Row brews over Afghan diggers display
Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith VC and the director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson. Photo: Colleen Petch
A row is brewing at the Australian War Memorial over the new director's plan to close the area where the public can access their relatives' military history, to mount a display to honour Diggers fighting in Afghanistan.
Brendan Nelson is determined that Australian soldiers returning from Afghanistan will not be dealt the shoddy deal that faced those returning from the Vietnam War.
However his crusade is upsetting the legion of volunteers at the memorial, many of whom devote much of their retirement time to helping visitors to one of the nation's most popular attractions.
The online gallery will be closed and only two of the 14 terminals currently in use will be relocated.
One volunteer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said some of his colleagues who work specifically in the online gallery, had written to Dr Nelson objecting to the plan.
They said older people were more likely to need help to use a computer to find information.
However Dr Nelson said it was extraordinarily important for Australian soldiers in Afghanistan to know their story was being told in the Australian War Memorial now.
“One of the soldiers said to me in Afghanistan in October last year, 'when I take my son to the war memorial, I can show him what his great grandfather did, what his grandfather did but I can't show him what I'm doing'," Dr Nelson told Fairfax Media.
“Now in terms of the memorial, there's a limited amount of space.
“I said to all of the staff and all of the volunteers, they need to understand why it is so important to present Afghanistan now.
"I knew they would be saying to themselves, 'well something will have to go' and they're absolutely right."
Dr Nelson said the online gallery had played an extremely important role since being established in the late 1990s.
“It's a place where members of the public can come and they are supported and assisted by volunteers who are wonderful people who have sacrificed tens of thousands of hours to help people to trace their family history," he said.
“However this is now 2013 – modern technology, ipads, iphones, access to the internet and computers is ubiquitous.
“I'm the first to recognise that that does not apply to all Australians including older Australians.
“But in terms of making decisions, we have men and women that are fighting and are dying now, who are returning from Afghanistan, their story needs to be told.
"I've made the decision, the council has agreed with this, that, as difficult as it is, particularly for the volunteers, we are going to significantly contract that space and put the Afghanistan exhibition in it.
"We will still have a couple of work stations available for members of the public."
This week Dr Nelson steered a significant decision by the war memorial council, to allow the names of fallen peacekeepers to be etched in bronze on the memorial's iconic roll of honour.