Life on the Floor
Opinion, views and commentary
The faint noise of Helibourne assault sound and light show subsided and lower stairs returned to a more peaceful state, when the silence was shattered! “How do I get out!!? How do I get out!!?” I turned around to see an older gentleman, possible a Vietnam veteran, looking panicked. His breathing was shallow and quick, eyes full of terror. It looked like he was having a panic attack so I got him outside as quickly as I could. When we arrived outside he disappeared not wanting to talk to anyone. A few hours later a colleague told me the man had spoken to her soon after. He was a Vietnam veteran and expressed his gratitude to the Information Assistants (IAs) who had helped during his time at the Australian War Memorial (AWM). It had been a very emotional visit and the Vietnam galleries stirred memories, triggering his panic attack. This situation is just one of many that IAs face in the galleries of the AWM on a daily basis. We rise to the challenge and work together to help the visitor and each other when difficult situations arise.
The role of an IA at the AWM is challenging and at times extremely rewarding. The main function of IAs is to assist visitors around the museum’s facilities, interpret the collection and the Australian experience of war. These tasks are the IA’s bread and butter, duties we perform to a high standard on a daily basis. The role can get repetitive; however you meet all sorts of people with interesting stories to tell.
As a team we have met veterans, not just Australian, who come to reflect on their military service. Many will share their experiences with you, a complete stranger. Listening to the extreme circumstances veterans have been through is a privilege. Some stories are funny but also they can be confronting and harrowing. We IAs are genuinely interested in their stories and do our upmost for veterans. The same can be said of veteran’s relatives, who come to try and understand what their loved ones went through during their service. Talking to veterans and their families is a rewarding experience. The challenge comes from dealing with the emotions surrounding the trauma of veteran’s service. I know I can talk to my colleagues regarding such interactions and find support. Participating in ceremonial duties also helps reflect on the emotions surrounding those who have fought.
The IA’s ceremonial role relates to the AWM’s purpose to commemorate the sacrifice of those Australians who have died in war by acting as wreath orderlies. The big commemorative ceremonies are ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, the rehearsals for the latter are well underway. These events can be exciting, nerve racking and emotional all at the same and requires concentration to ensure everything that is your responsibility runs smoothly. We perform this duty exactly the same for VIPs or school groups and it is rewarding to see school children take an interest in ceremonies.
Dealing with the 130000 or so school children that come through the AWM each year is another challenge the IAs face. On busy days up to 1400 school children come through the galleries and managing them along with other visitors is demanding work. Interacting with the children is one way to keep them interested in the collection and from overwhelming other visitors. Children also ask interesting questions. These can range from the price of military equipment, to what soldiers eat or what kind of diseases they pick up. It keeps us on our toes and it is fun to research the answers if you do not know them. The team constantly deals with lost children, comforting them if they are upset while trying to reunite them with their school or parents. Children and school groups are just one part of the diverse range of visitors that come to the AWM each year and successfully manage within the galleries. Keeping the children and other visitors safe in the AWM also falls in part to the IAs.
Some IAs volunteer to act as first aid officers and luckily the majority of incidents are minor cuts or colds. However they have to deal with serious incidents and when the radio call goes out for urgent first aid assistance the heart jumps. First aid officers have attended visitors with broken limbs, suspected heart attacks, falls which have resulted in serious head injuries and instances when they are desperately waiting for the ambulance crew to arrive to help save a person’s life. The first aid officers do a fantastic job and have plenty of support from colleagues to deal with the stresses of the role.
Finally the IA role is demanding on the body. We stand on our feet for over six hours a day, up and down stairs, walking and shifting heavy objects for ceremonies and events. At first it does not appear to be the most physical job, but for any new IA the first few weeks are full of aches and pains in the feet, shins, knees and lower back. Once you push through and the body gets use to being on its feet all day it becomes easier to spend the day on the floor.
The role of an Information Assistant is a roller coaster ride, up and down, demanding and challenging, repetitive and rewarding. Coming into work each day you do not know what situation might arise outside the normal day. We support each other to deal with any confronting situations and pull together to take on the challenges. That’s life on the floor.