Stephens, David: Australian War Memorial consults the public on mooted massive extensions: is anything ‘sacred’?

David Stephens*

‘Australian War Memorial consults the public on mooted massive extensions: is anything “sacred”?’, Honest History, 3 August 2018

The Australian War Memorial has been talking for more than a year about its desire to extend its building in a number of directions, mostly underground. Memorial Director Brendan Nelson has made good use of a number of platforms to put the case, although the public dollars spent so far have been no more than a few million for scoping studies.

If the complete plan comes off, the cost could be $500 million, spread over a number of years. A recent revelation (under Freedom of Information) of an early plan for the extensions showed the institution’s floor space doubling.

The Memorial has opened a public consultation phase on its website, inviting people to ‘have your say’. Dr Nelson kicked this off via a report yesterday in The Australian, appropriately 104 years on from the hectic weekend when the British Empire, led by Australia, found its way into the Great War. As Australia led the way into the Empire’s war, the Memorial is now the world leader in a particular form of war commemoration.

The Memorial website presents five themes: a place for veterans and their families; precinct priorities; the visitor experience; telling more stories to more people; Future 50: commemoration, museum and research themes. There are discussion papers, drop-in information sessions and an online scrapbook. Consultation closes on 26 September.

A map of what the War Memorial could like with three potential extensions.

Early plans for the extensions (Fairfax/AWM)

Honest History has followed the Memorial’s extensions proposals closely, and we touched upon them in our submission to the current parliamentary inquiry into Canberra’s national cultural institutions. Some questions that those ‘having their say’ might well consider include these:

  • If the Memorial has a problem finding space to display more of its exhibits (as Dr Nelson told The Australian), might it consider saying ‘No’ to some donations, or, to the extent that there are legislative or other constraints forcing it to accept donations, seek changes to these constraints?
  • To the extent that much of the proposed new space will be used to accommodate large items of superannuated military kit (helicopters and fighter jets, for example), might these be parked somewhere else, like the Temora Aviation Museum, where they would do wonders for local tourism?
  • Given that much military kit cannot safely be climbed upon or played with by visitors, might an enlarged investment in digitisation be more interesting for visitors – and cheaper? (This question applies in some degree to any exhibit at the Memorial.)
  • Could the money mooted for these grandiose extensions be better spent by the government at large on non-bricks and mortar schemes of benefit to former Australian Defence Force members and their families? (Increased direct support for PTSD sufferers and their loved ones might be more useful than a corner of ‘contemplation space’ in the bowels of the extended Memorial.)
  • Could the money proposed for the extensions be better spread across other national cultural institutions, which have suffered for a number of years (more than the Memorial has) from the effects of efficiency dividends and other cutbacks?
  • Do appeals like Dr Nelson’s on this occasion trade on the idea that the Memorial is somehow a ‘sacred place’ for Australians? (It may well be sacred for some of us, but Anzac is not – yet – the state religion.)
  • Does the official approach to Anzac commemoration (what many would classify as ‘Anzackery‘) amount to bullying or worse? (The writer Paul Daley, soon to publish a book On Patriotism, said this recently: ‘To publicly challenge such emotive signalling for public funding is to run the risk of being portrayed as heretical, even treasonous, of course’.)
  • Does the implication that the Memorial is ‘sacred’ effectively exempt it from the accountability regimes applicable to other government institutions? (Dr Nelson frequently locates the Australian ‘soul’ in the Memorial or refers to the place in spiritual terms. The historian Peter Cochrane, author of the recently published Best We Forget: The War for White Australia, 1914-18wrote in 2015, ‘[d]rape “Anzac” over an argument and, like a magic cloak, the argument is sacrosanct’.)
  • If government money is insufficient to fund the Memorial’s plans, will it try to make up some of the short-fall by falling back on corporate donations, including donations from arms companies?
  • Is a claim to ‘sacred’ status incompatible with the Memorial’s current attitude to donations from arms companies?

There is more on this in the Honest History submission to the parliamentary inquiry. The submission argued, among other points, that there is no justification for allocating funding between national institutions on the grounds that some are more worthy, or more crucial to the national psyche, or more ‘sacred’, than others.

The Memorial’s effort to consult about its extension plans is welcome; it is to be hoped that this effort grows into a genuine debate. The Memorial in recent years has been better at preaching an ‘Anzac gospel’ than in debating with constructive critics.

The Memorial is looking to next year’s Budget for a government decision on the full $500 million. It says it has bipartisan support for its plans. Barring general elections, the Budget will be brought down early in May 2019. Dr Nelson’s current term as Director ends on 30 May 2019. Recently, he approvingly quoted an unnamed visitor to the Memorial: ‘whatever the government spends on the Australian War Memorial … will never be enough’. If nothing else, $500 million of extensions to the Memorial would be an expensive legacy of its formidable Director.

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website, secretary of the Honest History association, and co-editor of The Honest History Book.