A half a billion dollar expansion of the Australian War Memorial (AWM) has been called “wasteful” and “arrogant” by academics, architects, public servants and family of those killed in war at a public hearing in Canberra.
A federal parliamentary committee began examining the controversial plans yesterday, which includes the demolition of Anzac Hall to make way for a much larger exhibition space at the War Memorial.
The committee heard from stakeholders on the project, who are concerned about the development plans, the cost of the project, the lack of community consultation, and the proposal’s effect on the War Memorial’s heritage status.
Historian Dr David Stephens from the Australian National University spoke on behalf of the Heritage Guardians, a group of 82 individuals, who made a submission to the inquiry.
“This has been a slipshod and arrogant exercise in public administration, a deeply flawed process,” he said.
“The work, the Memorial development, is unnecessary and has many objectionable features.”
Plans to demolish award-winning Anzac Hall
At the heart of the “objectionable features” is the redevelopment of Anzac Hall, which the Heritage Gardens submission said “cannot be justified”.
“The extensions will destroy the Memorial’s character, affect its heritage status, and entail the demolition of Anzac Hall — opened in 2001 and winner of the 2005 Sir Zelman Cowen Award for outstanding public architecture,” the submission read.
Peter Stanley, who worked at the Memorial for 27 years as their principal historian, said the AWM’s plan was based on a flawed notion that a bigger display of historic military aircraft and vehicles would help veterans heal from their experience.
“It has no medical or clinical or academic basis, I describe it as snake oil,” he said.
“I called it the hydroxychloroquine of the museum world.”
For war widows like Kellie Merritt, whose husband was killed in Iraq, the imposition the new expansion will have on the Pool of Reflection is of concern.
“It’s the heart of the Australian War Memorial and sets an intangible but meaningful tone that will be changed by having a brutish building on its shoulders,” she told the inquiry.
Ms Merritt also raised concerns that demolition of Anzac Hall was wasteful, and the new proposal risked glorifying war.
“Replacing it with a gigantic structure to display decommissioned military hardware and an F-111 fighter jet serves to distract and distance us from the understanding of commemorating and honouring our war dead,” she said.
“This proposal, I feel, runs the risk of glorifying war.”
War Memorial head defends consultation process
At the time, Mr Nelson repeatedly referenced the “Invictus generation” of Australian servicepeople who had served in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Solomon Islands and East Timor, and his desire to have them acknowledged within the Memorial.
The AWM’s plans state that the motivation behind the development is “to modernise and expand our galleries and buildings so we can tell the continuing story of Australia’s contemporary contribution to a better world, through the eyes of those who have served in modern conflicts, connecting the spirit of our past, present, and future for generations to come”.
“The detailed plans will ensure the heritage facade remains unchanged.”
The plans also have bi partisan federal political support.
Current director of the AWM Matthew Anderson defended the process so far, and said the AWM “engaged in national consultations” with stakeholders and the community.
“We’ve visited 42 different cities to talk about what it is we want to achieve through the redevelopment,” he said.
Mr Anderson added that the project would have many benefits for Canberra’s economy.
“There is an economic benefit that’s going to flow from the building,” he said.
“We estimate that it’s going to create 300 hundred construction jobs, 400 additional jobs after the project is completed.”
Shannon Battison from the Australian Institute of Architects said she was not opposed to expanding the memorial, but demolishing Anzac Hall — a building that was already specially designed to modernise the AWM — set a wasteful precedent.
“It’s a very dangerous precedent to set if we allow our really important iconic public architecture to be redeveloped without the processes and safeguards,” Ms Battison said.
“A brief that dictates that [Anzac Hall] be demolished and something new put in its place feels unnecessary, and we could have experimented with some really wonderful ideas.”
The committee will now assess whether there is a need for the work, the cost-effectiveness of the proposal, the amount of revenue it will produce, and whether the work proposed is suitable.
It is unknown when the committee will deliver its findings.