To Matt, it’s about making room to tell the stories 

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War Memorial director Matt Anderson… “The memorial is not a glorification of war, it’s a place where we celebrate ordinary Australians who proved capable of the extraordinary.” Photo: Danielle Nohra

THE Australian War Memorial’s new director, Matt Anderson, stepped into the role in April with the goal to keep the memorial relevant. 

Part of that is taking charge of the once-in-a-generation attempt to create additional space to tell the stories of the women and men who have served, says the former diplomat and soldier. 

The memorial’s controversial half a billion dollar expansion plan will see Anzac Hall demolished, a move the Australian Institute of Architects has labelled as “grossly wasteful and unnecessary”.

But Matt says the debate has become “about the building rather than the stories we’re seeking to convey within it.” 

“I genuinely wish that Anzac Hall had been built back in 2001 in such a way that it could have been readily expanded, but sadly it hasn’t been,” Matt says.

“I understand that [there are people] attached to that building, as is anyone who visits it, but what I believe is that the heritage value of the memorial, and certainly the heritage value of Anzac Hall is, in large measure, the value of the things that are in it and the stories that are told within it.”

The retention of Anzac Hall was “absolutely considered” and it was looked at from a cost-benefit analysis and from a practical municipal logical advantage.

“In 15 paces, of my paces, I will go from Vietnam to the Tarin Kowt Wall. In 15 paces, I’m telling the story of 66 peacekeeping missions, in 15 paces I’m telling the story of 72,000 women and men who have been deployed to the Middle East Area of Operations,” Matt says. 

“As you walk through, you have Somalia on your left and Rwanda on your right and Cambodia on your left and East Timor on your right and then suddenly you’re in the Gulf and then you’re in Iraq and then you’re in Afghanistan and Afghanistan is in a hall, an exit corridor. 

“We can do better because part of the importance of continued relevance is it needs to be relevant for current serving; it’s a continuing story.

“We have been unable to tell these stories in the same level of detail. 

“If the government sends women and men into harm’s way, when they come home, they should be able to come here and find a touch point to that service, they should be able to come home and find recognition of that service, they should be able to come here and feel the thanks of a nation that sent them there.

“This is our chance to do a precinct-wide development from the front entrance to Anzac Hall, to expanding the Bean Centre and the research centre, to getting non-gallery functions out of the main memorial building… so we’re not only able to tell the stories to now, but we have room to tell the stories going into the future.”

There are many people who have missed out on being honoured and having their stories told through the memorial, Matt says.

“Just a couple of weekends ago I was in the peacekeeping area and a guy walked up to me looking for the South Sudan section,” he says. 

“He was looking to see where his story was told so he could show his family and it wasn’t there.”

Matt was born in Victoria and moved to Canberra as a teenager to go to the Royal Military College, Duntroon, before holding military posts across the nation, and then leading a defence project in Tonga. 

He then joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in 1995, where he held senior positions and postings in countries such as Samoa, South Africa and Afghanistan. 

One story he thinks people should be proud about is the work of HMAS Tobruk during Samoa’s 2009 earthquake and tsunami. 

Matt was the high commissioner to Samoa at the time and says people should also be proud of the civilians, the doctors, the nurses, the anaesthetists, the AFP and others who came to support Samoa at the time. “This is genuine humanitarian, well-intentioned, well-targeted, life-saving work that was done by members of the Australian Defence Force in our name,” he says. 

So, as the memorial’s custodian, Matt says he will continue to push to tell these stories and to keep the memorial relevant. 

“The Australian War Memorial belongs to all Australians and for many who thought they wanted to come but haven’t, this is their chance,” he says.

“The memorial is not a glorification of war, it’s a place where we celebrate ordinary Australians who proved capable of the extraordinary.”

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Danielle Nohra
Danielle Nohra is the assistant editor of "CityNews".

