‘Our art centre is our last line of defence’: Resisting the Australian War Memorial’s Decade-old Interpretative Remit from the Inside

Gallery Entrance to For Country, for Nation at the AWM

The recent exhibition For Country, for Nation in the Special Exhibitions Gallery of the Australian War Memorial (AWM) has survived its first five months almost entirely without academic critique.  

Considering that the representation, or lack thereof, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ history in the AWM has been the subject of debate since the 1980s, the scarcity of academic reviews of the exhibition is puzzling. Why have historians remained silent on a matter that has traditionally evoked widespread criticism from within the profession? The silence is not, as some might presume, simply a little bit of commemorative fatigue. Rather, it reflects the fact that many of the Australian historians who would be inclined to comment on such an exhibition are not walking the hallways of the AWM. Instead, many are choosing to disengage, partly because they anticipate that their own opinions are likely to be ignored, perhaps even rejected, by the institution and the broader community.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the messages promoted by the AWM, there is no denying the towering influence it holds in the public and political domain. It also goes without saying that if historians remain silent, whatever their reasons might be, they risk further distancing themselves from the very people they wish to reach.

There is much to be admired in For Country, for Nation. Of all the galleries in the AWM, the style adopted by the curatorial team reflects some of the most extensive consultation undertaken by the institution in recent times. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders and knowledge-holders assumed a central role in the creation of the exhibition. It is no surprise then, that For Country, for Nation tells a narrative with no singular meaning. Instead, it weaves together a tapestry of rich and colourful stories as freshly as if they happened yesterday.

Similarly, the chronology so treasured in many of the AWM’s permanent galleries is abandoned in favour of thematically orientated spaces, which encourage visitors to wander the corridors at their own leisure. People traffic takes an entirely new and refreshing form in the exhibition, creating a space that facilitates a freedom (rather than order) of movement. It is a space that one can spend many hours in – as I did.

Some, however, will also find the exhibition bittersweet. Not only is the first exhibition to honour Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ military service at the AWM temporary, it once again adheres to a decade-old vision that Australia’s most eminent military museum (as well as shrine and archive) is not the right place to tell the story of the nation’s first and longest war. It is certainly not a tradition that Australians are unfamiliar with. Since the 1980s, the AWM has resisted pressure to formally recognise the Frontier Wars and the death of over 20,000 – possibly more than 40,000 – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with a permanent exhibition; or as one historian has suggested, an entire wing.

The irony of the AWM’s resistance, regulated by the Australian War Memorial Act 1980, is embodied in the two Aboriginal ‘gargoyles’ hanging on the walls of the AWM’s courtyard. Though currently in refurbishment, the two sculptures are, as Lisa Barritt-Eyles has recently observed, ‘the AWM’s only overt representation, albeit unintentional, of a violent history of colonisation, of contested lands, lives and identities, silenced in stone and put in their place’. The return to the courtyard this year, following their refurbishment, accompanies an unsettling comment by AWM Director Dr Brendan Nelson that they ‘are a respectful representation of life across the continent’.

One of the two sculptures depicting an Aboriginal person in the courtyard of the Australian War Memorial, 1941

There is more to For Country, for Nation than might first meet the eye. The exhibition is saturated with comments and images that hint at the disillusionment, perhaps even resistance, among the curatorial team to abide by the interpretative remit that has previously defined the AWM’s galleries. Indeed, the exhibition clearly recognises a far darker past.

Overt references to the Frontier Wars appear several times throughout the exhibition. Beautifully decorated boomerangs, shields and spears adorn the eastern corridor. A declaration by Reg Saunders, the first known Aboriginal Australian to be commissioned as an officer in the Australian Army, that he ‘don’t owe any allegiance or loyalty to the Queen of England’ is inscribed on the wall. And perhaps most prominently, the recently revealed artwork of the Ruby Plains Massacre by Joolama man Rover Thomas is prudently positioned on the western side of the hallway immediately outside the Gallery.

For those who look carefully, it will be the words of Jaangari man Gabriel Nodea, inscribed on the western wall of the Gallery, that carry the potential to redefine the entire exhibition: ‘Our art centre is our last line of defence’. For an exhibition driven by art, this line is no idle inclusion. It refers directly to the continuing struggle experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples against the enduring legacies of a violent history of colonisation.

It would be easy to dismiss For Country, for Nation as an empty gesture by the AWM. Yet such an interpretation would be a narrow reading of the exhibition. The agency that Nodea’s quote so clearly articulates, and that which Catherine Speck so strongly identifies in her review of the exhibition for the magazine Artlink, are cause for admiration. For Country, for Nation is a powerful exhibition to recognise and honour the military service of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples since the Boer War. But beyond that, it is an attempt, though subtle, to protest an interpretative remit which neglects the very first war fought ‘for Country, for Nation’.

For Country, for Nation will be on display in the Special Exhibition Gallery at the Australian War Memorial till 20 September 2017.