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Understanding Museums - Australian Museums and Museology: Edited by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

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Peter Stanley is the Head of the Centre for Historical Research, National Museum of Australia. More on Peter Stanley

War and Australia’s museums
by Peter Stanley

The Anzac legend would have us believe that the Australian nation is a war-baby. Not only did the Australian colonies federate during the 1899–1902 war in South Africa, but more importantly, it is widely believed that on the cliffs of Gallipoli a consciousness of Australia as a nation was born. Its military past continues to impinge upon modern Australia. One of its two national days, Anzac Day, commemorates Australia’s losses (and increasingly its achievements) in war. Local war memorials are visible in towns and suburbs (though arguably less apparent as the capital cities grow and as highways bypass country towns) and its federally-funded national war museum is among the country’s leading tourist attractions. Many old Australian families maintain a strong interest in the war service of their forebears: the National Archives is currently receiving over 30,000 requests for copies of military service files each month. Military history remains a staple of popular publishing, and reading military history seems to be a more popular pastime in Australia than in comparable nations.

War’s impact in shaping the composition, politics, and ideology of Australian society can be over-rated. Environment, economy, demography and culture may in the long term come to impose more profound changes. Still, war was undeniably one of the shaping forces of twentieth-century Australia, particularly in terms of individual and family experience. The importance and impact of, say, Gallipoli, Pozières, Kokoda, Changi and Vietnam in individual and communal life and memory must be accepted as fundamental to the lives and memories of many individuals and groups. Whether and how Australian museums have reflected this importance forms one part of the substance of this chapter. The question of how museums can or should document and interpret military experience forms another.

As this enterprise recognises, Museums in Australia 1975 – the Pigott Report – became the catalyst for the single most wide-ranging and long-lasting change in Australia’s museums. While not all of its recommendations were accepted (notably the formation of an Australian Museums Commission), the report stimulated the creation of a strong museum sector, with professional management and trained staff, leading to the development of better documented, stored and conserved collections and galleries that helped visitors to explore and understand museums’ collections and themes. The growth to maturity of the Australian museum sector in the 30 years following is the Pigott committee’s greatest legacy. Many contributors to this venture owe their careers to the changes that the report produced or assisted. How have Australian museums in their most dynamic decades reflected the changing place of war in our historical consciousness?

However we may strive to escape its influence, war occupies a privileged place in our thinking about the past, presumably not just because of its impact, but because it is the trauma most closely connected to the nation state and indeed, in Australia, to the creation of the nation. However – paradoxically – the striking feature about Australia’s treatment of war in its museums is not that there is so much of it, but that it is so absent. If war is of such importance in Australian history (and it seems to be), why is that importance not reflected commensurately in its place in the nation’s museums?

Though the Pigott Report referred only in passing to war or military historical collections – reflecting the greater interests among the committee in natural and cultural collections – Australia’s museums broadly seem to reflect that impact. Every local museum has a display case of campaign medals; of kit brought back from one of the world wars; of posters, leaflets, ration cards or the ephemera of conflict. War’s artefacts are rightly inescapable in the collections that document the historical experience of the Australian people. But museums don’t merely collect and document historical experience: they interpret it too. And it is in the interpretation of Australia’s conflicts that the characteristics of Australia’s military museums become interesting.

War has clearly been an important part of Australia’s historical experience, though our appreciation of its role has changed over time. Indeed, one of the major changes in Australian history that has occurred over the past 30 years is that we have come to recognise that ‘war’ now encompasses more than it did at the time of the Pigott Report. All but the most obdurate neo-revisionist now accept that an intermittent war of conquest accompanied the European settlement of the continent. Museums recognise and explain this fact, though not as fully as the magnitude or extent of conflict might suggest. The only major institution to devote a substantial area to frontier conflict is the National Museum, through a section of its Gallery of First Australians, opened in 2001. This display attracted heated criticism and controversy, not least from Keith Windschuttle, author of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Volume One: Van Diemen's Land 1803–1847. [1] The fact of the existence of this display  - and that it remains substantially intact - is a reflection both of the degree to which the existence of frontier conflict is recognised, and the strength of the research on which the National Museum’s presentation was based.

