Tuesday, 14 January 2014


The Australian War Memorial is a veteran's memorial, it is their sacred place.



Paul Evans has done his country a great service with the following article about some unsettling trends at the AWM.

What is the future of the Australian War Memorial?

Once, not so long ago, the AWM was predominately a memorial supported by a unique display of veteran art that shared veterans’ experiences with visitors to the memorial. Then, one day, the AWM developed a new corporate aim to ‘…assist Australians to remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society. (Click HERE for further information).

The AWM’s new found ability to interpret the Australian experience of war is supposedly enshrined in Section 5(1) of the Australian War Memorial Act 1980. The problem is that the act does not, in any way, provide this interpretive right].(Click HERE for further information)

This emphasis on interpretation is a challenge to the traditional role of veteran art at the AWM, to the point that the new charter does bring into question what is happening with the redevelopment of the Great War galleries.

The danger is that it is quite possible that we will see a subtle but dramatic change to the purpose of the AWM when the new Great War galleries are opened to the public. In 2014 the AWM may cease being primarily a memorial. Instead, there is a real chance it will become an interpretive museum designed to attract tourists. The voices of the speakers for the dead, themselves veterans, may well be lost in the process.


The AWM was opened in the middle of the Second World War. Its staff and management consisted purely of men who had experienced the Great War, which had ended just twenty three years earlier. It is no surprise to realise that the AWM remained, if you will, the property of the Great War veterans until well into the 1960s. This meant that many of the AWM’s leadership did not participate in the Second World War and this impacted upon the development of the new galleries. One of the best examples of this is the magnificent painting by Hele, titled Post 11, as you enter the Second World War gallery. It depicts the first great battle of the Second World War for the Australians, which was the assault on the Italian fortress of Bardia in
Libya . It features the remarkable Jo Gullett and, despite its significance, this painting was only commissioned in 1968. This was more than a quarter of a century after the battle and coincided with a changing of the guard in the AWM’s leadership. Gullett himself was to become a Chairman of the AWM council in 1974.

The point of this history lesson is that the leadership of the AWM has had a major impact upon the way the AWM presents the veterans memory of themselves. Up until last year the AWM had three separate historical sections and each had three very disparate means of presentation. The Great War galleries consist overwhelmingly of veteran art, especially the dioramas. These dioramas, with one exception (One of a veteran sitting in the mud was produced nearly half a century after the battles), were attempts by the veterans themselves to convey their experiences in their own way. The Second World War galleries are the next section. They were developed well after the conflict and there was no-one of the status of Bean or Treloar to collate and promote the veteran experience. These galleries were eventually designed by the professional historians, who now dominate the AWM, rather than the veterans. The third section is the Post Second World War galleries. Although almost universally praised, they are overwhelmingly a sound and light display designed to attract and entertain visitors to Canberra .

Right now there is reason to believe that the redevelopment of the Great War galleries is facing similar treatment. It is quite possible that the almost priceless veteran art will soon find itself subjected to a new and improved sound and light display. Are the memories of the veterans to be silenced by the very institution that is supposed to protect them?

2015 – The excuse of the century

In October 2011 the former Labor government became involved with planning for the 2015 centenary of the Gallipoli landings. This included the establishment of the ANZAC Centenary Advisory Board. Tthe Rudd/Gillard government’s prior to this involvement was largely left to the commemorative area of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Unfortunately, the only significant input by this department was when it ran the unfortunate and highly criticised ninetieth anniversary of the Dawn Service at Gallipoli in 2005. This, plus the importance of the centenary to many Australians, meant that close political involvement was reasonable to ensure the centenary of Gallipoli was commemorated successfully.

Yet this was a government overtly hostile to commemorating the Great War. Its members overwhelmingly held the view Australia 's involvement was a mistake, the lives lost were a waste and that it was, in fact, a shameful part of Australian history. This is not the place to reignite the debate, but simply to state that the purpose of commemorations is to acknowledge the achievements and sacrifice of Australians who did what their country asked of them. It is not to judge them according to our current political values.

This created a dilemma for the Rudd/ Gillard government as to how to benefit from the desires of Australians to commemorate the centenary while maintaining its intellectual distance from the whole situation. The result was confusion and political pressure on the various institutions. One example was the decision to reduce the number of people who could attend the Dawn service at Gallipoli to ten thousand, when
DVA had planned for over a decade for up to twenty thousand at the service. The ongoing confusion over the ballot, upsetting many people who were planning a major overseas trip, was an example of how not to run an event unless you were hoping to make it simply to difficult for people to attend.

