The Museum Next Door

How do you create an honest war museum?

The commemorative area at the centre of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The various theatres of war are featured under the archways.

That’s the question we should be asking ourselves after two hundred years of more or less constant warfare. Australians don’t generally consider themselves to be a particularly militaristic nation but as the government pumps another half a billion dollars into the Australian War Memorial so that it can accommodate its growing inventory of war trophies it might be worth reflecting on how the building became so crowded in the first place.

At the foot of Mt Ainslie a red-brick building belonging to Campbell High School sits right beside the miniature Hagia Sophia of the Australian War Memorial. It’s easy to assume that, owing to their location, Campbell’s students must have a much better grasp of Australia’s history than most high schoolers. But it turns out that the memorial’s sprawling museum makes no mention of the Frontier Wars of colonisation in the 19th century, offers almost no explanation for the wholesale carnage of the 20th century and barely acknowledges the long military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan in the 21st. Having walked amongst the display cases and exhibits it’s hard to escape the conclusion that a Wikipedia summary of Australia’s military history would be far more informative than the info panels presented at the AWM.

According to the mission statement of the Australian War Memorial the museum exhibitions are designed to help Australians ‘remember, interpret and understand’ our involvement in war and conflict. But, for the most part, the museum provides only a disjointed timeline of battles and actions without offering any context or reflecting on consequences of any kind. Rather than attempting to explain Australia’s involvement in foreign wars, the museum mainly serves as an armoury for captured weaponry and a display case for medals and souvenirs. 

Exhibitions featuring equipment and medals for service and bravery in the WWI gallery at the Australian War Memorial.

The impression one gets from the memorial’s First World War exhibition is that the conflict sprung up from nowhere and was won in a series of decisive battles. There’s no mention of the arms race and the Great Game between European powers and very little acknowledgement that the resulting war was one of attrition that only ended when the central powers recognised their imminent collapse due to plague, starvation and economic ruin. Likewise the second world war is depicted as an entirely separate conflict resulting from the spontaneous rise of fascism in Germany, Italy and Japan. Once again there’s no mention of the crippling economic crises of the 1930s or the shared ideology of racial supremacy which underpinned the American, European and Japanese colonial projects.

This refusal to engage with the historical context for Australia’s military deployments can be traced back to the debates that were raging when the War Memorial was first established. In the aftermath of the First World War communities across Australia struggled to come to terms with the final tally of the conflict. More than 60,000 men had been killed on the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East. Another 150,000 men had been wounded and hundreds of thousands more had spent months or years separated from their families. Deducted from a population of only four million, Australia’s war dead represented a staggering loss. On the distant battlefields of Europe and the Middle-East those killed were usually buried not far from where they fell – some were interred in individual plots but most were dumped en masse into disused trenches and hastily excavated pits. Back home their names were recorded on simple granite cenotaphs – literally ‘empty tombs’ – or etched onto plaques placed at the foot of sapling pines planted in long ‘avenues of honour’. These memorials are fixtures of every tiny town in Australia.

For the returning troops, family reunions were delayed and victory parades were cancelled in a desperate attempt to quarantine Australians from the raging influenza pandemic. The so-called ‘Spanish Flu’ had swept back and forth across Europe for several years but the end of the war ensured that it would be delivered by troop transport ships to every dusty corner of the British commonwealth. By the time it had run its course in 1920 the pandemic had decimated entire populations – yielding a death toll that dwarfed the number of those killed over the four years of fighting. 

A bullet-holed landing boat used at Gallipoli is the centrepiece of the WWI exhibition at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. For more than a hundred years various conservative and nationalists movements in Australia have held up the disastrous military campaign in Gallipoli as a necessary and formative ‘baptism’ for the nation as a whole.

It took years for Australia to recover from the social and economic impact of the war and the pandemic that accompanied it. Europe’s conflict had widened divisions in Australian society. Two bitterly contested referendums over demands to introduce conscription had been rejected and Britain’s violent suppression of the Easter Uprising in Dublin had alienated the sizeable Irish immigrant population. In addition, the federal government’s controversial War Precautions Act had been used as a cudgel against Australia’s union movement to settle labour disputes under the guise of maintaining wartime production. Tensions between workers and pro-government veterans boiled over in 1918 with the Red Flag Riots but eventually, the dust settled and politicians, together with veterans groups, began to consider the issue of how to recognise those that had been killed.

During the conflict Australia’s official war historian, Charles Bean, had already begun planning for a memorial in Canberra. After returning from the front he put out a call for records, letters and artefacts that might one day be exhibited to help people understand what had gone on. To that end Bean dedicated himself to producing a grand 12-volume history of Australia’s contribution to the Great War and campaigned for a national war memorial that he hoped would be ‘the finest monument ever raised to any army’. Speaking to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works in 1928 Bean shared his ambition for the memorial.

‘We planned that, just as one had to go to Florence or Dresden to see the finest picture-galleries, so people would have to come to Australia to see the finest war memorial.’