All the same, this conflict, though profoundly disruptive for Aboriginal society, was not primarily military. Rather cultural, biological, ideological or economic impacts led to what Charles Rowley called The Destruction of Aboriginal Society; more Aboriginal people died from germs than guns. [2] Curiously, the largest single treatment of the fact and impact of frontier conflict can be found in the National Gallery of Australia’s powerful installation, The Aboriginal Memorial, comprising 200 hollow log coffins from central Arnhem Land. The Aboriginal Memorial, the Gallery explains, ‘commemorates all the indigenous people who, since 1788, have lost their lives defending their land’. [3] State museums variously acknowledge or document the dispossession of the continent’s original inhabitants. To anticipate one of the themes of this discussion, one of the least consequential presentations of frontier conflict can be found in the ‘colonial’ gallery of the national war museum, the Australian War Memorial. This seeming failure to recognise one of the most widespread and portentous military experiences in Australian history in its museums deserves more detailed analysis. [4]

Several kinds of museums deal with the Australian experience of war: private military museums; local or regional museums; the major state museums; Defence Force museums, notably those of the Australian Army; and national museums, notably the Australian War Memorial.

Private museums

No one knows how many private military museums exist in Australia, and the number fluctuates over time. They vary in size and quality, but tend to concentrate on simple displays of kit, guns and uniforms, and adopt an uncritical stance towards the Anzac legend. Perhaps the clearest manifestation of the style of the private museum is the East Point Military Museum, Darwin. The creation of a group of devoted retired army officers, the museum is housed in a former battery site on Darwin harbour and displays a range of military artefacts with a natural bias toward artillery and the defence of the north. The effort of collecting and preserving this material in the face of Darwin’s climate is commendable. The display, however, is eclectic and – it must be said – amateurish, reflecting its creators’ enthusiasms and interests: a display of Nazi memorabilia and hand-guns sits beside a room of naval artefacts. Technical descriptions prevail over interpretation, in the classic manner of the hobbyist. The East Point Museum reflects the best and the worst of the amateur tradition in Australian military collecting. Their work, and that of their counterparts, is worthy of more detailed study, and deserves the support of the professional museum sector created by the Pigott Report.

Local or regional museums

Here we encounter a paradox. Almost all local or regional museums display the material culture of war, but almost none use this material to interpret war in any sustained way. The items displayed in local museums differ from those seen in museums like the East Point Military Museum. They will typically hold relics of military service – medals and commemorative items – rather than larger weapons. They tend to be strong in the artefacts of groups generally under-represented in military collections – citizen soldiers and servicewomen, and civilians through items such as ration cards. Because Australian military experience and war service invariably occurred far from home, those responsible for local and regional collections find difficulty in incorporating this material into rooms or galleries devoted to pioneers, settlement, occupations and professions and the life of a town or district. They are often relegated to a display reminding visitors of the world wars, often accompanied by reminders of recent celebratory ventures – Australia Remembers certificates from 1995 or Veterans’ Affairs posters, or merely Australian flags.

While local historical museums’ collections might be disparate and their presentation artless, it may be that in the aggregate they reflect a genuine popular attitude to the importance of war. Much like local (as opposed to formal state and national) Anzac Day services, they express popular attitudes toward military experience, to what it is and is seen as, to how it affected particular communities, and to its significance in comparison to other aspects of a community’s existence and identity. This too deserves greater scrutiny and support.

