The Australian War Memorial, Canberra: Celebration, Commemoration or Glorification of War?

With the whole Covid19 kerfuffle severely clipping my international-travel wings, a good alternate travel fix is to explore my own backyard and sights and sites last visited 40 years ago.

What possibly could have changed in that time?

While trying to recover from the shock of 40 years passing in the blink of an eye, I plotted out a break-neck-speed itinerary to visit Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).

A group of high school students visit Canberra in 1980
Back in the good ol’ days of school excursions…

For the uninitiated, Canberra is the political capital of Australia and the seat of our Federal Parliament. Every school student in Australia, often during high school, is encouraged to make the pilgrimage to this political and bureaucratic mecca. Thankfully there are many more interesting things to see than just watching our politicians grandstanding during Question Time and as I planned our itinerary, I was determined to revisit a couple of places from my own (ancient) school excursion.

First stop, the Australian War Memorial.

A plinth with Lest We Forget carved into it at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra

Walking past military sculptures and memorial plaques, and up to the imposing façade of the Australian War Memorial, I knew I was in for a war inundation. I enjoy history and I especially enjoy learning about the times, and lives, of people who made our country what it is today. For better or worse, war leaves no place and no one untouched, even when those wars are far from our shores.

In front of the large ‘Fully Booked’ signs, the ushers were turning away tonnes of people and I was a tiny bit pleased that I had booked our tickets well in advance. The Memorial was all over the new normal Covid19 regulations with plenty of hand sanitising stations, additional ushers encouraging social distancing and handing out free stylus’ so you didn’t have to touch the touch-screens to access information.

A World War 1 soldier salutes

After a quick stroll along the balconies of the Commemorative Area, we wandered into the Museum proper and straight into World War 1. World War 1 is a significant focus of this complex as the concept of an Australian war memorial developed straight after the war’s end in 1918. Charles Bean, a war correspondent and historian during World War 1, lobbied hard when he returned to Australia for some sort of memorial to act as a shrine to the memory of the men and women who served.

World War 1 was also especially significant because it was the first war our country fought as a federated nation. Australians did actively participate in the Boer War and other wars, but the First World War was the earliest call of the Mother Country (Great Britain) to defend democracy.

Old diorama models of a Gallipoli battle in World War 1
Old fashioned model dioramas have been retained to show how history used to be communicated

As I strolled the various displays I realised a LOT has changed over the past 40 years and many of the stiff and clumsy diorama models (cutting edge in their day) had been replaced or complemented by sound/light shows, touch screens and tactile displays. Far more appealing and interesting for school students and general visitors of any age!

From World War 1 we stumbled into the more modern wars of Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq and East Timor (more of a peace-keeping mission than a war) before finally moving into the large display of World War 2 machinery and memorabilia. Yes, the lack of chronological order will not please the Purists.

A display from the Vietnam War at the Australian War Memorial Canberra
leaping into the Vietnam War

There is no way you could see everything and read every description in your allotted two hours. I was very interested, but admit to becoming quickly overwhelmed by all the different dates and battles. I love the history, but do not love the equipment of war and the endless guns and tanks and planes leave me cold. I guess I am more interested in the human stories of both those who went to war and those who were left at home.

Soon our time slot was up and we were invited to leave the Galleries in the main building. No one was forcing us out, but we had to leave to make space for others to come in. Last stop was the extensive souvenir shop. If you hadn’t had enough war in the past two hours, you could buy some to take home. A poppy and a postcard were enough for me.

Australian War Memorial - Postcard promoting the RAAF

But we weren’t done yet…

In my flurry of organisation, I had also booked us in to the Anzac Hall, found behind the main War Memorial building. This is a smaller space with a focus on audio-visual shows. They have three presentations:

  • G for George: About WW2 bombing raids over Germany
  • An aerial dogfight from WW1,and
  • Submarines sneaking into Sydney Harbour during WW2.

But I was done. I was all worn and warred out.

Standing on hard surfaces for three house straight was exhausting and my brain was full-to-overflowing with dates, battles, body counts and questionable leadership activities. Perhaps if you lived in Canberra you could make multiple short visits and ‘do’ one war at a time. That way you would have time to process the who, what, where and when. I wouldn’t bother trying to work out the ‘why’.

A soldier from World War 1 - Australian War Memorial
What those eyes would have seen…

I walked away from the Australian War Memorial in the early evening dark impressed by what I had seen, but shaking my head at:

  • The devastation and senselessness of war.
  • The unnecessary cruelty and barbarity of some people during wartime when they put aside any sense of shared humanity.
  • The fact that no one really wins. Everyone is hurt in some way or other. Even the victors pay a high price.
  • Do we really learn from places like the Australian War Memorial? Does it, even in the smallest way, stop us from doing it all over again?
  • Or do we simply say ‘how sad’ and step back into the comfort of our freedoms and democracy, and do it all again?

The Australian War Memorial is lobbying hard for a $498million redevelopment and expansion. I wonder, is that really necessary? Don’t we already have enough in place to honour the memory of the brave?

What do you think? Commemoration? Or Glorification?

An Australian recruiting poster from World War 1

The Basics

What: The Australian War Memorial has three main areas to visit: The Galleries, Commemorative Area and Anzac Hall. It has extensive landscaped grounds with sculpture, memorials, military equipment and a coffee shop. Entry is free.

Where: Treloar Crescent, Campbell (a suburb of Canberra).

When: Open from 10am-5pm, every day except Christmas Day. We visited during Covid19 and it’s now a requirement to book your tickets to the different areas in advance. Book in here.