An architecture competition the previous year had yielded some promising designs but the upheavals of the ‘Great Depression’ put a damper on the budget and scope of the project. Meanwhile political turmoil in Europe and Asia overshadowed remembrance of Gallipoli and Flanders. Intended to commemorate Australia’s participation in ‘the war to end all wars’ the memorial began construction just as the Second World War got underway.

Throughout the planning phase opinions differed on how best to commemorate Australia’s fallen soldiers. Architects and planners delicately tried to avoid particular religious symbolism and veterans groups debated who and what details should be included on the ‘honour roll’ of Australia’s war dead. The Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA) pushed for a more triumphalist monument with due reference to God, King and Empire. The League’s leadership wanted the names of the dead to be listed by service branch and rank but public opinion favoured a more solemn tone that ignored military formalities.

Charles Bean agreed. According to historian Ken Inglis.

“Names, the committee agreed, should be arranged by town or district, not by unit, thus identifying men as citizens, friends, members of families, rather than soldiers. Later it was decided that no man’s rank should be recorded, and no decorations: this was to be the one roll, said Bean, on which there would be no distinction”

The end result fell somewhat short. Military rank was left off but names were grouped according to their units. In its rush to feed new recruits into the meat grinder of the western front the Australian Army had failed to record the hometowns and suburbs of many volunteers.

When the Australian War Memorial was conceived its most important purpose was to provide a shrine for fellow veterans and the relatives of those killed. In the first half of the 20th century few Australians were able to travel to war cemeteries on the far side of the world so the Memorial offered a place of pilgrimage – a site to commemorate and mourn those that never returned. 

Although public opinion during the war was deeply divided it would have taken a stubbornness bordering on cruelty to dwell on the futility of the war in its immediate aftermath. Out of compassion for the bereaved the Australian public – both anti and pro-conscription camps – generally observed the taboo on discussing what, if anything, had been achieved by all the bloodshed.

Australians clung to the idea that the country’s sacrifice had raised the profile of Australia and cemented its reputation as an independent nation with its own glorious military history. An Australian school textbook published in 1931 reflected this understanding in its preamble.

“It is impossible within the compass of this work to do justice to the history and the deeds of the Australian Imperial Force … all that has been attempted is to summarize some of the more outstanding performances, battles and figures of the great “baptism of fire” which has made Australia a nation, given her a voice in the council chambers of the world … “

European accounts, by contrast, were typically characterised by sentiments of grief, loss and disillusionment with the society they had fought for. In a review of Erich Remarque’s 1928 novel All Quiet on the Western Front (which was banned in NSW at the behest of the RSSILA) veteran Herbert Read wrote: 

“No idealism is left in this generation. We cannot believe in democracy, or socialism, or the League of Nations. To be told at the front that we were fighting to make the world safe for democracy was to be driven to the dumb verge of insanity. On a mutual respect for each other’s sufferings we built up that sense of comradeship which was the war’s only good gift. But death destroyed even this, and we were left with only the bare desire to live, although life itself was past our comprehension.”

As a counterweight to this sort of despair, historians like Bean spun a narrative that the war had galvanised Australia’s national identity. Meaning and purpose was applied to the carnage after the fact to console grieving families and bitter veterans just as medals, dispatches and citations for bravery had served to shore up morale during the fighting. 

It would be wrong to suggest that the danger of this sort of mythmaking wasn’t recognised at the time. In the referendums of 1916 and 1917 ANZAC casualties were used by both sides as a wedge on the issue of conscription. But, over time, the war was reframed from a political and strategic catastrophe into a national test of character. Bean’s descriptions of the valour and determination of Australia’s ‘diggers’ gave rise to a sort of secular cult that turned ANZAC casualties into martyrs for the new nation. The acronym itself became a sacred term – protected by law in 1921. By invoking the ‘sacrifice’ of the ANZACs, politicians and ideologues were able to silence critics and prevent wider society from questioning whether those sacrifices were necessary in the first place. 

Wandering through the WWI gallery at the AWM you would expect to find real tension between exhibits that showcase individual acts of courage and endurance and those that convey the wastage and futility of the war as a whole. Instead the AWM has decided to forego any discussion of political or strategic failures by focusing solely on the details of particular campaigns and battles. Rather than analysing why events unfolded as they did the museum mostly provides summaries of specific ‘actions’ and detailed descriptions of stuff – equipment, weaponry, flags, medals and battlefield trophies.

Now and again, as you work your way between the dioramas and the display cases, you can see attempts to moderate this traditional ‘drums and trumpets’ view of war with a more nuanced depiction. There are descriptions of conditions in the trenches and the occasional reminder of the stalemate that characterised the conflict but the overwhelming impression you get from the museum is that WWI was decided in a series of battles and that those battles hinged on the personal courage and fortitude of their participants.

In a way the museum suffers from a more general problem afflicting most depictions of war – the tendency to highlight the brief, dramatic episodes of combat and gloss over the stultifying slow-burn misery of everything in between. For most of those who lived through it The Great War was an unmitigated murderous fiasco. In four years, despite millions of deaths, the western front line barely budged. A second front opened up in the Dardanelles ground to halt in less than a week and then lapsed into the same murderous war of attrition. The war in the east consumed hundreds of thousands of lives and led directly to political and social collapse.  In the end the Central Powers capitulated due to starvation and economic ruin brought about by a British naval blockade.