State museums

Arising largely from a sense of wonder at Australia’s (or the world’s) natural history, an interest in Australia’s Indigenous culture or an interest in its productive geology, Australia’s great state museums have tended to come late to the history of European Australia, and still less to conflict as a part of that historical experience. As a result, state museums collect war-related material with discrimination. Some state museums (such as the South Australian Museum and the Western Australian Museum) do not interpret overseas war history at all. Others (such as the Melbourne Museum) present war within a spectrum of broader social history. While individual items might relate to war – and the most striking example must surely be the German A7V tank, ‘Mephisto’, displayed at the Queensland Museum – the Australian experience of overseas wars is largely absent from the state museums. 

Defence Force museums

The armed services’ museums await a formal history, though various internal reviews have documented the growth of collections of historical material collected for various purposes – as ‘training aids’ or the means of enhancing esprit de corps, for instance. Both the Royal Australian Navy and Royal Australian Air Force maintain large museum collections, including in the case of the RAAF Museum at Point Cook some 20 aircraft. [5] The Royal Australian Navy maintains historical collections at several shore establishments, and in 2005 opened the RAN Heritage Centre at Garden Island. While the RAN’s service in war and especially its losses are treated in the galleries of the Australian War Memorial, the Navy’s history is also displayed and interpreted through the major Navy gallery in the Australian National Maritime Museum. [6]

The largest distributed collection is that of the Army Museums network, managed by the Army History Unit (AHU). Formerly the product of the devotion of individuals, enthusiasts and particular units, Army museums for many years remained a very mixed bag. Often their facilities and management did not match the size or historical worth of their collections, and they were often unseen by the general public. This uneven management and support changed in the 1990s. The Army now maintains seven regional and 10 corps museums. [7] The regional museums occupy historic buildings, some of outstanding significance, and all care for large, diverse collections of artefacts and other historical sources ranging from the colonial period to the present. The corps museums range in size from the large collection of technology at the Army Museum, Bandiana (home to most of the Army’s logistic corps collections), to the small Royal Australian Army Pay Corps Historical Collection. In addition, many Army units maintain ‘Unit History Rooms’, necessarily smaller and lacking professional support, but often including items of great significance. All the Army’s museums have developed in all areas, of management, documentation, conservation, display and interpretation, in the decade since the AHU became responsible for them.

Obviously, military museums deal fundamentally with military experience. They are the product of a military organisation, whose history and heritage they document in abundance (the Army museums network collectively holds material equal in magnitude to the Australian War Memorial’s). It would not be surprising to find that they concentrate upon the history of formal military units, mainly in times of conflict, mainly in action. These after all, are high points of drama, and conflict engenders collections – trophies, souvenirs, bullet-pocked helmets documenting violent death; medals testifying to heroism. But how do they interpret war as a human experience? Given their diverse origins, their evolution from essentially private collections, the relatively limited resources available to them (even under AHU’s vastly more supportive regime) and the number of museums and their respective curators, it is not surprising that they treat the experience of war in very different ways.

Each of the Army’s regional museums also includes displays that illuminate the reality of war experience. The Army Museum of Western Australia, for example, devotes a large room to the experience of prisoners of war held by the Japanese. Realistic tableaux depict aspects of the ordeal of the Burma-Thailand railway – such as the excision of tropical ulcers - that leave little to the imagination. These life-size, realistic mannequins depicting the reality of starvation and brutality without any concession to good taste are far in style and gravity from the showcases of militaria that dominate many military museums. [8] Likewise, the Army Museum of South Australia, though hampered by a severe contrast between a shortage of space and a large collection, includes in its busy galleries displays dealing with the place of women in the predominantly male military history of the state. Its displays include not only treatments of servicewomen, but also of civilian volunteers. This area includes a recognition of the voluntary Cheer-Up Hut, the centrepiece of which is a piano from the Cheer-Up Hut’s Adelaide ‘rooms’, bearing the signatures of hundreds of service personnel (all of which have been transcribed). [9] Most impressive of all is the cell in the Military Museum of Tasmania, housed in a magnificently preserved 1840s garrison prison, devoted to conflict between Aboriginal people and settlers in Van Diemen’s Land. [10]

Hampered by geographical dispersion, a relative lack of funding and an understandably parochial focus (whether on the state or the corps), the Army’s museums comprise a museological resource whose potential has yet to be realised.

National museums

Australia has few national museums, arguably only four: in order of opening, the Australian War Memorial, the National Gallery of Australia, the Australian National Maritime Museum and the National Museum of Australia. These major museums observe a genteel demarcation from their significant state counterparts. High art generally goes to the national or state galleries; ‘natural history’ is the province of major state museums; only Indigenous culture is reflected more widely. They dine at separate tables, and always have. ‘War’ remains almost the exclusive preserve of the War Memorial, whose subject remit enables it to collect and display art as well as artefacts. It is not only the oldest national museum, pre-dating its counterparts by 60 years, but also holds arguably the broadest and most diverse collection. The collection (at the heart of the interpretation offered) encompasses traditional museum artefacts – ‘relics’ in the Memorial’s jargon - but also vast and varied collections of art, photographs, sound, film and multimedia, as well a huge library and an archive of private and official records, ephemera and maps. Inevitably uneven in some aspects across the range of its collection, it documents Australia’s experience of war abundantly – rightly the envy of less fortunate nations.

Beginning in 1917 with Charles Bean’s vision that a museum would become a fitting memorial to the men he had seen die on Gallipoli and the Western Front, collecting began with the creation of official records, official photographs and soon after works of art (apparently inspired by a Canadian innovation). Bean and his lieutenant, John Treloar, urged Australian troops to gather souvenirs and trophies. By the war’s end the basis of a collection existed, to be displayed in temporary exhibitions and by 1941, a permanent home in Canberra. In the meantime, Treloar began to collect the private records – letters, diaries and personal papers – often donated explicitly in memory of the war dead, that have become such a jewel in the Memorial’s diadem. With a second world war official collecting began again, though with a greater emphasis on photographs and art than on relics. At first a memorial to the dead of the Great War, the Memorial’s ambit broadened between 1948 and 1980 to encompass Australian military history from 1788 as a whole. [11] Despite this broad scope, the Memorial consistently focused on war rather than military history in peacetime, except for a significant recent interest in peacekeeping deployments. With the increasing involvement in peacekeeping operations following the first Gulf War of 1990–91, the Memorial formed close links with the Defence Force to gather records, photographs and artefacts in the field, and has revived commissions to artists and photographers and cinematographers to document and record commitments overseas. This collaboration has strengthened in recent years following the commitment of Australian forces to Afghanistan and Iraq.

While almost all conflicts have been documented thoroughly in art, photographs and official archival records, the gathering of private records and – surprisingly – artefacts has generally lagged behind. With notable exceptions such as prisoners of war, especially of the Japanese, collecting during and after the Second World War garnered a fraction of the material relating to the Great War. Negligent collecting in some conflicts compelled retrospective acquisition long after by energetic curators. The most notable examples were Peter Burness’s single-handed creation of a large and impressive Boer War collection between about 1975 and 1990. The collection has grown since then, sporadically, through curatorial pushes, serendipity and increasingly by the recognition within the national community that the Memorial is a fitting repository for war records and artefacts. This tendency to donate is tempered to an extent by state parochialism – a potential donor from Toowoomba might ask why precious family papers should go to Canberra rather than, say, Brisbane – and by the understandable doubt that with such a large collection much must inevitably remain in storage. Despite some attention to civilian organisations and experience, the collection remains heavily biased toward the uniformed services and combat; a reflection of its origins and purpose in commemorating those who died at the hands of the enemy.

