The Australian War Memorial commemorates the sacrifice of Australian servicemen and servicewomen who have died in war. Its mission is to help Australians to remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society.
The Memorial was conceived as a shrine, museum and archive that supports commemoration through understanding. Its development through the years has remained consistent with this concept. Today the Memorial is a commemorative centrepiece; a museum, housing world-class exhibitions and a diverse collection of material relating to the Australian experience of war; and an archive holding extensive official and unofficial documents, diaries and papers, making the Memorial a centre of research for Australian military history.
The National Collection
The Australian War Memorial houses one of Australia’s most significant museum collections. Consisting of historical material relating to Australian military history, the National Collection is one of the most important means by which the Memorial presents the stories of Australians who served in war.
The National Collection is used to support exhibitions in the permanent galleries, temporary and travelling exhibitions, education and public programs, and the Memorial’s website. Today, over four million items record the details of Australia’s involvement in military conflicts from colonial times to the present day.
Donating to the National Collection
The National Collection is developed largely by donations received from serving or former members of Australia’s military forces and their families. These items come to the Memorial as direct donations or bequests, or as donations under the Cultural Gifts program. The Memorial also works closely with the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to acquire material relating to current activities.
The Memorial’s curators cannot accept every item offered for donation. Each item must be assessed for its historic, social, and aesthetic importance; its known association with people, events, places, and themes; its expression of community identity; its craftsmanship, style, or beauty; and its potential to illustrate technological development.
Each item is also assessed against the existing collection: does it replicate objects already held? Does it have a better background than similar items already held? Is it of greater aesthetic value, or rarity, or is it in better condition than similar items?
When items are considered for the National Collection, the Memorial must ensure that there are no legal, moral, or financial obstacles; that clear evidence of ownership is available; and that copyright, licensing, and reproduction restrictions have been determined and documented.
Material relating to recent conflicts is given high priority. For some conflicts the collection is well developed and a small number of items are sought. For others, there are gaps which the Memorial is seeking to fill.
The Memorial is interested in original material (preferably with compelling stories related to ownership) and does not generally collect photocopies or digital copies of original material, reproductions of artworks, copies of items already in the Memorial’s collection or the collections of other institutions, miniature medals, or newspaper clippings.
Items prioritised for collection include medal groups – particularly for recent conflicts – and Victoria Cross (VC) and other medals awarded for gallantry in all conflicts, soldier art, posters and propaganda material, and personal correspondence (including letters, emails, and diaries). Battlefield relics, captured enemy equipment, and original photo and videographic objects and recording devices used to capture military operations (including images of those on the Roll of Honour) are also desirable. Oral history recordings with participants in recent conflicts are prioritised.
Medal ribbon bars, medal cases and cardboard boxes, discharge certificates, pay books, demobilisation books, attestation papers, and commissioning certificates are rarely collected.
Recent conflicts (First Gulf War, 1991; Afghanistan, 2001–present; Second Gulf War, 2003–present)
The First Gulf War collection is small but very strong: given Australia’s limited role in this conflict, it is not expected that holdings will be greatly expanded.
For the current deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Memorial has maintained a close relationship with the ADF to undertake acquisition during the conflicts.
Personal and military objects from men and women, especially uniforms, badges, medal groups and firearms connected to personal stories are sought, as are opposition group items, materials related to improvised explosive devices, and items related to Saddam Hussein’s regime, the occupation of Baghdad, and the establishment of new government in Iraq.
Material relating to Australian recruits to insurgent groups, examples of humanitarian aid packages or relief supplies, and international and home-front material (including cartoons and posters, maps, and aerial photos) are a priority for collection.
Peacekeeping since 1947
As the Australian War Memorial Act precluded coverage of peacekeeping until 1980, peacekeeping operations prior to 1980 are unevenly represented in the National Collection.
The Memorial seeks to build collections representative of all operations in which Australians have been involved, with more extensive coverage for the major commitments. For Cambodia, Somalia, and East Timor, the Memorial has maintained a close relationship with the ADF from the outset to ensure that well-documented material is collected during deployments.
Personal and military objects, particularly those telling personal stories, are sought from the early, often small, peacekeeping commitments. Uniforms, objects and personal items used during peacekeeping operations, relating to dangerous or significant incidents, or representing interactions with civilian populations are particularly valuable. Objects and original images and video recordings related to medical contingents, engineering and reconstruction, elections, or the long-term presence of observers and truce monitors, and material depicting the high level of participation by women in more recent deployments is equally important.
Humanitarian and disaster relief operations
As this is a newly identified collecting area, the Memorial’s current holdings are extremely limited.
