How Should the Australian War Memorial Address the Nation's War on the Indigenous?Breaking News
tags: Australian history, Settler Colonialism
Paul Daley writes about Indigenous history, Australian culture and national identity for Guardian Australia. He has won a number of journalism prizes including two Walkley awards, the Paul Lyneham award for political journalism and two Kennedy awards. He is a novelist and playwright whose books have been shortlisted in major literary prizes and is the author of the political novel Challenge.
The Australian War Memorial’s decision to more fully chronicle the frontier wars between First Nations resistance fighters, colonial troops, police and militias is a welcome progression from an institution that for decades has obstinately defied the bloody truth of Australia’s foundation history.
The noble mandate of the memorial, this country’s most revered and politically protected national institution, is to “assist Australians to remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society”. But under a succession of memorial directors the AWM has resisted meaningfully depicting the wars for this very continent – those of violent dispossession and ongoing oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people upon which the Australian colonies, their wealth and finally the federation were constructed.
The decision, apparently at the behest of the memorial’s notoriously conservative governing council, comes at a time of great change (and controversy) at the institution.
Brendan Nelson, a former federal opposition leader, defence minister and memorial director is stepping away from his most recent role at the institution as council chair to become president of weapons manufacturer Boeing International in London. It ends, for the time being, his long and influential formal association with the memorial during which he has argued: Australian frontier conflict did not equate to war; it was the agreed job of the National Museum of Australia to depict colonial Black-white conflict, and that Australian-raised military units were not involved in such fighting.
Under his directorship, celebrated by Labor and Coalition governments, a $500m expansion of the memorial was announced to enable it to, among other things, stage more exhibitions on contemporary military operations and display more military hardware. The expansion (the cost of which has blown out by $50m) was opposed as unnecessary and as an affront to the institution’s commemorative dignity by many supporters of the memorial, including eminent historians and former directors.
(Many were also angered by the memorial’s continued acceptance of funding from companies that manufacture the weapons of war.)
Once the memorial expansion became a fait accompli and building started, opponents shifted their anger: despite all of the imminent new display space there would, apparently, still be no significant gallery dedication (besides some visual art bought in recent years) to frontier conflict.
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