The founder of the Australian War Memorial C.E.W. Bean clearly stated the importance of preserving the evidence of Australia’s involvement in conflict and the sacrifices involved: “Here is their spirit, in the heart of the land they loved; and here we guard the record which they themselves made.”
For 77 years, the Australian War Memorial has stood at the base of Mount Ainslie. Located in sight of Parliament House, the Memorial reminds the nation of the cost of war, of service and the price of freedom.
Within its galleries, the Memorial tells the stories of those who serve in Australia’s military forces and those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in war, warlike operations, peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.
The Memorial’s ability to tell the stories of those men and women who serve in Australia’s Defence forces has now reached its limits. It is at capacity.
Just a fraction of the collection is on display. The stories of Australian military service from the Boer War, World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam are all largely told.
Yet, the service of 70,000 young Australians in the Middle East Area of operations of the past two decades covers only 2 per cent of space. The opportunity, and the responsibility our nation now has, is to proudly tell the stories of what has been done in recent years in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Solomon Islands, and East Timor, and in peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.
We must tell these stories not years or decades after they have occurred, but now. It is also the stories of families who love and support them.
Today’s servicemen and servicewomen are returning home to a country that has no idea what they have done, does not understand their service or the sacrifices they have made. Young servicemen and women are barely able to explain it to their families, let alone the rest of the nation. Their story must be told to help them understand the impact service has had on them, to help them transition to life back home, and to heal.
To make this happen, the Memorial has developed a detailed proposal for the consideration of the federal government. The proposal outlines a funding arrangement for a major redevelopment of the Memorial’s galleries and precinct to create a vision that will guide us for the next 50 years.
The proposed redevelopment will significantly increase exhibition and public program space in order to more substantially tell the stories of current and recent conflicts, operations, peacekeeping, and humanitarian missions.
It will also include a new temporary exhibition space, improved visitor orientation, wayfinding and amenities, areas for respite, new education facilities, and a theatre and functions space.
It will include a quiet area for reflection, a space to be used by veterans’ organisations, an electronic wall displaying the myriad of community cenotaphs and memorials and another presenting defence activity today.
There will be an extension to the Bean Building to integrate research collections and services, and to optimise the space in the main Memorial building for exhibitions. The facade will remain unchanged.
This proposed redevelopment provides an opportunity to guide the future of commemoration and storytelling in regard to our involvement and contribution in fields of conflict. Significantly, the Memorial will stand in the national heart of the land loved by those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Dr Brendan Nelson is the director of the Australian War Memorial