War memorial expansion should include Aboriginal fighters: historian

One of Australia's leading historians has called for the Australian War Memorial to include a section on the conflicts between the white settlers and Indigenous people after the First Fleet of British ships arrived.

Professor Henry Reynolds of the University of Tasmania pioneered the study of the "Frontier Wars".

He said the $500 million revamp of what is the national shrine of remembrance should reflect this part of Australian history.

Professor Henry Reynolds. Photo: Fairfax Media.

Professor Henry Reynolds. Photo: Fairfax Media.

"If the War Memorial can't see itself doing that a substantial part of the money should be devoted to a new museum about the Frontier Wars to be situated at an appropriate site in Canberra," he said.

Nobody knows how many died in the sporadic conflicts which lasted for nearly a century-and-a-half but one estimate puts it at certainly tens of thousands of Indigenous Australians and more than two thousand settlers.

It has been argued that it wasn't a formal war involving the armed forces of a state but more a localised shedding of blood when white settlers confronted Aboriginal people over the use of land.

Professor Reynolds responded that the conflicts were often recognised at the time as guerilla warfare.

At the recent announcement of the expansion, Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson said the revamped complex would have more space for those who had served in recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Solomon Islands and East Timor.

Five years ago, he addressed journalists in Canberra and talked of the Frontier Wars, saying he thought that those who argued "for the story to be told are absolutely right".

But he didn't think the institution he heads was the right place to do it.

"The Australian War Memorial is about Australians going overseas in peace operations and in war in our name as Australians," he said when he took the job in 2013.

"The institution that is best to tell those stories, in my view, is the National Museum of Australia and perhaps some of the state-based institutions who are most likely to have whatever artefacts or relics that exist from this period in our history."

Professor Reynolds responded that the National Museum didn't have the space and it wasn't the right place to reflect "a large and complex story".

"The trouble with the leadership team at the War Memorial is that their understanding of Australian history is a generation out of date," he said.

"How can they explain themselves to Indigenous Australians? They no doubt want them to be part of the nation and would likely shun any assertion of a separate and distinctive nationalism.

"But their present policy has a hidden agenda.

"Their message is this: your warrior ancestors who fought for their land and way of life against impossible odds do not belong in the Memorial which Brendan Nelson repeatedly calls the soul of the nation. Your war dead do not belong in the national pantheon. Go away and find someone else to take them in."

The Australian War Memorial confirmed that this remained the position. A spokeswoman said, "Further information about the redevelopment plans will be revealed in due course."