Sir John Monash Centre Villers-Bretonneux
The Sir John Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux. Source: Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
David Ellery, Monash Centre the new front in history wars, The Canberra Times, 7 July 2018
The Sir John Monash Centre, the $100 million, state-of-the-art, technology-rich World War I interpretive centre nestled deep into the earth of Villers-Bretonneux, was always going to be front and centre in Australia’s history wars.
It has endured sustained criticism ever since it was first announced by the Howard government in 2006. After being put on hold by the Rudd and Gillard governments, the centre was given a new lease of life with the election of the Abbott government in 2013.
The final design was announced on April 26, 2015.
It opened on April 16 this year, a week before the 100th anniversary of the Australian victory at Villers-Bretonneux.
Among the many criticisms are that the centre is a “boondoggle”, a misuse of Defence Department funds, a ludicrous act of national validation and an act of self-indulgence by the descendants of white Australia.
Its many supporters, who include the Australian War Memorial‘s Brendan Nelson, say it is none of those things.
“I visited in early April, a few days before it opened to the public,” Nelson says. “The building itself is a great engineering feat … As you walk up towards the Australian National Memorial through the cemetery there is absolutely no disruption to the architectural aesthetics or the ambience.”
Nelson, who notes the centre will continue to evolve as technology progressed, believes it is a place every Australian who goes to France should visit.
“I think young people in particular will be energised by the creative use of technology to bring the story to life,” he says.
While Australian visitor numbers to the Western Front have fluctuated due to acts of terrorism in France and Belgium in recent years, Sonia Holt, of Visit Flanders, says the trends are heading north.
“Australia/New Zealand is a top-five international market to the Flanders Fields region in terms of numbers,” she says.
Holt says Australians visiting the Western Front take the experience of commemoration seriously.
“Each Australian traveller, whether they consciously realise it or not, is on a pilgrimage. Many are motivated by a family connection … others visit out of genuine interest and curiosity, which has been encouraged by the coverage given to the Western Front commemorations [including the centre].