The Voice of the Memorial: Interviewing Matthew Anderson

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Founded in 1941 by Charles Bean, the latest custodian of the Australian War Memorial (AWM) is Matthew Anderson, PSM who was announced in December 2019 to replace outgoing director Dr Brendan Nelson

Since assuming the role in April 2020, Anderson says his vision for the AWM is ‘relevance’. “My mission statement is to ensure the AWM remains the centre of Australia’s commemoration and understanding of the Australian experience of war. I want today’s veterans to be able to come to the AWM and see their service recognised. I want the junior leaders who will command the future Australian Defence Force to understand the unbroken line that exists between the Ascot landing boat in the WWI gallery, in which the 13th Battalion landed at Gallipoli, to their service today; the uniform, colours, tradition, language, and sense of service beyond self. If a veteran signed up and stood up during our longest war, their story will be told here.”

The AWM is currently undergoing significant renovations, and, while it remains open, construction will run until 2028. “The redevelopment is about correcting the fact that you can walk between the Vietnam gallery to a blast wall from Tarin Kowt in 15 steps.”

Anderson says, “currently in those 15 paces I am trying to tell the story of 62 different peacekeeping missions in 30 disputed countries or territories, as well as the stories of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. We currently don’t tell the story of humanitarian missions at all.”

“When I talk about my experience in Samoa (see Part I), I was supported by a military task force comprised of two C-17s, eight C-130s, and three HMA Ships. Remarkable things were achieved by our service men and women, diplomats, aid workers and first responders, but no one even knows about it. That story should be told in the AWM. It may be the only operational experience someone gets is a humanitarian mission, but they are still putting themselves in harm’s way,” says Anderson. “The AWM needs to speak equally to the person who did multiple tours of Afghanistan, the person whose only operational experience is a humanitarian mission, and the person who only ever got to train, but never deploy. We must recognise all those who put service before self.” 

“The AWM tells a continuous story of people who have fought, and died, for the person next to them in the trench, in the Bushmaster, on the bridge, and so on. The ‘slaughter of the Somme’ is different to a Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan, but the principles are the same and the AWM should reflect that.”

Of the visitors to the AWM, only 11% are veterans and 30% know someone who is a veteran. The majority of visitors have never served or know someone who has. “Everyone who visits should leave with a deeper appreciation of the nature of contemporary service and the contribution of the Australian military to the fabric of society.”

Anderson says, “everything in the AWM is designed to give people who have never served, or never known anyone who served, a deeper understanding; so that when they go to the commemorative area they understand the significance of the names on the Wall of Honour and can reflect on the cost of war. Stand in the Hall of Memory and look up at the 15 values represented in stained glass windows which are protecting the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier. Bean and [John] Treloar agonised over these fighting, social and personal characteristics of Australia at that time: resource, devotion, endeavour, candour, curiosity, independence, comradeship, ancestry, patriotism, chivalry, loyalty, coolness, control, audacity, endurance and decision” 

Photograph taken by Marcus Fillinger

MAJGEN Stephen Gower was the Director for a decade and a half, and Dr Brendan Nelson director for 7 years. Both were here at different stages of the AWM’s life,” says Anderson. “General Gower oversaw the establishment of the post-1945 galleries and I guarantee, as a Vietnam veteran, he had a view of the look and feel, and how those stories would be told. Brendan oversaw the centenary of ANZAC and the opening of the World War I (WWI) galleries. I will have the honour to be here for the period when we recognise contemporary service: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and humanitarian peacekeeping operations. This is a once in 50 years opportunity to reimagine the Australian story of service and sacrifice.” 

“My lived experience means I have an interest in the new galleries, but we have magnificent curators and historians with PhD’s in this topic. I’m never going to say, ‘I think you should put that piece of body armour on display, rather than that water bottle’. Instead, we will discuss the themes that might make up a gallery on Afghanistan: counterinsurgency, special forces, aviation, health, and train, advise, assist. How do we best tell the story? They make all the curatorial decisions about how they will narrow down thousands of objects until they have a ‘200% list’. The 200% list means they have twice as many objects as they need, and then they ask which best tells the story. For example, this map versus this range card,” says Anderson. 

“Every day, I go back to [Charles] Bean: “the good and the bad, the greatness and the smallness of our story”. Often the power of the story is in the smaller details. Yes, I can tell the story of the 10,000 men in bomber command, of which 4,000 paid the highest price, with a Lancaster bomber, but equally I can tell the story of bomber command with a letter someone wrote to their mum on the night before their last mission.”

