Memorial Director Matt Anderson speaking to ABC Radio National “Breakfast” with Fran Kelly

A record of Memorial Director Matt Anderson speaking to ABC Radio National “Breakfast” with Fran Kelly

22 October 2020

Fran: Questions continue to be raised now over the planned overhaul of the Australian War Memorial. The Canberra institution has been give half a billion dollars for major renovations, which includes expanding the exhibitions space by 80% and adding galleries for exhibits on the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. But the expansion means that the existing ANZAC Hall will be demolished. The Institute of Architecture argues that would violate legislative heritage protections. Matt Anderson is the Director of the Australian War Memorial, Matt Anderson, welcome to RN Breakfast.

Matt: Good morning Fran

Fran: This half a billion dollars to renovate the war memorial, this is not new, you’ve had it there and dedicated for some time but it sparked all sorts of controversy. The plan includes knocking down ANZAC Hall which was only completed, I think, in 2001. Why does the hall, only built 19 years ago, need to be knocked down?

Matt: Well thanks Fran. Put simply, because it’s no longer fit for purpose. It was built and opened in 2001 but it didn’t have the ability to be expanded and in 2001 of course, it was a seminal year for us in terms of our involvement and engagement in the Middle East, since the hall opened, we’ve had men and women in harm’s way in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria and we need more space to tell their stories.

Fran: But isn’t much of the space that’s going to be built with this half a billion dollars there so that, sort of large hardware can be displayed, there can be helicopters and naval boats and things like that on display?

Matt: Ah no it’s actually not about the large technology objects at all but…

Fran: …aren’t they going to be in the new extension?

Matt: …there will be some, but I think it’s interesting to know that we’re going to increase the space by about five and a half thousand square metres, we currently have about ten thousand and we’re going to increase it by five and half thousand square metres over the site and the precinct. But we’re only increasing the large technology objects by 20 per cent, so in terms of the total space and the density of these large technology objects - it’ll appear that there’s fewer. But the point I want to make about anything we use in the memorial is, it’s needs to tell a story, it needs to resonate, and if that large technology object is something like a bushmaster um, you know then that speaks to a generation of service men and women who have, you know, survived because of it. Australian design, Australian built and it’s a touch point for a generation of service men and women. In the same way, G for George, the Lancaster bomber, that’s currently in ANZAC Hall, one object speaks to the service of 10,000 men who served in Bomber Command, and 4,000 who didn’t come home. So it’s about the clever use of the right objects in the in the right place to tell the story of all who served on them.

Fran: And yet there are those who are close to our war history and some representing service men and women themselves who argue with this. I mean, look at Peter Stanley, he’s worked at the memorial for 27 years, the Principal Historian, he told the consultation period that it’s the expansion is based on a flawed notion that a bigger display of historic military aircraft and vehicles would help veterans heal from their experience. He says quote, ‘if there’s no medical or clinical or academic basis, I describe that as snake oil, there is no demonstrable therapeutic value in traumatised veterans visiting the display for their former weapons, vehicles, or aircraft.’

Matt: Well I would invite, I would invite Peter Stanley to come back and spend the day with me at the Australian War Memorial where my lived experience is the opposite. My lived experience is taking people to the Tarin Kot walls to write their name and to effectively be welcomed home. My lived experience is having people go and look at Debbie the Bushmaster that was busted up in um, that we currently have in the Treloar Centre, and (*talking over*) then so the person who is driving that vehicle, he came, asked if he could see it, climbed inside the vehicle, closed the door, had a moment with himself, stepped back down and said to our curator, ‘I have just finished my resupply mission from 2012’, and the other occupants of the vehicle when it struck the IED, have contacted us and asked if they could actually have their reunion at Debbie to celebrate - or commemorate - the 10 year anniversary of their service. So, you can’t tell me that doesn’t have that therapeutic or mental health benefit. This isn’t a place of therapy but it does have a therapeutic effect and I think that’s important to know that people come here; everyone comes here with different lived experiences but the majority of people who leave here, have a deeper understanding of war and hopefully for current veterans after the development, they will leave here knowing that their service has been recognised and that their service was valued.

Fran: And yet many veterans and families of veterans have spoken out about the plans and the budget and they think this half a billion dollars would be much better spent on veteran services themselves, or Karen Bird for instance, the mother of Veteran Jesse Bird who committed suicide, told us here on Breakfast, she doesn’t particularly have an issue with the renovation, but she says it needs include a larger conversation inside the space about the cost of war and the damage to returned veterans and the intergenerational impact to families.

Matt: And she’s right. We should absolutely…

Fran: …and do we need a new building for that?

Matt: No, I think that’s part of the story, if we do what we do well but certainly – I mean if can just go back – in terms of that stories that we are currently unable to tell, we’ve had men and women deployed on peacekeeping operations every day since 1947. 41,000 women and men served the Australian, you know Australia’s wishes, overseas every day since 1947 and we pretty much tell their story with a beret and a picture. We’ve had 72,000 women and men who have served in the Middle East Area of Operations and at the moment we tell their story in a gallery that takes me fifteen paces to walk across and so we do need more space, in order to give the right emphasis and consideration of the causes, the conduct and the consequences of military service and the recognition that they are owed.

