Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Remembrance or forgetting?

View of the Stone of Remembrance at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images.

Dean Ashenden, Remembrance or forgetting?, The Monthly, 10 May 2022

The Australian War Memorial and the Great Australian Silence.

Australia is just one of many nations – from Poland to Japan, France to Turkey, Indonesia to England – that make certain realities unwelcome and prefer mythology to truth-telling. But Australia is unusual in having a very small group that cares a great deal about the telling of the story, as well as a very large group that cares somewhat. If we manage to press on with dismantling our Great Australian Silence, it will be because that small group has been able to seize the moment to mobilise the large one to get behind truth-telling.

But which truths? Told how? Will truth-telling mean just the truths of the experiences of the living, perhaps given as testimony in the way of the “Bringing Them Home” report? Truths told by Them, at Us? Or, to avoid ruffling white feathers, just the historical truths of the Aboriginal experience since 1788 but not truths about who inflicted it and how? Will it mean truths found and documented by yet another commission, soon forgotten? Or just those truths that might at last deliver reparation and compensation? Simple truths, or complicated ones?

The first and hardest of many truths is that of organised violence. In scale alone it is hard to confront: an armed conflict between peoples, the invaders and the invaded, spread over an entire continent and 140 years and costing tens of thousands of lives, almost all of them Aboriginal, a total in excess of the 63,000 lost in the First World War and getting up toward double the number of Australian casualties in the Second World War. Harder still is the use of overwhelming power against people who were both innocent and relatively powerless. No wonder we don’t like mentioning the war. But this, the truth about organised violence, has to be told first because until it has been faced, other and sometimes very different truths can’t be told either.

A lesson from Tennant Creek and how it told the story of its past: in settling for two major storytelling institutions, Tennant allowed the mining museum to go on telling one part of the story as if that was the whole story. Something like that has happened in the national capital too. There the National Museum of Australia does try to tell the recovered story (much as Tennant Creek’s Art and Culture Centre, Nyinkka Nyunyu, has tried to do), but the bigger, grander, more influential Australian War Memorial does not. Moreover, it doesn’t want to. It has repeatedly insisted that the so-called “frontier wars” are covered elsewhere, including at the National Museum of Australia, so there is no need or place to tell the story at the AWM as well.

Of the many counterarguments put over and again, only one is fundamental: the AWM, like Tennant’s mining museum, is telling only part of the truth. It sustains the myths that the white Australia of the War Memorial’s imagining is always and everywhere the goodie, and that collective grief and tragedy have been only occasional visitors to our history, myths so pervasive that they pop out of a prime minister’s mouth unbidden: our history, said Prime Minister Kevin Rudd not long after delivering the apology to the Stolen Generations, is free of “wars, revolution [and] bloodshed”.

The AWM has immense symbolic power. It is among the world’s most recognised sites of memory and, as it keeps saying, repository of “the soul of the nation”. There is no more important place for a more truthful national story to be told; my own feeling is that “truth-telling” won’t have been done unless and until the AWM tells a fuller truth, simply because successive governments have made it the St Peter’s of the national religion. To try to get around the problem by building another institution to tell and commemorate what the AWM won’t, as was suggested recently by Henry Reynolds and others, would leave Australia’s apex institution of memory and identity telling a fundamentally misleading and untruthful story. In all likelihood, any workaround would be left in the shade, just as Nyinkka Nyunyu lives in the shade of the mining museum. Separate coverage of frontier conflict would imply that it didn’t really amount to “war” because real wars are recorded in the AWM, and it was mainly to do with Aboriginal people anyway.

By these same tokens, there is no place in which telling a more truthful story would be more difficult. Could a Makarrata Commission hope to succeed where many have failed? That might depend in part on the story the AWM is asked to tell. The frontier wars are not only or even mainly a matter for conventional military history. The truths to be told are of armed conflict inseparable from “life”, in its conduct and its consequences. Some of these truths are unpalatable in the extreme, but the AWM should not be asked to tell a story that demonises us (or sentimentalises them). The story should include the controversy and disagreement over whether and how the story should be told, the AWM’s role in that not excepted. Those for whom the story is being told should be encouraged to say what they think and feel about the telling.

Appeals in these or any other terms to the AWM leadership would fall on ears that have been deaf for a long time. It is now nearly 50 years since none other than Geoffrey Blainey was the first to suggest that the AWM should consider incorporating the frontier conflicts. Powerfully defended by its military-dominated council and by strident Coalition governments (and a gun-shy Labor Party), the AWM is nonetheless increasingly exposed to change. It is anachronistic. Its many critics include some of its own, and the wider supports of its stance on the frontier wars are shifting. The frontier zone is now much less inclined to brawl with the post-frontier and its conscience than it was in Hugh Morgan’s day. Pastoralists and miners alike have found that they can work with Aboriginal people, and in the aftermath of the destruction of Juukan Gorge will be increasingly willing to do so. Thirty years on from their spectacular clash with Paul Keating over Mabo, perhaps they are ready to switch from attempting to win the story to reconciling stories, as Keating was trying to do?

A public campaign to press for change would almost certainly fail. It is a task for quiet diplomacy, in which that frail vessel, the Labor Party, would necessarily be central. Perhaps with the help and provocation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a Labor government could be persuaded to return the AWM to its stated mission: to “assist Australians to remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society”?

This is an edited extract from Dean Ashenden’s Telling Tennant’s Story: The Strange Career of the Great Australian Silence, published by Black Inc.

Dean Ashenden has worked as an academic and a political adviser, and in journalism. He was previously a presenter on ABC Radio National’s Education Issues program.


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