Memory and Museology

Given the symbolic potency of the Anzac legend, the War Memorial has long held a central place in mainstream Australian national identity. And regardless of the problems inherent in so called ‘Digger nationalism’, and that mysterious transmutation through which appalling slaughter and military defeat at Gallipoli came to be seen as the birth of the nation, it would be a hard heart indeed that was unmoved by the Memorial’s designated ‘commemorative area’. The cloistered Honour Roll, with poppies pressed between the bronze name plates listing the fallen, remains a profoundly sorrowful memorial to wasted life. The domed hall of memory containing the tomb of the unknown soldier, the outdoor pool of reflection, and the eternal flame are similarly sombre, funereal, and quasi-religious in character.

Nevertheless it has always seemed rather anomalous that the Australian War Memorial is called by that name. Since its opening in 1941 it has also had the function of a specialist war museum, displaying the artefacts and presenting the history of Australia’s involvement in international warfare. Balancing the roles of museum and memorial does produce some tensions – a museum has a responsibility to present the evidence of historical events in as accurate, objective, and comprehensive a fashion as possible, whereas a memorial works at the level of affect, provoking empathy and insight through emotional identification. The War Memorial’s alternation between these roles is reflected in the relationship between its formal commemorative spaces and its exhibition galleries. The passage between these is marked by a shift in tone, whereby deep melancholy is gradually displaced by a kind of detached, mildly blokey curiosity. With the completion of Denton Corker Marshall’s Anzac Hall extension to the War Memorial in June 2001, the relationship between museum and memorial functions has taken another form again.

Anzac Hall initially appears to contrast with the existing building in almost every respect. In its massing, materials, and detailing, the extension could hardly be further from the blocky monumentality of the original. The only explicit link between the old and new buildings is a light glass and steel bridge at first floor level, and it is thus possible to circumnavigate both the old and new buildings at ground level. Upon closer examination, though, Anzac Hall can also be seen to establish a subtle but fundamental geometrical reference to the original building. The shape of its plan is a curved trapezoid in which the angle of the outer walls radiates outward from the centrepoint of the Memorial’s dome. This radial pattern is revealed inside the hall, in the orientation of the main I beam support columns, and also dictates the fan structure of the roof.

From the outside, Anzac Hall is an enigmatic object: there is no direct public access from the exterior, and its mass is largely concealed beneath ground level. In part this low profile was a response to principles laid down by the National Capital Authority, which not only dictated the position of the extension, behind the existing war memorial, but also demanded that it remain invisible from the land axis of Anzac Parade, which visually links the war memorial with Parliament House. The most dominant architectural elements of Anzac Hall are thus a long blank concrete wall, intended to act as a neutral backdrop to the Memorial, and a wide expanse of complex curving roof. Little of its perimeter wall is visible – it is sunken into a rolling ground-plane planted with native grasses, the gentle curve of these earthworks echoed in a roof form which rises in a slow swell towards the centre. For all these curves, though, in plan and in elevation, there is nothing organic about Anzac Hall. Its dark metal roof and panelled walls mark it out from the surrounding light eucalyptus bushland, and from the dun-grey stone and copper of the war memorial, as something alien. Half submerged, crouched behind the existing war memorial and camouflaged within the terrain, it has an aspect of stealthiness.

Anzac Hall’s palette of materials is sympathetic to its cargo of military metalwork – especially in its allusions to aircraft detailing. The roof plane tapers at the edge into a distinctly wing-like, continuously curved rim. This enables the roof to be read simultaneously as heavy and light, an enormous uninterrupted plane settled upon its pedestal, but which may take flight again at any moment. Internally, the wall cladding of the service ‘core’ is shiny rivetted aluminium reminiscent of a second world war bomber.

The Hall is entered via the newly refurbished Bradbury Aircraft Hall, the visitor passing along a narrow axial bridge and entering the hall centrally, on a mezzanine level. The mezzanine accommodates services within its back wall, a café on the Eastern side, and an exhibition space on the West. From this level the vast hanger-like space of the hall is immediately laid out, and the visitor is able to survey the ‘large technology objects’ arrayed below. Suspended opposite the point of entry is the stern of one of the Memorial’s major drawcards – the Japanese midget submarine, which is dramatically installed across the length of the space. The large scale multimedia presentations which periodically occur around this submarine, re-creating its entry into Sydney Harbour in 1942, can be observed directly from the mezzanine level, from a stand-alone viewing platform accessible down a short ramp, or from bench seating at ground level. There are also more conventional documentary film presentations screened in a theatrette beneath the elevated viewing platform.

First impressions of the interior of Anzac Hall are not only of its size, but also its gloominess – it is remarkably dark, and in this is immediately reminiscent of a classic ‘black box’ theatre design. This impression is reinforced by the ‘panoramic’ curve of the back wall, which, even though it is painted a uniform dark grey, suggests a cyclorama or stage backdrop. Anzac Hall is the most recent outcome of the War Memorial’s drive in recent years to update its galleries and exhibitions, and to display its objects to full advantage using contemporary museum technology.

The hall provides the opportunity to display some of the Memorial’s most popular large objects – including the midget submarine and Lancaster bomber known as ‘G for George’ – in a protected environment. It also allows these objects to be re-presented dramatically through ‘object theatre’, which uses authentic artefacts as a basis for the theatrical re-creation of historical events.

Charles Bean, the man generally credited with the conception of the War Memorial, envisioned it not as a glorification of war, but a permanent reminder of its terrible personal cost. Museums are, of course, expected to take a dispassionate tone, but in a case such as this there is also a responsibility to personalise the inhuman mechanisms of warfare.

Given that each of the objects exhibited in Anzac Hall are not prototypes or models but actual war remnants, which have been directly or indirectly instrumental in killing real people, it is particularly eerie to see them thus neatly lined up, silenced and neutralised. In fact, there seems a vaguely discomforting lack of gravitas in the installation. Given the quasi-religious rhetoric of much of the Memorial – the objects are referred to as ‘relics’ rather than artefacts, for instance – the breezy references to ‘big things – hourly shows’ at the entry to the extension are somewhat jarring. In stark contrast with the tone of the Memorial’s commemorative area, the installation of Anzac Hall strikes one as being uncomfortably like a bizarrely martial ‘motor show’. Tanks, trucks, and planes are lined up in its cavernous, hanger-like internal space, each picked out of the gloom in its own dramatic pool of light.

Of course, this is more fairly a criticism of the exhibition design and installation rather than the architecture. But the very neutrality of the building tends to imply a certain mode of display, and bears again on the War Memorial’s overall balance between the role of museum and memorial. Even given the architectural humility that Anzac Hall displays towards the original building, and its elegantly geometrical projection from the dome, the relationship between the two is perhaps too abstracted to draw a meaningful link back to the central commemorative role the Memorial fulfills as a national institution. Perhaps Anzac Hall marks the point at which the memorial function definitively ends, and pure museum display takes over. But such a stark separation between the two functions itself seems problematical. The architecture of Anzac Hall has an understated industrial elegance, but crouching in the shadow of the War Memorial, it effectively ducks the question of commemoration.

(c) 2001


%d bloggers like this: