Australian War Memorial promises ‘much broader, deeper’ depiction of frontier wars

<span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

The Australian War Memorial says it will expand its recognition of the frontier wars, the atrocities and massacres against Indigenous Australians during colonisation.

The memorial has faced criticism for its sparse depiction of the frontier wars, including from Indigenous leaders who say it fails to properly reflect the magnitude of conflicts at the heart of Australia’s history.

The AWM chair, Brendan Nelson, said the memorial’s governing council had decided they will have a “much broader, a much deeper depiction and presentation of the violence committed against Indigenous people, initially by British, then by pastoralists, then by police, and then by Aboriginal militia”.

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“We will have more to say about that in due course.”

Nelson defended the memorial’s current recognition of the frontier wars, saying it was reflected throughout the memorial, including in 63 separate artworks.

The frontier wars, according to conservative estimates, caused the deaths of at least 20,000 Indigenous Australians at the hands of Australian-based military regiments, police forces and settlers’ militia from 1788 to 1928. The battle for sovereignty is considered a critical but often untold part of Australia’s history.

The Australian War Memorial Act, which governs the memorial, is frequently cited as a limitation on frontier war recognition.

The Act gives the institution discretion to tell the combat story of military forces of the crown raised in Australia before and after the establishment of the commonwealth, but the AWM has said its mission “does not extend beyond the experience of deployed Australian forces overseas in war and in peace”.

The AWM has previously said it was up to the National Museum of Australia to tell the story of the frontier wars.

The veterans’ affairs minister, Matt Keogh, said on Thursday the current $550m expansion of the memorial would allow for a greater recognition of the frontier wars.

“I think it’s important to recognise that the war memorial already has some recognition of frontier conflict, and I’m aware that as part of the expansion program there will be some greater reflection on that,” he said.

“I think that the recognition and reflection on frontier conflict is a responsibility for all of our cultural institutions, not just here at the war memorial.”

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The pair were speaking at an event to announce a new underground geothermal heat exchange, which will heat and cool the expanded war memorial, reducing emissions and saving $1m per year in energy costs.

The project will cost $10m, included in the expansion project’s $550m budget.

The AWM director, Matt Anderson, said the heat exchange will be one of the biggest of its kind in the world and would eliminate 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year.

“We hope it will be a model for other sustainable projects that are considering geothermal technology,” he said.

The expansion project, itself the subject of debate, has seen cost blowouts from its initial $500m budget.

Keogh said he had not yet received further requests for additional funds from the memorial.