When Brendan Nelson took over as director of the Australian War Memorial (AWM) seven years ago, he knew the job would be a perfect fit.
Dr Nelson had recently returned from a posting to Brussels as Australia’s NATO/UN Ambassador, in which he had lobbied to give Australia a much-needed voice at NATO.
“Of everything I did in prosecuting our interests, it was the time I spent in the cemeteries and the battlefields in Flanders in Belgium that were most meaningful to me,” he said.
“When I returned to Australia, I wanted to do something meaningful and the AWM ticked all the boxes.”
Dr Nelson, who served as Australia’s Defence Minister from 2006-7, also went in with a vision to incorporate the stories of modern conflicts and link the AWM more directly with Defence.
A question from a Defence member that resonated with him early in his tenure was why his son could go to the AWM to see what his great-grandfather and grandfather had done, but not what his father had done.
“Humanising the AWM and bringing the stories of the men and women who are behind both the building and the artefacts displayed is the way to bring it to life,” Dr Nelson said.
He said the AWM remained true to the vision of founder Charles Bean, who said, “Here is their spirit in the heart of the land they loved and here we guard the record, which they themselves made”.
“But we do so in a world that he could not have possibly imagined and our responsibility and our challenge is to make the history live, make it engaging and understood by a new generation,” Dr Nelson said.
He felt the AWM had an obligation to tell the story of our special forces, as far as security considerations allowed, so Australians understood what “highly dangerous and risky stuff” was being done to protect their way of life.
“We went further than any other Five Eyes nation has done in telling that story,” he said.
“Humanising the AWM and bringing the stories of the men and women who are behind both the building and the artefacts displayed is the way to bring it to life.”
He was reminded of the importance of the popular special forces display recently when he saw a young man on his knees, with his head bowed, touching the blast wall bearing the ‘Welcome to Tarin Kot’ sign from the Australian base in Afghanistan.
“He was a 26-year-old from 6RAR and he was touching the name of a guy he’d served with who is no longer with us,” he said.
“That’s the power of this place and you can’t put a value on that.”
Dr Nelson is also proud of the Soldiers in Residence program he introduced.
It allows Defence members suffering from PTSD to spend three weeks at the AWM, learning about its public education programs, interacting with school children and visitors, and learning from exhibition designers and other staff.
Each member’s stay finishes with a chance to tell their own story in a moderated question-and-answer session in the theatrette.
He said the program helped the memorial fulfil its role of helping service men and women and their families come to terms with what they had been through and the impact on them.
“The AWM operates on many levels and one of them is part of what I call the therapeutic milieu – the environment which allows us to tell stories that hurt and stories that heal,” he said.
Dr Nelson leaves the AWM confident of having made it a place that honours the memories of past and present wars while giving the public a chance to connect with and understand what Defence does in helping protect and preserve the identity of Australia.
“I’ve reached the conclusion it’s not actually about war,” he said.
“It’s called the AWM but it’s actually about love. Love and friendship, love for friends, the love between friends, love of family, love of our country.”