The AWM was caught up in this whole mess. All but one of the AWM Council members were replaced under the Rudd/Gillard government. In particular, they made three major changes to the AWM Council in 2012 and 2013:

1. They overturned the recommendation of the then council to elect Les Carlyon as Chairman following the retirement of General Peter Cosgrove. Although the Minister could not influence the election, he simply refused to extend Mr Carlyon’s membership of the council, thereby making him ineligible. Mr Carlyon was a well respected journalist and historian, having written books on Gallipoli and the western front. Unfortunately for him, he was also caught up in the history wars and was seen by Labor as an integral component in the promotion of John Howard’s view on our military history. Mr Carlyon was simply an unacceptable choice in the lead-up to the centenary of Gallipoli.

2. Mr Carlyon was effectively replaced by Mr Peter Fitzsimmons, who is also a historian and journalist. However, his journalistic rhetoric is unashamedly biased towards Labor and his views on military history were significantly more acceptable to the Rudd/Gillard government. Dr Alan Hawkes, the former Chancellor of the ANU, was also appointed in 2012.

3. As a final act, just before announcing the election, the Rudd/Gillard government appointed Ms Gabrielle Trainor to the AWM Council. Ms Trainor has absolutely no experience with either military history or the veteran community. However, Ms Trainor did have impeccable credentials in the art world and also with the governance of the
University of Western Sydney , both important intellectual supports for the Labor Party.

These appointments, along with the former Labor MP Mr Graham Edwards, provides a solid voting block of four out of twelve Council members that would reasonably be expected to champion the Labor’s intellectual views on Gallipoli. What is even more noticeable is that only seven of the Council’s members are actually former members of the ADF.

The Director of the AWM

Dr Brendan Nelson became Director on the
17 December 2012 . He was the leader of the Liberal Party for a short time while it was in opposition to the Rudd/Gillard government, but he was defeated in a challenge by Malcolm Turnbull. He subsequently left Parliament and was appointed by the Rudd/Gillard government to a diplomatic post in Europe and then to the AWM. His views on the Gallipoli centenary appear closely allied with his former patrons and there is a public indication of his dislike for the party that dumped him and, quite possibly, its current leader and Australia ’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. Since the election Mr Nelson has:

1 .In late October 2013, barely two months after the change of government and before most Ministers had a chance to even settle in, publicly denounced laws that would have seen donations to the AWM placed with the Department of Finance. However, these laws were introduced by the Rudd/Gillard government. Dr Nelson did not raise this issue before the election, nor did he seek assurances from the incoming government before he went public. It was strange behaviour to seemingly try and antagonise the new government so soon after the election.

2. In a strange coincidence, in that same month Dr Nelson was forced to back down on removing the phrase “Known unto God” from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He had made the decision to remove this phrase while the Rudd/Gillard government was in power, but a week after the election his decision became public and he was eventually forced to back down. Those who complained included the incoming Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. Dr Nelson’s justification for the original removal was mean-spirited, stating that the AWM had always been a secular institution. This is incorrect. The AWM galleries have several crosses and other religious paraphernalia on display that the veterans themselves had used and even fashioned.

3. In his 2013 address to the National Press Club
(Click HERE for further information).just a week after the Liberal party won the Commonwealth election, Mr Nelson praised the previous Rudd/Gillard government so greatly that it prompted one of journalists, John Kerin of the Financial Review, to note that ‘At times I was wondering which government it was you were a minister in…’

4. In the same speech he also stated with regard the Great War galleries:

It’s important that we tell the story of who we were in 1914. Why did we join the war so readily? And what happened in Australia domestically through the course of that war? And how did we change, emerging from it, as we did, so damaged but proud in 1918? And you will see that when the exhibition opens late next year. And the dioramas have been fully restored, and we have got a brilliant new lighting technology we’re applying to them. We’re bringing in new things that people will not have seen before the exhibition.

