Every year in Australia in the lead up to both ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, there is a wave that rolls through Australian society. It is not a tidal wave, destroying everything in its wake, nor is it merely a ripple that goes ignored by all but the most sensitive of souls. It is a wave that has enough force to make us stop and think at the very least and, in some circles, pushes people to very heated and very public arguments over how, exactly, Australians should commemorate their involvement in conflicts and specifically how to support the memory of those who served (and still do) with respect and dignity. Further, we ask ourselves how we should do this without celebrating war, glorifying conflict or elevating our serving men and women to a callous form of celebrity, often for political or other reasons far removed from the wishes of those we seek to hold in our collective memory.
In his book Sense and Nonsense in Australian History, John Hirst asserts that the past cannot speak for itself in the present, that what we know about World War One, for example, is not simply based on the events themselves but more accurately what we say and what we remember about the events of the past. In his words, “reality is not events themselves but the talk about them.” (Hirst, 2006, p.231)
Some blame politicians or powerful forces for a “top-down” enforcement of particular narratives around Australia’s history, in particular relating to our military involvements, but, as David Stephens and Alison Broinowski argue in The Honest History Book, this is “too simplistic” (2006, p.3) Later in the same book, Carolyn Holbrook explores this idea further, asserting that
As the history of commemoration shows us, there is no pure and unbroken line of transmission between the rhetoric of our political leaders and teachers, and the minds of our children. (Stephens, D. & Broniowski, A., 2006, p.62)
So what is the “talk” about this particular conflict on such a symbolic day as the centenary of the armistice? In the Arthur Holt Library, many of our displays are a physical manifestation of the “talk” that we have both in our minds and with each other and therefore we strive to present the past in its most raw, essential form, since we are not expert historians nor museologists. We have had temporary donations from staff members Mr Dixon, Mr Stenhouse and Mr Magro, as well as from the Trinity Archives, that shed shards of light on various aspects of the experience of World War One, allowing our students to engage in (hopefully) deeper “talk” about the past.
The displays do not seek to assert a particular interpretation of the past, rather to present a series of artefacts and ideas that allow our students to talk, debate and evolve their ideas around the experience of war and what it means to people both at the time and later.
In our conversations with students as they explore the collection, we’ve heard the boys ask questions, offer perspectives, provide counter-arguments and develop quite complex understandings of how and why particular objects tell stories about the past.
We hope that our displays encourage students to take a moment to think differently about any given topic, but when those topics involve human suffering on a scale such as World War One, our students have the opportunity not just to remember the past for its own sake. They also have the opportunity to absorb deep lessons from those experiences so that they build a world in which we can all strive to live in harmony.
Hirst, J. (2006) Sense and Nonsense in Australian History, Melbourne, VIC: Black Inc.
Stephens, D. & Broinowski, A. The Honest History Book, Sydney, NSW: UNSW.