Greens senator Jordon Steele-John has described the Australian War Memorial's acceptance of donations from weapons manufacturers as "morally repugnant", sparking a furious clash with fellow parliamentarians.
Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson told Senate estimates on Wednesday night said the institution accepted between $300,000 and $500,000 per year in donations from companies which make weapons used in war.
Boeing and Lockheed Martin had also donated $1 million each, Dr Nelson said.
But Dr Nelson said "my primary concern is for those that aren't supporting us".
He said the only reason the war memorial was able to open an exhibition about the Afghanistan war in 2013 was due to a $500,000 donation from Boeing.
A year earlier, Dr Nelson had been told there was no space or money for such a memorial.
"On the night of the opening, the then chief of defence, now our Governor-General, General Hurley, spoke as the chief of defence very proudly, then prime minister Rudd, opposition leader Abbott spoke, and I asked the Boeing representative to speak. I didn't have a single person criticising the fact that I was supporting, in fact, quite the opposite," Dr Nelson said.
Dr Nelson also said the decision not to publish the individual amounts donated in its annual report had been motivated by the desire to protect people's privacy.
"We have recently had a family donate $600,000 to the memorial for a particular program of education. And this particular family is very keen that they not be named," Dr Nelson said.
"There are individuals who are of high wealth, none of us here amongst them, who do not want to be named because because they are generous, they don't want other people and organisations coming at them.
"Others, I actually encourage every organisation and individual that does donate to the war memorial to allow us to name them and how much they give because I want to encourage other people to do the same."
But Senator Steele-John said it was a concern that it was not clear how much corporate weapons manufacturers contributed to the maintenance of the war memorial.
"I have a personal connection to the war memorial as do so many, I personally find the involvement of weapons manufacturers in the memorial, and indeed their contribution to the memorial to be morally repugnant, and a stain upon the institution of the most profound nature," Senator Steele-John said.
"Those who manufacture arms should not be donating to the space in which we commemorate the dead."
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He was howled down by a chorus of senators, including Tasmanian crossbencher Jacqui Lambie.
"That's really disrespectful," Senator Lambie said.
Dr Nelson said there was no corporate sponsorship in the commemoration sections of the war memorial.
"I would agree with you entirely, it would be repugnant to have defence companies or anybody else associated with or named in the commemorative area or the roll of honour areas," Dr Nelson said.
"As you and I both know, the Australian War Memorial is three things. It is a shrine, it is a museum and an archive. And what these companies and individual philanthropists do is support us in the museum and our education programs."
Dr Nelson will step down as head of the war memorial at the end of the year after seven years in the role.
The committee was told interviews will begin next week for Dr Nelson's replacement.
The secretary of the Department of Veterans' Affairs, Liz Cosson, also addressed the appointment of former prime minister Tony Abbott to the war memorial council.
Ms Cosson said her department had been asked to put together a shortlist of candidates, following the death of acclaimed author, historian and former editor of TheAge, Les Carlyon, in March.
"What we actually did senator was we looked at the composition of the council, we looked at the skills that the members on the council did have and we looked at potentially what gaps there might be on the council and we did a scan of who may be available to then get some balance as well. There's gender balance on the council so we looked at all those factors in pulling together a potential list for consideration," Ms Cosson said.
The shortlist was provided to the minister, who then made a recommendation to the prime minister, who then made a recommendation to cabinet.
That recommendation was then put to the governor-general, who made the appointment, Ms Cosson said.