This predilection would not matter if Australia’s experience of war were addressed by other museums of comparable standing (by major state museums, say). But it is not. This places more of a premium on the need for a treatment of war that encompasses a range of attitudes, values and interpretations. For example, the history of opposition to war or military service has always been almost entirely disregarded by the Memorial because it has been assumed that displaying objects opposing war at all – some wars in particular or military service in general – somehow constitutes either an endorsement of the cause, or is somehow insulting the memory of those who died in war. Likewise, some groups continue to be largely excluded from the Memorial’s record of Australian experience of war, such as industrial workers and merchant seamen. While some galleries (such as the gallery Echoes of the Guns, opened in 1993) explicitly recognise the cost of war and the duration of its impact, other galleries focus narrowly on the battle front. Indeed, the history of the Defence Force in peacetime has never been treated, despite its inclusion in the Memorial’s mandate. This partly reflects the Memorial’s traditional concentration on those who fought and died, rather than those who merely supported the war effort. But for merchant sailors, who died directly in combat at the hands of the enemy in Australian waters, it seems to be an absurd continuation of wartime politics.

Still, whatever qualifications are made about its use, the Memorial’s collection constitutes a vast treasure. Its magnitude gives it a versatility and value available to few other institutions, at least in Australia. And while the future will inevitably broaden and liberalise the scope of the interpretation it offers, the collection will sustain that growing recognition of diversity, provided the institution embraces opportunities to do so.

While war has been of significance to the history of Australia in the twentieth century – especially the world wars fought by citizen servicemen and servicewomen – it has been documented unevenly by Australia’s museums. The largest single share of the national collection is held by one institution and then by specialist Defence Force museums, while it is ignored by other significant sectors (the state museums), or is treated variably at the local level.

The consequence of this concentration has been to allow one interpretation – essentially the classic statement of the Anzac legend, one valorising white males in combat – to prevail over a broader, more inclusive interpretation. In its concentration of ownership the War Memorial has become the Rupert Murdoch of the Australian museum world. This lack of diversity is perhaps inescapable given the intention and history of the Defence Force museums, but in relation to the major public war museum a more generous or liberal attitude would seem to be merited. The challenges of the future will be to recognise frontier conflict, the civilian experience of war, the consequences of war and the different attitudes Australians have expressed toward it, while not diminishing the strong empathy it has traditionally conveyed toward those who have served in war and in uniform. A more inclusive ethos would not, it would seem, be impossible to achieve. Such an approach would strengthen the value of museums interpreting war and connect them more securely to the broader national stories that museums can tell.


1 Keith Windschuttle, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Volume One: Van Diemen's Land 1803–1847, Macleay Press, Sydney, 2002.

2 CD Rowley, The Destruction of Aboriginal Society, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1980.

4 Since writing this chapter (in 2007) I have presented a paper, ‘“All of this Frontier War stuff”: interpreting frontier conflict in Australia - from ignorance to denial’, at the conference Tutu te Pueho: New Zealand’s nineteenth-century wars, Massey University, Wellington, February 2011.

5 For RAAF  Museum, Point Cook see

6 For the Australian National Maritime Museum’s Navy Gallery see

7 Royal Australian Armoured Corps Memorial & Army Tank Museum; North Fort & Royal Australian Artillery National Museum; Army Engineer Museum; Royal Australian Army Corps of Signals Museum; Royal Australian Infantry Corps Museum; Museum of Australian Army Flying; Museum of Australian Military Intelligence; Army Museum, Bandiana; Royal Australian Army Pay Corps Historical Collection; Royal Australian Corps of Military Police Historical Collection. The Army History Unit website, gives details of and links to the various museums under its stewardship.

8 Army Museum of Western Australia,

9 Army Museum of South Australia,

10 Military Museum of Tasmania,

11 For a history of the Memorial see Michael McKernan, Here is Their Spirit: a history of the Australian War Memorial, 1917–1990, UQP and AWM, Brisbane, 1991.

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Cite as: Peter Stanley, 2011, 'War and Australia's museums', in Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, National Museum of Australia, published online at
ISBN 978-1-876944-92-6