Saturday, January 02, 2010

On the Australian War Memorial and remembering war

Free entry and parking is great! Its large and interactive, fun in many respects. But I left the Memorial feeling uncertain of its message. Is it a war memorial? is it a war museum? Is it a military museum? What does the war memorial/military museum seek to teach us about war and our memory of it? Should it seek a quiet and contemplative space supported by ignomatic lessons never to be repeated? Or should it represent Australian culture in relation to its war history, and if so where were the more holistic references in the permanent exhibition to things like war's impact on family, politics, economy and so on, not to mention conflicts and wars throughout Australia's colonisation and settlement period? I think it can and should do both, and do more than predominantly remembering great battles and magnificent machines...?

I've always been told that war is a horrible thing, and that we should therefore strive to avoid today's and tomorrows war's at almost any cost. When I hear the words, "We will remember them, lest we forget" I think of this and respond, "and be mindful of how we remember".

So I went to the AWM expecting a somber, contemplative experience.. abstracted from anything figurative or potentially propagandistic, and appreciating all aspects and impacts of war on Australian culture. But the Memorial in combination with its museum left me confused and more than a little worried about the way Australians memorialise war.

Side note: I write this with the utmost respect for those who have been scarred through involvement in wars around the world. I am sorry if by reading this you become angered or upset with my views. Please be reassured that my concerns are small and insignificant in a growing sea of overwhelming pride that Australians feel for their memorialisation of war.

Critiquing Australian war memorialisation is not often seen, attempted by only a few. War fighting is deeply embedded in Australian national identity, marked by a cenotaph in every town, used annually in such events as ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, both note worthy for a growing number of people (especially the young) attending these services with a seeming increase nationalistic flare. I myself attended an ANZAC day dawn service almost every year of my life from age 5 - 18, and every school gives a minute silence on Remembrance Day. Such devotion is generally considered an honorable thing by Australians, few question it.

Approaching the Memorial
As you approach from the car park you won't miss the impressive Centurion tank, and a large naval vessel half emerged from underground. These retired weapons aren't presented in any other way than proudly. Not destroyed or wasted, strangely ominous and impressive. There are a few other more thoughtful works within the Sculpture Garden that don't convey such an imposing non reflective message, but they are unfortunately over shadowed by the awe of these machines of once "active service". My guess is the tank and naval deck is to excite the kids and impress the parents as they approach the Memorial.. but for what?

Walking into the front of the Memorial requires a flight of stairs into a high arched and columned entrance way, yielding to the Commemorative Courtyard surrounded by a balcony walled by a long list of names that make up the very saddening Roll of Honour. All this is backed by a large dome chapel that is the Hall of Memory. All of it very obviously erected in 1941, quite in tune with the architectural sentiments dominating Australia and much of the world at the time.

The Hall of Memory holds The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier surrounded by stained glass windows and mosaics of tall robust figures in the classic socialist realism style. These figures depict the different military corps and roles (as they were in 1941 Australia), subtitled by what are apparently personality traits of fallen service men and women - and more than a little suggestive of something the rest of us should aspire to? Words like "coolness" (that was a word in 1941 it seems!), "devotion" (attributed to the only female figure in the room), "candour" and so on.. No words that might actually represent a fuller memory of war like loss, horror, tragedy, or regret.. better to have no words at all, or figures for that matter. I was dismayed to see that one of the stained glass figures for "Patriotism", has a misrepresentation of the Southern Cross (Crux star constellation as is found on the Australian Flag). The depiction is radically out of proportion, with the Epsilon Crucis out by a long shot! I'm not sure how such an obvious error could happen to such a significant national emblem in such a nationally significant building, but it did little to aid my over all skeptical appreciation of the depth of memorialisation.

A conflict of interests?
I couldn't help but wonder about all the contributing factors having input into the design of the Memorial leading up to its opening in 1941. There would have no-doubt been the straight forward desire to memorialise the names of military personnel who had died in wars to date, tempered somewhat by a respect for those still mourning their passing. But there would have also been some political desire to at least not depict the disgrace of war, so as to uphold a popular commitment to Australia's role in WWII Europe and the Pacific. It seemed to me these two partly apposing agendas of mournful reflection and propagative zeal meet most obviously at the Australian War Memorial. The quiet sombre atmosphere of a non figurative Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Roll of Honour, surrounded by motifs of nationalism and dutiful sacrifice.

A memorial or glorial?
The more sombre and abstracted notions of memorialisation are completely lost to the enormity of the museum down stairs. whether it’s a war memorial museum or military museum I can’t be sure, but a lot can be said for what it chooses to display next to what it chooses not to. Given that it is housed by the Australian War Memorial, I would question the appropriateness of it being a military museum, as there is surely more to the experience of war than military success, failures and memorabilia.

Central to the museum layout is the Hall of Valour. Devoted to those awarded the Victoria Cross for acts of bravery. The amazing array of short stories of impressive feats are lost to the curiosity drawn away by the objects and and installations in the adjoining rooms.

