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Gargoyles and silence: ‘our story’ at the Australian War Memorial

Aboriginal gargoyles are the Australian War Memorial’s only overt representation, albeit unintentional, of a violent history of colonisation. James Sinclair

Gargoyles and silence: ‘our story’ at the Australian War Memorial

When you exit the Australian War Memorial’s (AWM) newly renovated first world war galleries you pass a rotating slide show of pictures of the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF). The slide rotation ends with the definitive statement, “Every Nation has its Story; This is Ours”.

An integral part of the national institution for war remembrance, the new first world war galleries create evocative emotional landscapes that reaffirm the foundational myth that Australia was “born” as a nation at Gallipoli and in the crucible of the Western Front.

The claim that the stories represented in the galleries are “our story” confirms the AWM as a site of Australian national identity reproduction – and silences other stories about the foundations of Australia’s nationhood.

Gargoyles at the Australian War Memorial

A visitor only has to step into the Memorial courtyard to be confronted by contradictions. There are 26 sandstone gargoyles representing Australian fauna adorning the walls of the Roll of Honour walkways. Alongside a kookaburra, wombat and emu are gargoyles of an Aboriginal man and woman (see main image).

Unsurprisingly, the presence of the gargoyles is controversial.

They are part of the original building which opened in 1941. An enquiry at the AWM’s Research centre in 2012 was answered with a handout that acknowledged that the gargoyles “do not sit comfortably with current values” and noted that the intention at the time they were created was to represent that which was “particularly Australian”. This handout is no longer available.

It was recently reported that the AWM released a tender for the asbestos-affected gargoyles to be replaced by replicas.

Lisa Barritt-Eyles

The representation of Indigenous peoples as fauna is indicative of their treatment throughout Australian history. Indigenous Australians were not accorded citizenship and voting rights until 1967, some 26 years after the AWM opened and 49 years after the end of the first world war.

The Aboriginal gargoyles are products of the Frontier Wars. They are the AWM’s only overt representation, albeit unintentional, of a violent history of colonisation, of contested lands, lives and identities, silenced in stone and put in their place. Their stony presence indicates in a way that nothing else in the AWM does, what took place before all of the other wars represented in its galleries.

Previous and current Directors of the AWM have resisted inclusion of the Frontier Wars at the Memorial, arguing that they do not fulfil the requirements of the 1980 Act which describes a “memorial for all Australians who have died on, or as a result of, active service, or as a result of any war or warlike operation in which Australians have been on active service”.

The definition, they argue, does not include internal conflicts between Indigenous peoples and colonial powers, and that story is best told elsewhere, such as the National Museum of Australia.

The AWM does, however, commemorate some colonial wars in its Roll of Honour and in two galleries, including the Boer War. The second exhibition is entitled Soldiers of the Queen: Australia’s Colonial Military Heritage, and the introduction notes that Australia’s military concerns turned from internal threats of “convict revolts, civil disobedience and Aboriginal resistance” to involvements in foreign conflicts, such as those against the Maoris and Sudan.

The Australian War Memorial courtyard. Caroline Ramsden

This reference to Aboriginal resistance groups the Frontier Wars with civil disobedience, simultaneously denying the war-like characteristics of Indigenous resistance to colonisation.

Yet, the Frontier Wars continued for 10 years after the end of the first world war, with the 1928 massacre at Coniston in the Northern Territory marking their end. The Frontier Wars lasted for 150 years, and as historian Henry Reynolds argues, they are the forgotten wars – both at the AWM and in popular understanding of our nation’s story.

The AWM’s silence on the Frontier Wars reinforces the idea that Australia was settled, not colonised employing brutality. It encourages a forgetting that enables the national remembrance of war and national identity to be founded in offshore battlefields and Anzac spirit. It also means a lack of context for the stories of Indigenous war experience it does tell.

Indigenous experience and the first world war

As part of its first world war centenary commemorations, the AWM has invigorated its efforts to acknowledge Indigenous national war service, to include more stories and artefacts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans in its revamped galleries.

As more evidence about Indigenous veterans is compiled, their stories are inserted into the AWM’s exhibitions. These stories, however, must fit into the already well-established framework of what constitutes legitimate “war experience”. They follow the same narrative patterns as the representations of non-Indigenous war experience.

This means that Indigenous people are absent in “Our Story” until they appear as soldiers, such as the AIF Indigenous serviceman in the WWI gallery slide show, pictured alongside the national anthem’s phrase “with courage let us all combine”.

Disconnected in the AWM narrative from their silenced history and represented as unproblematic in their service to the nation, Indigenous soldiers’ inclusion is conditional upon fitting into a framework that does not challenge the dominant understandings of Australian experiences of war and national identity.

Studio portrait of Private William Joseph Punch, 1st Battalion, in 1916. Australian War Memorial

Indigenous soldiers are represented as “doing their bit” and “just like the rest of us,” yet in the first and second world wars, Indigenous soldiers were serving a nation which did not grant them citizenship. Although this is briefly acknowledged in AWM displays, it is phrased in terms of individuals overcoming the challenge of enlisting. We see personal stories of perseverance rather than, or as well as, the result of historical and contemporary experiences of colonisation, marginalisation and racism.

Pictures of Indigenous soldiers dispersed throughout the first world war galleries are accompanied by the short biographical notes the AWM uses in its displays.

William Punch’s profile states he was “the sole survivor of a massacre”, but this information is isolated and peripheral to the story of service that is told. Punch’s war experience originated in another battle, resulting in a massacre, yet the war that orphaned Punch is not represented at the AWM, despite the Frontier Wars being seminal in the making of the nation.

The AWM’s silence about the Frontier Wars and the co-option of Indigenous national war service into AWM’s narrative framework of what “Our Story” is, limits and obscures other stories about Indigenous war experience and our national story.

It’s questionable, however, whether the AWM can break the silence and fully acknowledge the Frontier Wars.

The rationale of the AWM’s remembrance narrative and associated ideas about national identity are challenged and contradicted by the wars of Australia’s colonisation. In order to represent Indigenous war experience as something other than (re)colonised service or history carved in stone, the foundational myths of “Our Story” need to be confronted, the forgotten wars remembered, and different stories told.


This is a version of a paper that will be presented at The First World War: Local, Global and Imperial Perspectives at the University of Newcastle later this month. Details here.


See also:
The forgotten Australian women doctors of the Great War 1916: how the events of the first world war shifted global history

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