A kangaroo as a military mascot in Egypt in World War 1
How did they get a kangaroo to Egypt in WW1? Mena Camp outside Cairo.

Why: For ordinary people like me, the ‘why’ is to understand more about Australia’s involvement in a whole range of wars, as well as commemorate the service and sacrifice of others. For the military buffs, the Australian War Memorial would be like having all your Christmases come at once.

How: We stayed at the Quest City Walk right in the heart of Canberra. The location was perfect with easy walking distance to lots of restaurants and shops. We booked via AirBnB. (As an Airbnb Associate, I earn a small commission when you book through this link and it doesn’t cost you anything extra.)

Who: The Galleries appeared to be highly accessible for everyone. There are stairs up to the Commemorative verandas, but perhaps there is a lift somewhere – which I didn’t see. Their website is not clear on physical access.

An Australian Indigenous soldier in World War 1
An Australian Indigenous soldier in World War 1

Related Posts: For a little more military history, but on foreign soil this time, read about our visit to the Pearl Harbour Memorial in Hawaii. An amazing site.

Related Blogs: For another person’s perspective on the Australian War Memorial, have a look at Why You Wander blog. She visited pre-Covid19 and mentioned the availability of guided tours. That would be an excellent activity.

Read About It: For an interesting and eye-opening read, grab a copy of Well Done, Those Men by Barry Heard. He talks about his experience in the Vietnam War and massive personal repercussions afterwards. I never really knew much about the Vietnam War and how the soldiers were treated when they got back to Australia and this book, with some gentle humour in places, explains a lot. Highly recommended. Go straight to Book Depository.

Some of the 1 787 Australian men who were killed at Sandakan, North Borneo in WW2.
Some of the 1 787 Australian men who were killed at Sandakan, North Borneo in WW2.

#canberra #travelinspo #anzac #australianwarmemorial #worldwarone #worldwartwo  #militaryhistory #wartimeheritage

20 thoughts on “The Australian War Memorial, Canberra: Celebration, Commemoration or Glorification of War?

  1. For an illuminating museum showing the human face of WWII, and how it affected everyone involved – soldiers, workers, citizens, specific populations such as Jewish groups, there is no better place than the WWII museum in Gdansk, Poland. A salutary and difficult experience. But, just like WWI before it, it wasn’t the ‘war to end all wars’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That museum sounds incredibly sobering. I remember when I visited Dachau Concentration Camp it really brought the reality of WWII home with a thud. Unfortunately this sort of wholesale slaughter didn’t end with that war. When will we ever learn?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Depressing, isn’t it? That particular holiday turned out to be so sobering. Auschwitz, various sites in Krakow and- yes – Gdansk really brought home the suffering and inhumanity.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Sobering, but memorable. As a World, it is important we never forget. x

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I have visited Canberra a few times and thoroughly enjoy the museums and art galleries, but I don’t do war memorials. Wars make me angry and sad. And they are still going on, so no I don’t think these places stop wars, but we certainly should not forget them and those they affected.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hear you. I won’t be rushing back, but if nothing else, my visit really made me think about how war is portrayed and whether there is a ‘right’ way to acknowledge the sacrifice of others. I haven’t got the answer to those questions yet, neither have brains much more intelligent than mine! Mel

      Liked by 1 person

  3. As you say it is impossible to cover the AWM in three hours. Living about 30mins walk from it I visit it on a regular basis – taking in a bit at a time and ending up in one of the cafes. I have a fair bit on it in my own blog. In addition to excellent tours which are currently not on they do lots of interesting talks and some behind the scenes tours which visitors would rarely have time for. Not sure if you had time to visit much else on your visit but you would have noticed many changes from 40 years ago. I have been here 20 years and can see big changes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the guided tours you mentioned would add a very interesting and more human touch. Much more preferable than standing and looking at static displays. You are lucky to be able to dip in and out of the AWM, digesting history in manageable bites. No doubt it would be a higher quality experience than trying to take it all in in one visit. Enjoy your day, Mel

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, the tours were good and hopefully will be reinstated soon. I love being able to pop in / out as the feeling takes me.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. One of the benefits of living in a larger metro centre – everything on your doorstep! Have a good weekend!

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Even if it is just Canberra lol. But to be honest there are more museums , galleries etc here and pretty much all free than there are in Syd or Mel. Canberra is a great place to live actually and if you really can’t cope Sydney is just 3 hrs drive.

            Liked by 2 people

          2. Canberra does get a bad wrap which is totally undeserved. A great place to visit and no doubt, and easy place to live.

            Liked by 2 people

  4. Looks like a pretty amazing place that would indeed be hard to get through in a few hours (and I agree, those hard surfaces get to be painful standing on them too long). As to your question – to me, I think it all depends on how the exhibit is presented.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is a real skill in presenting history to the public, isn’t there? The tools and techniques that have been developed over the last 25 yrs or so have really made history come to life. It seems though that I can only take my war history in small doses regardless of the setting. Mel P.S. I am loving your Oppenheimer post. Haven’t finished reading yet and will knock it over today.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I do know it was a very long post – I asked a lot of readers! But I’m glad to hear you are enjoying it so far

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Normally I tend to skim read some longer posts, but yours deserve a long slow read! 😉

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Thank you!!! That means a lot to me

            Liked by 1 person

  5. Museums like that are so enlightening and moving but also emotionally exhausting. A two-hour time limit might be just the thing. (Incidentally, I love dioramas!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, when you come to Aus, make sure you visit the War Memorial in Canberra. You will be in diorama heaven! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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