ACT News

Historians slam possible removal of 'racist' War Memorial gargoyles but call for greater indigenous recognition

Historians have panned the Australian War Memorial's plans to remove and possibly not replace their "racist" Aboriginal gargoyles, saying the move would be tantamount to "hiding what Australia was".  

The statues critics have labelled "bizarre" and "demeaning" sit in the AWM courtyard as part of a set carved in 1941 depicting native animals. 

On Tuesday, The Canberra Times revealed the AWM had released a tender for the removal of 26 of the gargoyles and the reconstruction of 24, with the fate of the other two decided by consultation with indigenous groups.

University of NSW professor and former senior historian at the Australian War Memorial Peter Stanley said he would "deplore" their removal despite their racism.

"They are racist, but are also integral to the fabric of the building as it was conceived, reflecting the attitudes and values of the Australia that created the Memorial," he said.

"We cannot deny and should not hide what Australia was, however unpleasant. They perform a salutary educational function: concealing them in 'storage' will offer no lesson on how Australia has changed.".

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University of NSW Canberra senior lecturer in history John Connor, who also worked at the memorial in the mid-2000s, agreed with Professor Stanley.

"Heritage reflects our history, good and bad. It might be justifiable to leave them up there," he said.

While he understood they were offensive and racist, he echoed the view they could be seen as a history lesson.

"It might be appropriate for it to remain as a reminder that the views of white Australia have or have not changed," he said.

"I think it's important to have some consultation with indigenous groups to see whether they see value in it remaining as a reminder of the not so distant past of how people viewed indigenous culture at that time."

Dr Connor said, however, if the offence they were causing to indigenous people was too great, AWM director Brendan Nelson would have to take that into account and act accordingly. 

Both academics also agreed the memorial was denying history but not including enough recognition of the indigenous Australian war effort, the discrimination they faced and the frontier wars.

"It is a lack of acknowledgement that the Australia we know today came out of a conflict that settlers, soldiers and police fought Aboriginal warriors," Dr Connor said.

In a 2013 book, historian Henry Reynolds said between 25,000 to 30,000 indigenous people and between 2500 to 3000 settlers died from 1788 to the early years of the 20th century.

"There was bravery shown on both sides and it made Australia, the Australia we know today came out of that war." 

Professor Stanley, who worked at the AWM for 27 years, said it was wrong not to recognise that Aboriginals died defending their country before settlement.

"If there is a memorial only to indigenous service people, it denies the frontier wars are part of Australia's indigenous history and we should remember it in the same way as we remember Gallipoli.

"New Zealand recognises the land wars fought between Maori and settlers in their museum. If the New Zealanders and Canadians can do it we can do it too," he said.

Despite the criticism they have received over the years, the memorial said on Tuesday they were removing the statues not because they were offensive but due to asbestos fears and drainage problems.

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