Examples of clothing or uniform and personal items from international partners (civilian and military), and personal items relating to the actions of Australian civilians and non-governmental organsations are a high priority, as are objects, original images and video recordings and oral histories relating to humanitarian missions or natural disasters, and the contributions of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Australian Federal Police personnel. Material reflecting public lobbying of government for humanitarian response, and examples of humanitarian aid and disaster relief equipment will also be considered.
Vietnam War, 1962–75
The Vietnam War is a significant conflict and there is potential to enhance the collection. Radio and communication equipment remains poorly represented – items such as radio direction finder equipment used prior to the battle of Long Tan in 1966 are highly sought. Combat uniforms, private records, and works of art for periods not covered by the official war artists are given a high priority for active collection development. Personal relics, significant medals, Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) material, unofficial photographs, and film and sound require selective enhancement.
Other areas for collection include material associated with Australians serving with United States forces and/or outside the Australian Task Force Area; material relating to Vietnamese military personnel who later migrated to Australia; uniforms, equipment or weapons associated with Philippine, Thai, Taiwanese or South Korean forces; and examples of camouflage uniform development. Also of interest are modified Australian weapons, material relating to RAN clearance divers, tunnel fighting equipment, technology used to detect or counter mines and booby traps, and engineering equipment.
Malayan Emergency, 1948–60; Indonesian Confrontation, 1962–66
The Memorial aims to represent the major phases of Australia’s involvement in these conflicts. Given the lack of additional existing material, capturing oral histories is the most realistic way to enhance the collection.
Additional photographic images will be acquired if they depict personnel listed on the Roll of Honour or the Commemorative Roll, or strengthen specific themes.
There is a notable absence of personal items or military equipment which communicate individual stories or illustrate connections to personalities and events. Material related to domestic aspects of these conflicts is desirable. Very few letters, diaries or memoirs are held, and personal records are keenly sought.
Material relating to Australian casualties, use of tracker dogs, and service with the Malayan Police are of interest, as are captured enemy uniforms, badges, works of art, weapons and equipment.
Korean War, 1950–53
In general, items relating to the Korean War are keenly sought. The lack of provenance of some materials, such as uniforms, and the general lack of personal items and battlefield relics for telling the story of the individual in Korea make development of the collection desirable.
Uniforms, medals, works of art, personal items and battlefield relics are highly sought (particularly those related to the battles of Yongyu, Chonju, and Pakchon; patrol actions at Ichon, Yoju, Hill 614, and Hill Sardine; Kapyong and Maryang San). North Korean, Chinese and Russian clothing, weapons and captured equipment are of interest.
The following material has also been prioritised for collection: Australian naval equipment and evidence of RAN activities on bases in Japan; equipment relating to the work of RAAF and Army nurses; artefacts relating to prisoner-of-war experiences; communist propaganda and gifts “left on the wire”; relics of the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula; and relics, personal items and original images and film recordings related to postwar peacekeeping.
British Commonwealth Occupation Force: Japan, 1946–52;
British Commonwealth Forces Korea, 1952–53
Overall, the collection is considered to be representative and adequate for current purposes. Material may be considered for those areas with extremely small holdings, such as private records and sound and film recordings; a British Commonwealth Occupation Force marked vehicle might be a worthy addition.
Items considered for collection include: personal items and relics relating to training activities conducted in Japan, Japanese civilian souvenirs bought by Australians, and items from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Personal items relating to home-front attitudes, posters aimed at the Japanese population, and Japanese views of British Commonwealth Occupation Force forces, UN forces, and civilian life will also be considered.
Items that speak of relationships between Australians and Japanese and/or Koreans are sought, including civilian gear (wedding dresses), objects relating to Japanese/Korean orphans adopted by Australians, relics relating to the Australian Military Police, musical instruments, and personal items relating to embarkation to and from Japan/Korea.
Second World War, 1939–45
The Second World War collection is large and complex, with strengths and weaknesses varying throughout the different campaigns Australians were involved in.
The RAAF collection requires strengthening, while naval material is almost non-existent: very few relics of any kind survive from naval battles. Significant material covering the RAN in the Pacific, North Africa, Mediterranean, the battles of the Atlantic, Midway and Coral Sea, and support for Allied forces on Guadalcanal and at D-Day is highly sought, as are objects related to RAAF Squadrons 10, 453, 455, 456, 461, 464, and 466.
Items of historical provenance associated with events and personalities are lacking for the Middle Eastern theatre, particularly with regard to RAN and RAAF service. Material relating to enemy forces in North Africa is of interest, particularly uniforms and objects from the battle of El Alamein. Naval resources and equipment covering Inter-Allied Services Department, Special Operations Australia, and Services Reconnaissance Department operations (Z Special Unit, coastwatchers, RAN Fairmile boat operations) are also prioritised.