Instead of reflecting on this disaster, our national war memorial takes its cues from traditional military museums – offering a sort of engineering showroom for the technology of mass death. Visitors are invited to admire the big gun, marvel at its big shell and, occasionally, consider a photo of the big city it ruined.

Even after a hundred years the sheer number of those killed still makes any discussion of the aims and outcomes of the war fraught – because to attack the war is to attack the significance it gives to the dead. But as the number of Australians with a direct connection to those casualties has fallen over the years so too has the original purpose of the memorial. The last WWI veteran died in 2009 at the age of 110 and, at the time of writing, less than 3000 WWII veterans remain. For better or worse the early purpose of the memorial – to comfort the families of the slain – has also diminished. 

That’s not to say that Australian soldiers haven’t fought and died in other conflicts. Since the end of WWII Australia has involved itself in a number of other wars and their cramped exhibits in the basement of the AWM are a testament to Australia’s enthusiasm for overseas adventure. The ongoing expansion of the memorial is meant to address this shortcoming.

Almost half a billion dollars has been earmarked to remove ANZAC hall (only added in 2001) and replace it with a 4,000m² atrium purpose-built to house several tons of 21st century equipment like the helicopters and armored vehicles used to exacerbate America’s Global War on Terror. The stated intention is to provide more space for visitors to ‘interpret and understand’ Australia’s more recent military expeditions but, with due respect to Australia’s recent veterans, there’s a limit to the explanatory value of a big armoured truck.

When the memorial was built it might have been possible to argue that it belonged to the military. Our dead were all soldiers and those soldiers were all volunteers. Their surviving comrades could always make the argument that so-and-so who perished would have been proud of their service and of the medals and ceremonies that went with it. Promoting a culture of valour and sacrifice undoubtedly helped some veterans cope with their experiences. If men who had survived the abattoirs of Passchendaele and the Somme wanted to decorate the national shrine with flags and medals and battlefield trophies then how could the general public argue with that? 

However, in the intervening decades, this tendency to mix celebrations and commemoration has taken on a life of its own. In What’s Wrong With ANZAC? Reynolds and Lake examine how former Prime Minister John Howard built up an industry around the memorialisation of Australia’s war dead. Their book details the spending surge and the incredible range of grants and material sent out to Aussie school children since the turn of the century in order to indoctrinate Australia’s school children into the civic ‘cult of ANZAC’ –  transforming the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) from a small grave maintenance fund into a well-resourced arm of the federal department of education. In the 1990s curriculum became the DVA’s primary focus as vast sums were invested in the Australian War Memorial and the National Archives. 

When I graduated high school in the early 2000s the government had already offered up $15.1 million to fund commemorations on top of a raft of ‘electorate grants’ to allow community orgs and the RSL to organise activities commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII but that funding spree never really ended. Between 2014 and 2028 it’s estimated that $1.1 billion will be spent by the Australian government on war memorials and commemorations.  As Reynolds and Lake point out.

“What is remarkable about all this activity is not that the DVA believes in the centrality of war to Australian history, but that it is so lavishly funded to make this case to schoolchildren and the larger community and that a federal department, established to take care of the needs of veterans and tend their graves, plays such a large role in the teaching of history in primary and secondary schools.”

According to the AWM’s annual report about 130,000 students attend the memorial each year. Many are railroaded there partly thanks to the Federal Government’s Parliament and Civics Education Rebate scheme that mandates a detour to the AWM if schools want to receive a subsidy on their trip to Canberra. What they learn about Australia’s war experience is piecemeal and distorted. If Campbell High School’s students have a good grasp of their nation’s history it’s definitely no thanks to the museum next door. In the epilogue to What’s Wrong With ANZAC? Henry Reynolds and Marilyn Lake conclude that:

“The state-inspired encouragement for schoolchildren to admire and celebrate the heroism of the soldier would warm the hearts of the old Prussian militarists if they were ever to learn of it. The Anzac legend perpetuates an attitude to war in general and WWI in particular. The belief that it was a source of unique and positive national virtue sails directly into the winds of contemporary global interpretations, which portray the conflict as the prime source of the brutalisation of the twentieth century that fuelled a vast and terrible violence”

It’s clear that in the 21st century the Australian War Memorial needs a new purpose – one that ensures that it doesn’t need to be periodically expanded to accommodate new memorials and trophies. Ideally, this revised Memorial would provide object lessons on the costs and consequences of war. After all, the best way to honour those killed in what were, overwhelmingly, pointless wars is to do our best to ensure that we do not repeat our past mistakes.

In order to avoid an even greater man-made cataclysm our memorials and museums need to give an honest account of war and, in doing so, make a compelling case for peace.

Richard Pendavingh

Photographer, designer and weekend historian. Editor of The Unravel. Writes about design, tech, history and anthropology.

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