The World War Two Experience. Multimedia in the new Australian War Memorial Galleries

‘Past Projections: multimedia in the new Australian War Memorial galleries’ Real Time 33, October/November, 1999.

The Australian War Memorial’s new WW11 galleries were opened in March this year, after a two and a half year development period at a cost of five million dollars. They replaced a venerable display which had been there since 1971, and have already been credited with increasing attendance by 35%.

The Memorial’s original function was to show grieving relatives the experiences their lost loved one’s had had overseas; to allow mates to remember mates; and to tell the story of a nation and its historical destiny. However its recent audience research indicated that it’s audience, and therefore its function, has now changed. Visitors now come to the Memorial from radically dispersed trajectories. Only 10% of visitors are old enough to have lived through WW11, and the ethnic composition of Australia has radically globalised in the fifty years since it was at war.

The purpose of the new display is no longer to reconnect relatives and friends, revive memories, and explain national destiny; it must now create experiences, generate memories and tell subjective stories. The Memorial is no longer the geologically hulking edifice at the bedrock of our common national identity, it is now one institutional attraction competing with others for audience share. The display therefore incorporates a much broader selection of artefacts and information, foregrounding a wider range of personal experiences from the War. And it also relies on multimedia and immersive technologies as never before—deploying over 100 audio, video and sensory devices. The objective of these technologies is to, in John Howard’s opening words, create “a very moving experience … to reach out to younger generations”.

Approaching the WW11 galleries you hear a cacophonous roar, a bit like a shopping mall on a Saturday morning. Entering the galleries there’s a sense of bombardment: sound leaks out from a multitude of hidden speakers and bounces from the many hard surfaces. (This problem is now being addressed) Ambient lighting is low and the objects on display are individually picked out by spotlights giving a visually fragmented, subjectively dislocated, feel to the display. Although there is an attempt to create quieter contemplative ‘pavilions’ and chapel-like spaces within the display, generally these cannot withstand the barrage.

The core of the display is the artefacts collected by the Memorial during the War and donated to it since. As always these provide the indexical charge to the display; but they are surrounded and harassed by technology. The display cases are crowded with flat screen TVs showing newsreel footage. Data projectors are extensively used to animate maps and models. Few objects are left to their own devices, to mutely exist in their own time. Even the dark wooden top of the table on which the surrender of Singapore was signed is used as an inappropriate screen for a newsreel projection.

The War Memorial produced it’s own content using audience focus groups, but outsourced the design and installation of the displays to Cunningham Martyn Design, Australian Business Theatre and multimedia consultant Gary Warner. Previously the memorial was a special experience for visitors, its unique model dioramas and uncanny, sepulchral atmosphere permanently marked many a childhood psyche. This new display is brighter and livelier certainly, but it also conforms to a standard corporate display style — the plate glass, steel rod look — that exists in any number of shops and museums. There is now a bigger phenomenological gap for visitors to cross between these didactic history displays and the sacred mnemonic heart of the Memorial — the cloisters and the Hall of Memory (into which Paul Keating conveniently inserted a pacemaker when he buried an Unknown Soldier  there in 1993). The Memorial’s original didacticism, the attempt to convey an historical understanding of war — however ideologically compromised — and to encourage a transference of empathy back across the generations, is being replaced by an attempt to technologically create a sense of immediate, individuated sensory experience.

Sometimes this works, if a sense of temporal distance is maintained, as in the disembodied voices of Australian POWs telling their stories in a reconstruction of an empty sleeping hut. But sometimes it doesn’t. The most problematic part of the display is a simulation of a bombing run over Germany in which the floor shakes as though by the airplane’s engines and we look down through the bomb bay doors at WW11 Europe sliding below. This recreates the fear felt by young Australian air force servicemen at being shot down. Reportedly, Returned WW11 air crew visiting a preview of the installation found it so affecting they had leave during the experience. Certainly the kids love it. But they love their experience of it is in the present. I didn’t see any emotional transference to, or identification with, the servicemen’s fear which this ‘ride’ was meant to commemorate. It was ironic, too, that the aspect of War chosen for the most ‘realistic’ simulation was the one where the original experience was already most virtual, remote, and technologically mediated.

For me a more successful use of technology was in the new Orientation Gallery where a large, looped, digital video of spectral diggers coming ashore at Gallipoli and fading into History to the thud of sniper bullets, which was projected behind an actual Gallipoli landing boat, created a suggestive atmosphere rather than a descriptive experience. It let the landing boat exist in its own historical time, rather than be dragged into a perpetual present of technological performance. The use of Digger ghosts (played by keen Memorial staff in costume shot against blue screen, then digitally montaged over video of the actual Gallipoli landing place by the Sydney firm Audience Motivation) grows from an evolving, long standing, visual tradition of ANZAC memory — for instance the freeze frame in Weir’s film Gallipoli and William Longstaff’s creepy Menin Gates painting.

Clearly the displays of national museums do need to changes as audiences change.  And clearly technologies of video, projection and simulation must inevitably play a major part in these changes. Particularly as so much of our past is know to us through film and video anyway, and technologies have always been excellent at producing phantasmagoric spectacles and virtual spectres. Yet technology must still be made to do what it has only partially done at the War Memorial: create historical knowledge not just immediate experience; and leave a space for viewers to make an imaginative leap and project themselves into time, rather than be the passive screens for a dislocated series of projections from the past.

Martyn Jolly

Martyn Jolly is Head of Photomedia at the ANU Canberra School of Art

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