“My staff’s favourite objects in the AWM range from ‘G for George’, or the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier, or the stained-glass windows in the Hall of Memory, or a sculpture in the garden, or an item in the collection which isn’t even on show anymore because we need to rotate the collection,” says Anderson. “One of my team once told me her favourite item was a necklace in the WWI gallery. I went looking for it, and found the gold crucifix and chain which belonged to Lieutenant Harold Bott. He was billeted with a French family while taking a break from the Western Front. He had such an impact on them, they took him to their local church and had the priest bless him and give him the crucifix to keep him safe. He returned to the Western Front and became a casualty. He was taken back to a casualty clearance station and deemed dead on arrival and placed to the side. An orderly walked past and saw the beautiful necklace, catching the light of the sun, and while bending over Bott’s body saw his eyelids flutter. He wasn’t dead. He was operated on and survived the war. He served again in World War II and survived that as well. This story speaks to dumb luck, faith, chance, a young Australian forming a relationship with the French, and the professionalism of an orderly who showed care and attention when walking past.” 

Beyond his involvement in the curatorial process, Anderson is “not a politician, but I operate in a political environment, so I need to be attuned to the eddies and currents of politics. Yes, we need to raise funds, so I am a fundraiser, and I speak to parliament, and I meet with benefactors and the Friends of the Memorial. But I’m also running an organisation comprised of 296 people and am the head of a statutory authority with budgetary, human resources, workplace health and safety, and COVID responsibilities. I am also responsible, through the Memorial Council, for the control and the conduct of all the affairs of the memorial, so I conduct the ‘hairs on the back of the neck test’ to notice if something just feels wrong and needs attention.”

Anderson reflects, “my wife [now a Director in DFAT’s Crisis Management Division] and I bought an around-the-world ticket in 1993 and all I wanted from the trip was 3 days at the Western Front; the rest of the time was hers to choose. I was shocked that the guest book at Villers-Bretonneux hadn’t been signed in six months. Fromelles didn’t even have a guest book back then, because people simply didn’t visit it. The Mayor of Bullecourt saw me taking photos of a bronzed slouch hat outside the church there, and he raced across and asked what I was doing. When I said I was an Australian soldier, he kissed both my cheeks, invited us to his house, and took us across the battlefield with metal detectors. He rang ahead and arranged for us to meet the Mayor of Villers-Bretonneux,” says Anderson. 

“That was a huge contrast to what I saw on my return to Melbourne. I was running ‘the Tan’ [the botanical gardens’ running track] as I was posted to St. Kilda Road, and I saw someone with a high-pressure hose cleaning the shrine because someone had graffitied it with ‘abolish ANZAC Day’. France was saying ‘let us not forget Australia’ and Australia was saying, ‘let us not remember’. That struck me.” 

“My parents were both primary school teachers, and that night I asked them how that contrast could exist. Mum made the point that I had been educated by teachers who had learned to teach during the Vietnam War, so they weren’t going to place much emphasis on military history. Perhaps that’s why I hadn’t learned about Australia’s contribution to WWI. My Mum told me that a busy teacher needed a resource they could use on the 10th of November [the day before Remembrance Day] and sit in front of the class and digest together, without involving 13 volumes of [Charles] Bean.”

Anderson “went to Army public affairs and told them I wanted to write a book that fit this description, but they didn’t know what to do with captain who wanted to be a writer. Then I saw in the newspaper an advertisement for The Queen’s Commonwealth Trust grant for young Australians interested in making a difference in the world. I applied and won $15,000, which I entirely put into graphic design and printing for this book. My aim was to get it into every Victorian school. When Army public affairs saw this, they thought it was amazing and paid for enough copies to be printed to get it into every school in Australia, with support from the Department for Veterans’ Affairs.” Some things never change in the Army… 

Anderson has written three books for primary school children: Don’t Forget Me Cobber: Australia and the First World War (2006), A is for ANZAC: An A to Z of Australia and the First World War (2010), and K is for Kokoda: An A to Z of Australia and the Second World War (2010). He gave the rights to the ANZAC Day Commemoration Committee and didn’t make any money from their sale. 

“Success to me was simply if one school kid chose not to pick up a paintbrush and write ‘abolish ANZAC Day’ on a memorial, or they decided to read another book on the subject. I remember riding the train to ANZAC Day in the Melbourne CBD as a school kid, and seeing other kids throw a cracker into the hat of a digger who was sitting on the train and had nodded off. They thought it was funny, but it probably wasn’t for a WWI veteran. I wish they’d known to respect the day and our veterans appropriately. I wish one of those protesting in Melbourne [in September anti-lockdown protests] had stopped to think ‘maybe the Shrine of Remembrance isn’t the place for this’. The people recorded on the Shrine of Remembrance fought and died for freedoms of speech, association, expression, and the right to protest peacefully. They did not fight and die for the right to desecrate a shrine.”

Find Part I of the interview with Matt here. 

Find Matt’s biography here 

About the Author: Samuel J. Cox is the editor of Grounded Curiosity. Find him on Twitter.

Cover Image Credit: David Whittaker, AWM Flickr