Uniforms and equipment used by soldiers on Crete and/or Greece, material relating to support given by local Greek and Cretan communities, and Vichy French uniforms, equipment and technology used in Syria are areas of interest. Allied engineering and technical material, including Australian radar equipment and examples of Australian innovation and technology such as the WS-108 radio set are also of interest, as are clothing, insignia and personal objects related to the Holocaust. Uniforms and objects from Papua and New Guinea (Milne Bay, Kokoda, Buna/Gona/Sanananda) will also be considered.
Objects connected to women pilots, particularly Air Transport Auxiliary personnel, are highly sought after, as is equipment and material relating to nurses, and other women’s service, as well as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enlistees in the Australian Women’s Army Service.
Few objects describing the Australian home front were gathered during the war, except those regarding women’s civilian activities. Material relating to attacks on Darwin and the role of the US in the defence of Australia requires greater representation. Spitfire or other aircraft wreckage from Darwin air raids, in particular, is highly sought after.
Items relating to Australians in German or Italian captivity are still sought, as are items relating to internment of prisoners of war or civilians in Australia (particularly the Japanese break out at Cowra).
Additional images will be acquired if they depict personnel listed on the Roll of Honour and the Commemorative Roll, or strengthen specific themes.
The collection does not hold an abundance of letters. There is a strong bias toward the army’s fighting arms and additional material for the RAN and RAAF would be welcome.
The following collections are considered formed and are not being collected unless items are of particular significance: newspapers (unless not held elsewhere); Second World War Christmas books; New Guinea maps; cigarette and trading cards; Japanese leaflets; and aerial photographs of the South-West Pacific Area.
First World War, 1914–18
In general, the existing collection provides good representation for all the major battles, although the collection for Bullecourt and Villers-Bretonneux could be developed.
Additional photographic material for the RAN is desirable. Although the photographic collection is essentially formed, additional images will be acquired if they depict personnel listed on the Roll of Honour and the Commemorative Roll or if they cover specifically identified weaknesses.
Collecting aims for this collection are to supplement or “round out” those areas currently under-represented. These include naval operations, the Australian Flying Corps, women’s service and involvement at home and abroad. The home-front aspect of the collection needs particular strengthening, especially in the area related to the two conscription referenda.
Original photographic, film and sound recordings are of interest (particularly Thuillier and Darge photographic postcards), as are objects relating to VC actions, military saddlery, chemical warfare, and service in Mesopotamia/Persia and North Russia.
Australia’s early military history
Colonial military forces
New Zealand, 1860–66
Sudan (NSW Contingent), 1885
South African War (Boer War), 1899–1902
China, 1900–01 (Boxer Rebellion)
The current collection is small but generally representative.
Australian and British military heraldry relating to this period would be considered, including examples of uniforms and headgear worn by units of the six colonial forces, both army and navy, and particularly of local pattern; local copies and the “Australian” styles adopted after the 1880s; completion of specimen sets of local medals; unofficial colours; and objects with important colonial military connections.
Lithographs that illustrate the colonial military forces, barracks and portraits, and soldiers’ diaries and letters are sought as a high priority.
For Sudan, works of art by contemporary artists such as J.R. Ashton, C.H. Hunt, Livingston Hopkins and Walter Paget; medals awarded to senior officers or for distinguished service, mentions in despatches, casualties; commemorative medallions or the badge of the colony; and heraldry items relating to service by chaplains and war correspondents would be considered.
The collection of material related to the South African War is given relatively high priority, especially considering its rarity in some areas. Works of art are the most likely area for enhancing the collection, but other items might be considered: Australian service uniforms; locally made and British-issue items as used by Australians; harness and saddlery; military decorations; and personal battle relics.
Items relevant to the Boxer Rebellion may be considered for collection, especially paintings or prints; diaries and other written accounts from the conflict; original officer and rating uniforms, as well as the winter uniforms supplied by the Canadian government; and other items from the servicemen of foreign allied nations.
Examples of period leather equipment unique to the Naval Brigade, and ship’s badges, flags, or similar equipment from the Protector or troopship Salamis may be considered, as well as colonial naval flags, notable examples of the China Medal, and badges of the colonial forces. These items would broaden the context of the Australian material.
Material related to frontier violence, including weapons and relics associated with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, has been identified for future collection.
The Collection Development Plan has been developed within the context of the Australian War Memorial Act 1980, the Australian National Audit Office Management of the National Collection report (2018), and the Corporate Plan 2018–22. It is informed by legislation including Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986; Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013; Customs Act 1901 and Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations 1956; The Archives Act 1983; UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970; Code of Ethics for Art, History and Science Museums (Museums Australia Inc, 1999); ICOM Code of Ethic for Museums (revised 2017); Copyright Act 1968 and Copyright Amendment (Moral Rights) Act 2000; Work Health and Safety Act 2011; Australian War Memorial/National Archives of Australia Agreement 2000