilliant series of dioramas of the Gallipoli campaign viewed from the Turkish perspective.

Overall, these overseas institutions offer truly stupendous experiences, building on their locations, historical knowledge, and ready access to huge amounts of material and relevant sites relating to the wars with which they are concerned. The scale and variety of their exhibitions highlight the achievement of the AWM in Canberra in mounting the excellent exhibitions that we so greatly appreciate in Australia. Nevertheless, there is a great deal that can be done, especially as the centenaries approach. Therefore, contrary to the views of the alleged ‘traditionalists’, I believe that tremendous opportunities exist for the AWM to make the greatest possible use of various technologies and innovative and imaginative approaches to the depiction and memorialization of Anzac and the Western Front campaigns, hopefully while also maximizing its extensive holdings of exhibition material.

It was recently announced that the government will provide substantial financial support to remembrance activities over the next few years, and a large proportion of this must go to the AWM to fund further expansion, innovations, upgrades, improvements, and programmes. Hopefully the Rudd government’s recent experiences with roof insulation and school buildings has alerted it to the fact that public money is best spent on institutions with a proven track record, and not wasted on half-baked trendy schemes, and other amateur-hour activities. Such funding should be complemented by money raised through various sponsorship arrangements of an appropriately dignified nature, as Australian corporations should be given every opportunity to express their support for Australia’s remembrance activities.

Finally, over the next few years the AWM has the opportunity to face down the explicit challenge to its very rationale being mounted by Lake, Reynolds, and the radical coterie in academia, the media, and on the political left for which they are the main mouthpieces. The attacks on the AWM, the DVA, and especially the Anzac legend and Australia’s military tradition have been underway for several years and the publication of What’s Wrong With Anzac? and related books, along with the surrounding media campaigns indicate that these attacks have moved into another gear. Here it is not clear how vigorously the AWM is responding to redress the balance. It has indicated that it feels obliged to avoid putting forward one single view and AWM historians and others have the freedom to pursue iconoclastic arguments, however corrosive these may be.

This may be the case (although it is not a freedom reciprocated by the left). However, this doesn’t mean that the arguments should be exclusively iconoclastic or that the relevant historians should actively support or through their silence facilitate the campaign of those committed to destroying the very foundations not only of the AWM but of the Anzac legend that has moved to the centre of Australia’s national identity. It therefore must be asked: When What’s Wrong With Anzac? came out, why was there not even one eminent military historian apparently prepared to enter the lists to combat the deluded but highly destructive claims being made by its authors? Why was the field left so abandoned that a couple of radical historians of Australian feminism and race relations could seize centre-stage to promulgate their half-baked views about Anzac and Australia’s ‘militarization’, and so easily dominate public discussion through their book, articles, interviews, and appearances throughout the media? Why was the defence left to a few commentators and battle-scarred historians?

Fortunately, the AWM is a very robust and successful organization and it has risen to the occasion many times in the past. Consequently, it will be very interesting to see how it responds to these current challenges as we approach the centenaries of the epochal events that led to its creation and remain the basis for its very existence.