There is a large wing devoted to WWI, largely made up of models of significant battles, and objects of innovation attributed to an idea of Australian ingenuity at the time. In an opposite wing is a notably different style of exhibiion for WWII. More immersing installations including a vibrating booth with audio visual display simulating a bombing run over Dresden. A forward wing houses exhibits of the War in the Pacific, and a recent extension housing full scale aircraft from WWI and II and the Japanese Mini Sub used to attack Sydney Harbour. On a lower floor again is a wing devoted to conflicts after 1945, notably Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia. Other wings on this lower floor include a Research Centre and a Special Exhibitions Gallery - exhibiting theme at the time I visited was "Love and War".

All of this comes together to make a very impressive museum, interesting to all ages, and presenting a mainstream, text book view of Australia's military involvement in war. Notably absent however were memorials or exhibitions for conflicts and wars between Indigenous Australians and 18 and 19th Century European Colonisation. Also absent was any significant mention of Australian's who actively resisted, protested or objected to participation in wars.

The obvious focus on battles, machines, objects, and recordings comes at the expense of a more holistic appreciation of the Australian experience of war. The impact on family life, politics, demographics, health, education, culture are obviously more difficult things to capture and represent in a museum, but not impossible. Relegating such concerns to "Special Exhibitions" instead of being interwoven throughout the permanent exhibitions trivialises these experiences and promotes a very narrow understanding of what the experience of war was for all Australians.

If the intension of the museum is to be military focused, then I can understand its curatorial direction, but would ask that it detach itself from the memorial entirely. If it is a war memorial museum, then I am left deeply troubled by the way it chooses to remember and commemorate war. Far from discouraging future participation, it reduces it to a fan fair of great stories and impressive machines, forgetting what it really meant to suffer and die for war, and not only by those wearing a uniform.

It seems to me that we are willfully forgetting what a war is. Lest we forget.


Bob Collier said...

I was there for the first time on 23rd December with my older brother who was over on a visit from England.

The war memorial itself is very moving, but I found the attendant museum thoroughly depressing, filled as it is with the depiction of experiences that I, for one, would be only too happy to move on from and never think about again.

Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks for commenting Bob. I take it you have first hand experience. A close relative of mine also would rather forget, and I have come to understand that. When I was much younger I was disappointed not to hear the action packed stories I imagined him to have. Then I became angered that he would not share stories that might discourage young people from joining the military and desiring war service. Now I've come to appreciate how selfish I was to think this, and respect his needs to put such memories away and be happy. His resistance to attend any ANZAC parade with me when I was a kid left a lasting impression on me.

And so we are left with the War Memorials and their historians and stake holders to tell stories. Movie makers also - to satisfy our morbid curiosity for what it must have been like. I wish they would do more to help the young and or political leaders reflect more. Imagining myself at 15 years old again I can safely say the Australian War Memorial would have motivated me to join the Army, even hope for my chance to become one of those stories. Crazy isn't it :( I'm glad no war came to take advantage of my stupidity.

Stephan said...

I have never been to the NWM, and can't imagine I ever would. I thought your post very balanced and eloquently argued, encapsulating why memorialisations of this kind are deeply problematic.
No public space is ever politically neural, nevertheless as a civic space it ought to endeavour to express the multiplicity of views and historical/cultural tensions within the community. Clearly the NWM does not.
Personally I have always believed the bravest people in wars are those who resist taking up arms in the service of the state, any state. If individuals, especially young men and increasing young women simply refused to participate, nation states could simply not wage war. But people are easily manipulated by old men who want to send young men to fight their wars primarily to secure their economic and political interests. The current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan we are currently engaged in are prime examples.

There is no "Just War" there is Just War

Simon Leonard said...

I now look foward to your review of 'Reconcilliation Place' just across the lake!

There is a strong tradition of scholarship around public memorials and other forms of public history in Australia and the e-journal Public History out of UTS is well worth a read.

Public Canberra is used to tell stories of national unity. I am always struck by how martial that story is when coming in from the airport. You land next to an airforce base, overlooked by the department of defence buildings, drive in past Duntroon, the Russell offices and then ANZC parade. Canberra seems keen to give visitors a mesage.

The one place where Public Canberra tells a multiplicity of stories and experience is at the National Museum; and it is often condemned as too postmodern.

Bronwyn hegarty said...

The display at the museum which really blew me away was the one about the nurse who saved many of her colleagues and was then murdered on the beach. I cannot remember her name.

I was also profoundly disturbed by the memorial wall with soldiers names on it - so many dead. For what?

I think what you have to remember Leigh is that war memorials and Anzac parades and the like generally only pay homage to the soldiers - they do not generally honour or acknowledge the civilians who are affected by war. To create a museum which truly did this would stir too many emotions and as a species we can be pretty avoidant. Governments would also be hard pressed to get fervent young men & women to war if they found out beforehand what it was really like.

To recognise the impact on civilians and on society means governments would have to admit to the futility of war, and war is profit. For anyone affected by it, there is pain and I guess the museum wants people to visit so they keep it bland. Though with society's thirst for action-packed, gruesome movies they might draw the crowds if it was a lot more exciting.