Outgoing Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson has come out swinging against critics of its $498 million expansion, saying the site is unlike any other cultural institution.
"If you lived in Canberra you'd be forgiven for thinking people are opposed to the project," Dr Nelson said on Thursday, as he announced he would step down from the memorial at the end of the year.
"There are a small group of people, intellectuals, academics, some retired public servants, even some former staff members who left this place more than 20 years ago who are opposed to the project.
"I've worked damn hard in this role and I travel right around Australia, I'm reasonably well known and recognised and I have not been approached by a single person to express anything other than support for what we're doing."
The ambitious nine-year project - which will include demolishing and rebuilding Anzac Hall over three levels, a substantial increase to exhibition space, and a new entrance and new research centre - has attracted criticism from prominent Australians including novelist Tom Keneally and former Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs over its sheer size.
Opponents of the project are also concerned about the war memorial being favoured over other more cash-strapped national institutions.
But Dr Nelson said the war memorial could not be compared to other cultural sites.
"There is a reason why the war memorial is directly down Anzac Parade at the opposite end of the parliament and it has a man buried at its very heart," he said.
Dr Nelson said the cost of the expansion paled in comparison to what had been spent on war and peacekeeping missions over the past two decades.
"Over the last 20 years this nation has created 100,000 veterans, by definition, young veterans and their families," he said.
"We have invested $22 billion in deploying them to war, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance. We spent $400 billion equipping them. Now our government has made the decision to make a generational investment in creating more space so their stories can be told."
The expansion would also allow the story of what Australia did to stop war to be told, he said.
"In these new spaces there will be a major expansion of Australia's peacekeeping story," Dr Nelson said.
"What those young Australians did almost 25 years ago in Rwanda was in many ways far worse than what's been endured by Australians in war."
Dr Nelson offered critics of the memorial a personalised tour, but acknowledged there were many who would never change their minds.
"Thanks to the men and women we honour here it's a democracy and everyone has the right to be wrong," Dr Nelson said.
with Sally Whyte