Bringing Bean's vision to life

10 November 2017 by Claire Hunter

Charles Bean

Charles Bean watching the Australian advance through a telescope near Martinpuich, France.

Charles Bean was on a ship returning home from the war in 1919, when he sketched his vision of how an Australian war museum and memorial should look.

He wanted the imposing neo-classical structure to house a national collection and provide a place to understand the experiences of Australians at war and give families a place to grieve. But it would be more than 20 years before Bean’s vision was realised in the form of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Working with digital developer Ortelia Interactive Spaces, the Memorial has now brought Bean’s original sketch to life as part of a three-dimensional online interactive exhibition featuring works by official war artists and photographers from the First World War.

The online gallery – Art of nation: Australia’s official art and photography of the First World War – features more than 600 works of art and photography from the Memorial’s collection, allowing users to explore the building and its paintings and photographs, while learning the stories behind the works and the artists.

Director of the Australian War Memorial Dr Brendan Nelson said the interactive exhibition honours Bean’s legacy and will allow a new generation of users to understand the vision behind the Memorial, which has become a national institution and an international icon.

Dr Brendan Nelson

Memorial Director Dr Brendan Nelson: "This nation owes Charles Bean a debt we can’t understand let alone repay."

“If you think back over the 20th century there are a small number of Australian’s that burrowed into our hearts and even fewer that burrowed into our soul - Charles Bean was one of the few,” Dr Nelson said.

“This was a man ... who was the official First World War correspondent, chosen by his own colleagues, [who] landed with the Australian troops at Gallipoli, and stayed with them at the front through the entire war. He refused evacuation when he was wounded, he was almost killed twice on the 31st of July 1916 at Pozieres, and at Pozieres a mortally wounded Australian had asked of him: ‘Will they remember me in Australia?’

“And from there he had conceived and resolved to … [build] this, the finest memorial and museum to these men of the Australian Imperial Force and to the nurses, but he would also write and edit the 12 volumes of the official history over 23 years. It was his life’s work.

“This nation owes Charles Bean a debt we can’t understand let alone repay, but in our own inadequate way, the best way to repay him is to see that they are remembered and remembered in every way possible…

“In 1919, on his way back to Australia on the ship, he didn’t just sit idly reflecting on what he’d seen and what had so deeply moved him – the triumph and tragedies, and the pathos of the First World War, and the 62,000 Australian dead that we would leave behind – he spent that journey thinking about the memorial he was going to build for them …

“This fully navigable online presence means people from around the world can visit this special place and see the Memorial’s magnificent collection in the way Bean first envisaged.”

Scott Bevan and Dr Anthea Gunn

Journalist and author Scott Bevan speaking at the launch with the lead curator on the project, Dr Anthea Gunn.

Launching the online exhibition, journalist and author Scott Bevan said Bean knew that art could “often express the inexpressible” and “help us make sense of the utterly senseless”.

“This man of words knew just how important it was to have images,” he said.

“How wonderful it is that we get to see more of the art, taken out of the archives, out of storage, out of history and brought into the light, and into our lives … Bean could not have imagined the technology involved here, but what it offers with this exhibition is precisely what he had imagined on that long voyage back to Australia in 1919.”

The lead curator on the project, Dr Anthea Gunn, said Bean’s vision was about commemoration and remembering the losses of the First World War.

“For Bean it was never about himself, it was always about the soldiers,” Dr Gunn said.

“Bean put together a whole proposal for what the Australian War Memorial should be like, both in terms of the collections and the building itself, so we decided to digitally create Bean’s sketch and explore the ideas that he had.

“It was a monumental project and he had an incredibly complex and fully realised vision in his head of what this building would be and how the collections would be.

“It was going to have a dedicated art gallery with all the history paintings on show, and Bean was writing lists of all the paintings that they had and the paintings that needed to be commissioned or acquired.

“Many of the works have barely been seen by anyone, let alone placed on public display, so this is the first time we’ve been able to do that. By putting the exhibition online we can make it long lasting and people can access it from anywhere.”

A street view feature allows visitors to the online exhibition to compare locations depicted in the original paintings and photographs with how they are now.

“Each of the artists was attached to a divisional headquarters and they were free to select what they wanted to focus on as war artists,” Dr Gunn said. “We’ve included written information about the scene and then we’ve made those places accessible via street view so you can actually explore what those places are like today.”

Dr Anthea Gunn

Dr Anthea Gunn: "By putting the exhibition online we can make it long lasting and people can access it from anywhere."

The online interactive also features animations showing the complex darkroom processes photographer Frank Hurley used to create his composite images, and also recreates a magic lantern show from 1918.

“My colleague Kate Morschel recreated an exhibition of Australian photography in May 1918 in London, which was the first big exhibition of Australian official war photography,” Dr Gunn said.

“Frank Hurley and Hubert Wilkins were both using the Paget plate process, which was one of the earliest colour photographic processes. They couldn’t print the images at that time, so it was only through projection and the magic lantern slide show that they could be displayed during the exhibition. It was called natural living colour, and although it doesn’t quite look like natural colour to the contemporary eye, if you think about this being the first time it was seen, that’s pretty amazing.”

Art of nation is supported by the C.E.W. Bean Foundation, and is now live on the Memorial’s website, complete with an instructional video tour.

Dr Gunn said she thought Bean would be pleased with the result.

Charles Bean's original 1919 sketch for the Memorial.

Charles Bean's original 1919 sketch for the Memorial.