Fran: It’s the half a billion price tag I think, the extent of it that veterans and families and others are critical of. That that money could be much better used for veterans. Can you understand that frustration?

Matt: I can understand the frustration but I also - having spoken to Minister for Veteran’s Affairs, having spoken to the Prime Minister, they have given me the assurance that this is – this is new policy money, it’s new money, it’s an additional to every cent that veterans need for their mental health will be provided. The current budget for Veterans’ Affairs is 11.5 billion dollars per year. If they need more money, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs has assured me they will have. So this isn’t a case of either or, we can do both.

Fran: Well for Karen Bird, it’s either or, for instance she’s a part of a group that’s trying to raise half a million dollars to build a memorial external to the AWM – but linked to it – to honour long term cost of war and pain of war and she said the Government’s not proving that but there’s half a billion dollars for a building when we’ve already got a building that’s not very old.

Matt: Well I’m in touch with Karen and uh, we actually, the Australian War Memorial has provided seeding funding to help them actually develop their proposals for the artist brief and other bits and pieces – so we’re actually…

Fran: …so not the cost of the memorial?

Matt: …no not yet, but we are working with her and it’s a start of a process – you know we have a number of sculptures and um monuments on the ground and this is a start of a process and I’m in touch with Mrs Bird and in fact I’m going to be meeting up with her I think the week after next to continue that conversation and saying that what she is doing is commendable and has our support and – and I’ll do what we can.

Fran: Just in terms of comments from the Institute of Architecture which has sparked this request for us to speak with you today, and they say that demolishing ANZAC Hall violates legislative heritage protections and is calling on the department to block the overhaul. Do you – are you confident that there are no heritage protections being broken in the demolition of ANZAC Hall?

Matt: Yes we are. Look we went to the um – we also have an independent heritage architect who came through and looked genuinely independently to our designs and our plans, and he came back and said that there is a significant impact in taking down ANZAC Hall and replacing it. Of course there is when you replace a building there is a heritage impact, but what he found overall was that what we are doing, the way in which we are doing it by sort of narrowing the footprint of ANZAC hall by bringing in the wings, by preserving the the iconic silhouette, of and the heritage silhouette of ANZAC Hall, sorry, the Australian War Memorial down Anzac Parade by giving us more space to tell more stories ultimately we are improving the heritage value of the Australian War Memorial by doing what we are doing.

Fran: And yet opinions there are split too. We have got David Kemp former Liberal Cabinet Minister, chair of the government’s Australian Heritage Council saying that body can’t support the assessment that this plan won’t see serious changes to the heritage values on the site and he has called for a rethink of aspects of the design.

Matt: Yeah so all of those comments that came through were part of the process where we were seeking the environmental…

Fran: [interrupts]…yes but they didn’t change anyone’s thinking it would seem...

Matt: …No, yeah well they did - and it’s important to note that came in in the initial phase in our response as a consequence of more than 160 submissions that we received we have made more than fifty changes and updates and clarifications in the documentation which is all on the website. We have modified ANZAC Hall, we have modified the glazed link, we have modified the oculus, we have modified the parade ground out the front, we have reduced the heritage impacts of those designs based on the very feedback that Mr Kemp and others have made because we take it all very, very seriously. Public consultation, in one way is owned by the public and so we take the public consultation very, very seriously.

Fran: The War Memorial is more than just a building of course and more than just displays in a sense. Um this is a very sensitive time for the Australian Defence Forces. Yesterday and today more allegations relating to some of our special forces in Afghanistan, in allegations of killing a captive because they couldn’t fit in a helicopter. The Defence Minister has already warned all of us that Australians will be shocked by the findings of the Brereton Report looking at war crimes. How does the memorial reflect these kind of events and this kind of history of our defence forces and how are you thinking about that in terms of the new memorial?

Matt: Well I think that, just this week I had the honour of hosting Mentoring Task Force One. They had their tenth anniversary of their return from Afghanistan and I spoke to them and what they were seeking was meaning and what they were seeking was understanding, and what they were seeking was recognition. They did a terribly, terribly difficult job and they did it extremely well and what the memorial, as we think about how it is that we are going to acknowledge service in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East and those peace keeping and humanitarian, and no decision has been taken on any and exactly how we will do that because quite frankly we don’t have the approvals yet to do that. And so what we need to do is, is we need to be honest. One of the important parts about the War Memorial throughout its life is that it has sought to do is to provide context and what it has sought to do is say that, in the act of commemoration going up into the Roll of Honour or going to the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier, what we seek to do in the gallery spaces and the other activities that we do is provide um an honest interpretation of the events that led to the commemoration and that led to the operation and what we will seek to do is, is provide the context of our service in the Middle East area of operations, in a way that we hope honours all the men and women who served.

Fran: Matt Anderson thank you very much for joining us.

Matt: Thank you.

Fran: Matt Anderson is the Director of the Australian War Memorial and it is a very special place if you’ve not been there or if you haven’t been there for a long time or if you are passing through Canberra and you get a chance, even if you’ve only got time to pop into the Hall of Memory it really is worth it.

Last updated: