I’ve just returned from three weeks in the UK and the Netherlands. This trip included visits to lots of different galleries and museums, and it especially included the British Library and the National Library of Scotland.
But it’s ANZAC Day.
And I have lots of complicated thoughts and feelings about ANZAZ Day.
I splurted most of my feelings out in a thread on my Twitter account. So I’ll use this blog to be more analytical.
Mostly I want to talk about how museums and memorials are used in the act of remembering, and how what we choose to remember defines what we choose to forget.
The Sir John Monash Centre
Australia has opened the new Sir John Monash Centre in northern France. In the words of their website:
The Sir John Monash Centre tells Australia’s story of the Western Front in the words of those who served.
Set on the grounds of the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery in northern France, and adjacent to the Australian National Memorial, the Sir John Monash Centre is the hub of the Australian Remembrance Trail along the Western Front, and establishes a lasting international legacy of Australia’s Centenary of Anzac 2014-2018.
Journalist David Marr has written about the opening for the Guardian. In his description of the Centre, he notes what is left out as much what is remembered:
But the Monash Centre is not for scholars. This is entertainment, cutting edge and thrilling in its way, but entertainment. Crowds will no doubt come. Tour operators are already rejigging their itineraries to fit an hour or so for their customers in this dazzling maze.
But war buffs should stay out in the battlefields. Devotees of the great general will learn nothing new about their hero here. True, war isn’t glorified. But there’s hardly a breath of politics in the exhibition. It’s all battles and no scandal.
That’s by design. That Australia was being torn apart by conscription campaigns isn’t explored. That old Keith Murdoch tried to have Monash sacked as an uppity Jew goes unmentioned. Dud generals who slaughtered their men hardly get a guernsey. Addressed only by implication is the great question of what this war was really all about.
The Centre’s website touts the SJMC App which “downloaded on each visitor’s personal mobile device, acts as a ‘virtual tour guide’ over the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery, the Australian National Memorial and the Sir John Monash Centre.”
I’m reminded here of MONA’s the O. One of the moments I fell in love with MONA was reading about a David Hockney painting. After a lengthy essay from David Walsh about the piece, I flipped over to read the essay by the curator. “I have no idea why David bought this piece,” she wrote. “I think it’s shit.”
Will the SJMC App allow room for that sort of questioning?
The Australian War Memorial
Perhaps we can’t expect a government-funded institution to question the government line.
No. That’s bullshit. Of course we should expect government-funded institutions to question the government line. This isn’t a dictatorship. It’s the role of public institutions to question governments past, present and future. And it’s the role of governments to suck up that criticism and keep funding those institutions.
And it’s the role of the public to challenge those institutions if they don’t.
In 2016, Honest History produced an Alternative Guide to the Australian War Memorial, which includes this explanation of why they thought it was necessary:
Honest History often says the Australian War Memorial is the best in the world at what it does. Then we go on to say it could do so much more and do what it does differently. This Alternative Guide hints at what we mean by statements like that.
The Guide recognises the Memorial’s aims – and comments occasionally on how well these aims have been met – but it is primarily intended to encourage critical thinking and questioning. Honest History vigorously advocates the ‘contestability’ of history. Contestability is a key concept in the Australian Curriculum: History for Years 7-10 and is at the core of the historiography issues tackled in senior years.
In the same way that MONA’s the O reveals the usually hidden debate and disagreements that go into curating an art museum, the Alternative Guide deliberately raises the different agendas that have shaped the Australian War Memorial:
The Memorial is a national cultural institution, a creation of governments. It also has close links to Australia’s defence establishment, both current (the Australian Defence Force,which is strongly represented on the Memorial’s Council) and former (the Returned and Services League, the Memorial’s volunteer guides and ‘friends’ groups). This has been so since the Memorial’s foundation. Then, in more recent years the Memorial has sought and received large donations from the defence industry, the manufacturers of the tools and weapons of war, as well as from other benefactors.
These connections have influenced the ‘style’ of the Memorial. It is important, however, to recognise that the support of the public has helped to maintain this style basically unchanged for three-quarters of a century.
I’m going to come back to MONA here again, because MONA was the first time I’d experienced a museum stop pretending to be the impartial, authoritative voice of Truth.
Art galleries are one thing. War Memorials are something else. “Lest We Forget” is the mantra we chant on ANZAC Day, and war memorials are supposed to be part of how we do not forget.
But is remembering some things a way of forgetting others?
There was huge resentment during the Great War towards the businessmen who grew rich selling armaments while soldiers died. Apparently even Fortune magazine ran an article in 1934 naming and shaming those who profited from death. (I say apparently, because I am a bad librarian and haven’t been able to track down the original article.)
And yet: in 2015, American arms company Northrop Grumman used the Australian War Memorial to celebrate its expansion into the Australian market. The War Memorial proudly displays its sponsorship arrangements with BAE Systems Australia, Boeing Australia, and Lockheed Martin.
What is being remembered here? What is being forgotten?
The Director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr. Brendan Nelson, has proposed that the memorial should include the stories of military personnel who participated in the “stop the boats” Operation Sovereign Borders.
Is it appropriate for a war memorial to commemorate peacetime activity?
Is this a way of white-washing a highly controversial piece of government policy?
What is being remembered here? What is being forgotten?
While I was writing this blog post, I read author Richard Flanagan’s recent speech to the National Press Club. It covers ANZAC Day the Sir John Monash Centre and the huge sums being spent on Australian war memorials. It covers the disgraceful fact that Australia still does not have a national museum dedicated to our Indigenous cultures. And it makes the same point I did about remembering and forgetting:
And yet the horrific suffering of so many Australians for distant empires has now become not a terrible warning, not a salient story of the blood-sacrifice that must be paid by nations lacking independence, not the unhappy beginning of an unbroken habit, but, bizarrely, the purported origin story of us as an independent people.
The growing state-funded cult of Anzac will see $1.1bn spent by the Australian government on war memorials between 2014 and 2028. Those who lost their lives deserve honour – I know from my father’s experience how meaningful that can be. But when veterans struggle for recognition and support for war-related suffering, you begin to wonder what justifies this expense, this growing militarisation of national memory or, to be more precise, a forgetting of anything other than an official version of war as the official version of our country’s history, establishing dying in other people’s wars as our foundation story.
And so, the Monash Centre, for all its good intentions, for all the honour it does the dead, is at heart a centre for forgetting. It leads us to forget that the 62,000 young men who died in world war one died far from their country in service of one distant empire fighting other distant empires. It leads us to forget that not one of those deaths it commemorates was necessary. Not 62,000. Not even one.