5 COMMENTS

  1. Mr Anderson repeats and recycles arguments made familiar by the former Director, Dr Nelson. Two points he fails to confront, however: (1) every cultural institution in the world has to make hard decisions about how much of its collection can be on display at any one time; very few can display more than 5-10 per cent of their collection; to cover recent conflicts, the Memorial could repurpose the rarely visited Colonial Conflicts area on its lower floor and use the extensive Memorial building at Mitchell; (2) as Jack Waterford said in the Canberra Times at the weekend, the Memorial is primarily about commemorating the service and sacrifice of volunteer soldiers, sailors and airmen and women, not about ‘telling the stories’ of professional ADF members in the last couple of decades; the story-telling function is one for regimental museums and military theme parks, which is what the Memorial will look increasingly like if the current plans come to fruition. There is more on these and other arguments here: http://honesthistory.net.au/wp/petition-on-change-org-against-proposed-war-memorial-extensions/ David Stephens, convener, Heritage Guardians; editor Honest History website

  2. Sadly, Matt Anderson is not telling the whole story here. The AWM needs to tell more and new stories, but given the techniques and technologies available here, he doesn’t need more space to do it. That is simply not true. The AWM has huge amounts of space available to re-organise and re-prioritise its displays to emphasise recent conflicts, if that’s what it wants to do. Mr Anderson has been saddled with the unenviable job of selling the unsellable – that is, to plead that the AWM ‘needs’ $498m at a time when other cultural institutions are denied even operating expenses (eg the National Museum having just had to shed 12 positions) and when the economy and society are reeling from the effects of the 2019020 bushfires and the covid-related depression. And he wants to demolish a perfectly good, 18-year-old building! This is an unconscionable platform, and not one a responsible government should countenance.
    I am a military historian, a former member of the AWM staff and a member of the Heritage Alliance which is dedicated to saving the AWM from grievously damaging itself by these unnecessary and destructive changes.

  3. Matt Anderson is – as Peter Stanley says -‘ saddled with the unenviable job of selling the unsellable’.

    Indeed, it was explicit in the advertising for a successor to Nelson that the successful applicant would ‘have a passion for the Memorial’.

    Per se, there is nothing wrong with that. However, I doubt that any reasonable person would expect Mr. Anderson to defend to the hilt the AWM case for what is, and has plainly been, a construct based upon false and unsupportable premises, insufficient observance of even basic governmental requirements for financial prudence in large project spending and a glaring case of monument-building by both Nelson and Stokes.

    The detailed and forensic-level evidence for this is readily available on the Honest History website: see the Heritage Guardians section, 22 July 2019, and many, many other examples to be found there.

    The original purpose of the Memorial is – as expressed by David Sephens – NOT to be a glorified ‘Unit History’ museum.

  4. Mr Anderson seems to imply that the Memorial site and buildings aren’t as important as what is in them. That is a very simplistic view of what constitutes the Australian War Memorial. Who would want the unique qualities of that extraordinary site damaged by an ill-considered development plan – but that is what is proposed. This is simply, heritage vandalism. In any case, the additional space can be achieved without the irreversible damage to the heritage site that this development proposal represents. As for ANZAC Hall – it is suitable for adaptive re-use. Mr Anderson doesn’t seem to know there are existing costed and engineered plans that show that. Mr Anderson needs to stop the rhetoric and get on with achieving what we all want – the best outcome for veterans, the Memorial, and Australian architecture and heritage.
    Stewart Mitchell, former head of buildings, services and heritage at the Australian War Memorial.

  5. The AWM should indeed tell human stories related to war service. Why then is the AWM management planning to spend vast sums on floor space to distract our attention to weaponry rather than the impacts of war? And where are the human stories of the veterans suicides, the questions about why they are happening, and the stories of the terrible impacts on veterans’ families for decades after wars finish?

    The AWM continues the ridiculous claim that their proposal – which they speak of as a done deal, despite the ongoing processes that will decide whether the project proceeds or not – has the support of most Australians. They ignore every bit of evidence of strong opposition, and report only the answers to their own highly leading questions.

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