The redevelopment of the Great War galleries

Note the emphasis in Dr Nelson’s speech to the National Press Gallery on an interpretive approach. Note the emphasis on ‘new lighting technology’. Note the emphasis on matters that were not covered by the veterans themselves. Now we come to the crux of the matter. It may be that the grand opening of the renewed Great War galleries will simply display the dioramas with elegance and subtlety, or instead the public may see an interpretive light and sound show that would simply distress the shades of the Great War veterans. The simple fact is that, barely a year before the centenary of Gallipoli, we don’t have any details on the new displays. Never before in its history has the AWM undertaken so much work and released so little detail to the public. Consider these facts:

1 .Dr Nelson, in his speech, stated the cost of the redevelopment of the Great War galleries as $32 million. Anybody who has visited the AWM will recognise that this is a very large amount to spend on a very small area. The AWM has made a qualified statement that the dioramas will remain which, even allowing for the cost of cleaning and repairing the dioramas, left the over-whelming bulk of this money for unspecified work.

2. The confirmed architect for this work is Johnson Pilton Walker
(Click HERE for further information).Although their site has a great deal on its other projects, there is simply no mention of their involvement in the redevelopment of the Great War galleries. It seems odd that this company is silent on its primary involvement in one of the greatest cultural redevelopments of this decade.

3. The firm undertaking the construction work is Built NSW P/L
. (Click HERE for further information).There is simply nothing on its website regarding the redevelopment, although there is a great deal about other ongoing projects. Presumably, secrecy is a condition of their engagement by the AWM.

4. Root Projects Australia P/L is providing project management consultancy services to the value of $2million. Once again, there is no mention of this work on Root Projects’ own web-site.

5. The AWM web-site has a section of its own just on the redevelopment
(Click HERE for further information).It doesn’t list the development plan or any other specific detail. This major redevelopment is almost totally ignored in its 2011-2014 Corporate Plan (Click HERE for further information).and there is almost no mention of the redevelopment in its 2012-13 Annual Report. It is difficult to find the redevelopment of any other major cultural institution shrouded in so much secrecy. The limited information that is available only leads to greater concern.

AWM website ‘New First World War Galleries’

When concerns over the direction the AWM was taking were raised in 2012, they responded by stating that: ‘The detailed planning that will take place over the coming months will include an assessment of each diorama and how they will fit into the storyline of the galleries’.
Most of the information available on this website relates to the work undertaken. It provides very little information on the finished design or the direction the AWM is taking. However, there are two artist impressions on how part of the new galleries will look. In general, they provide very little information on the dioramas.

The above work is an artist’s impression of the entrance to the new galleries. As it is the entrance, almost certainly, this was previously the Gallipoli gallery. This conclusion is supported by what appears to be the Lone Pine diorama at the end of the hall. It is difficult to reconcile the magnificent paintings that previously complemented the Lone Pine diorama with this pristine whiteness. Other artwork, such as the relief map of Gallipoli, is completely gone.

The above painting is an artist’s impression of the display cases, yet the size and shape of the display case is almost immaterial. There is, almost deliberately, nothing showing the design of the gallery or what is included and excluded. There is so little detail that it is even unclear what Great War gallery the artist is reproducing.


There is little hard evidence that raises specific alarms over the direction the AWM is taking, because there is little evidence at all. It is the secrecy and choices made by those involved in the process, people such as Dr Nelson and Ms Gillard, that is the cause of concern. It may be that professional historians, plus persons who support the views the new galleries present, even tourist operators, may well cheer the end result once the conclusion of this secretive process is unveiled. The real question is whether the current Minister understands what that end result is and either supports it, or simply believes it is too late in the process to change. Whatever the background, Dr Nelson’s dismissal of the concerns over the removal of ‘Known unto God’ from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier suggests he is unconcerned over any complaints once the Great War galleries are complete, as long as those galleries conform to his views.

The great tragedy for the AWM is that it was built in Canberra . It is purely a political town. Hundred of thousands, even millions of dollars are spent on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin to promote a single idea. Even our military history is not immune: Paul Keating pushed Kokoda. John Howard emphasised Gallipoli. Rudd/Gillard wanted it all to go away because it was just too hard. Nobody really knows what direction Abbott will take the country in terms of commemorating our veterans. Most likely, it is so low on this government’s radar and the planning is so far along that this government will just go with the flow and try and avoid any controversy. If there are problems with the AWM then Tony Abbott is unlikely to pick a fight with its Director or its politicised Council. Instead, he will put a brave face on it and simply try and bask in any reflected glory. Meanwhile, the real purpose of the AWM is under threat and may well disappear in a fit of historical revisionism that is combined with an emphasis on promoting tourism. If this happens, the AWM will be gone forever.


Posted by Michael Smith at 7:04:50 PM Tue 14 Jan 2014


The Australian War Memorial cannot be allowed further to degenerate into a platform for modern luvvies to "interpret" Australian experience of war for the rest of us.