The Australian War Memorial, a humbling experience

What do you think of when you read the words ‘war memorial’? Probably a statue or the memory of a remembrance ceremony, no? The Canberra War Memorial is certainly an awe-inspiring building, constructed to honour fallen ANZAC soldiers, but it is also so much more than that. Even if Australian military history is not a subject you are especially passionate about, the inspiring, and often heart-breaking, stories you can uncover on a visit to the museum are truly humbling.

The Australian War Memorial

The walkway from the main entrance leads through an arch to the main memorial area, the commemorative courtyard. In the airy rectangular courtyard the names of thousands of fallen soldiers are engraved on the walls. Visitors leave remembrance poppies in the cracks between panels, a striking and poignant symbol of a much-missed family member. The names of different military campaigns that Australia has been involved in are engraved on stonework. At the far end of the courtyard is a domed chamber containing the tomb of the unknown Australian soldier. The commemorative courtyard is a large space, and with the endless Australian sky above you, feels larger still, making the sheer number of names filling the walls seem incredible.

Australian War Memorial, Canberra

The Museum

Downstairs the building evolves into a museum featuring extensive exhibits on the First and Second World Wars, as well as smaller exhibits that lead visitors through other Australian military campaigns, colonial conflicts and through to modern current-day operations. The First World War displays were closed when I visited, as they were being prepared for ANZAC centenary activities, but there was still more than enough to keep me busy in the rest of the displays. Exhibits range from galleries showing decorated soldiers, their medals and some of their personal artefacts, to interactive displays like the air-force bombing mission simulator that shakes you around as you watch video footage from a mission. The museum houses an extensive collection of items that bring the reality of war to life right in front of you, such as diaries, war-bride wedding dresses made from parachute material and items crafted by prisoners of war. Displays such as these are the real heart-tugging sections. They are informative and often tell very personal stories, some of which are easier to relate to than others. There is also an aircraft hall that houses military vehicles and airplanes. Video footage plays around them, giving visitors an idea of the noise and chaos that surrounded their operation.

War time wedding dress made from parachute material, Australian War Memorial, Canberra

A history curriculum can only contain so much and, having been educated in the UK, my teachers focused on the impact of the First and Second World Wars in Europe. Having spent several years in Australia I have learned a lot about those wars in Australia and Asia, but I could easily have spent several further hours exploring the various theatres of war around the Pacific. The Canberra War Memorial exhibition is extensive, and I wasn’t even able to see the First World War display, which of course tells the original ANZAC story.

After spending several hours in the museum I left feeling slightly overwhelmed, but knowing there was still so much to see. The exhibits were really interesting and there were several that would interest young visitors too. I could easily have spent a whole day there, and I would probably still not have managed to see everything! Clearly, Canberra War Memorial requires another visit.


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