There's a line of people waiting to enter the Australian War Memorial five minutes before it opens. One of them is its director, Matt Anderson.
It's been one year since he began the role. Appointed before COVID-19 hit, the former diplomat and soldier started as the pandemic forced the war memorial to close its doors to the public.
The visitors wandering about the memorial's grounds on Thursday - albeit following social distancing requirements - signal the return to a kind of normality. A year into his role, Mr Anderson says the challenge has been to keep the memorial relevant to Australians at a time when the coronavirus has closed institutions and blocked travel.
There are other challenges, too. The memorial director - the 12th in its history - took the job on the cusp of an ambitious and controversial $498 million expansion, a project still awaiting final approval but secure in government funding.
Debates about the extensions, and how the memorial presents Australia's military history, didn't end with Mr Anderson's appointment as director. His first year also coincided with the release of the Brereton report, which found credible evidence of murder and wilful cover-up of war crimes in Afghanistan by Australian special forces personnel. The findings prompted calls for the war memorial to revise its telling of Australia's involvement in the Afghanistan war.
The war memorial, which is keeping its doors open during a pandemic, embarking on a major physical transformation, and remaining the subject of cultural and historical debates, is a busier space than anyone might believe walking through its quiet grounds.
The front doors of the memorial open, and Mr Anderson enters with the small crowd. Asked later about what he's learnt from his conversations with visitors over 12 months, he says each person has a different view of the place's meaning.
"You learn that the war memorial is personal to the individual, that every person who visits here has a different experience, because they all bring to this a different level of understanding, a different level of insight and a different level of engagement," Mr Anderson says.
"Some of them who have had no exposure to the Australian military, some who have had significant experience in the military. But for each of them, it's personal.
"As the director of the Australian War Memorial, that's the great weight and the responsibility of the job, is to ensure that when people visit, they leave here with an opportunity to understand more deeply the nature of the service and sacrifice, but also to have come to the centre of our nation's commemoration and taken just one moment out of their busy lives to give thanks for that service and for that sacrifice.
"Every single day, I'm just struck by the way in which this place touches everyone differently, but personally. Including me."
'Critics are entitled to their views'
For Mr Anderson, the varying and personal meanings of the memorial help explain the controversy over its expansion - a project that will demolish and replace the award-winning, 20-year-old Anzac Hall and grow exhibition space.
The personal connections people have to the institution are behind the passionate responses, he believes.
"Any sense of change, people are rightly cautious because they perceive this place as important to them and special to them. Any thought of change or suggestion of change is personal to them," Mr Anderson says.
The expansion has bipartisan political support but has attracted opposition from prominent historians, writers, former political leaders and ex-public servants. It's had its measure of local pushback. Architects also mounted one of the most concerted campaigns against it, rejecting the demolition of Anzac Hall as wasteful and unnecessary.
The Commonwealth government's own heritage experts have warned the expansion would reduce the significance of the memorial's commemorative spaces by growing its exhibition areas, and said the changes would obscure, alter and diminish its heritage values.
Mr Anderson describes the expansion as the latest in a series of transformations to the war memorial, which started as a single building without the structures that now adjoin and surround it.
The memorial's originator, war correspondent Charles Bean, intended it to commemorate World War I, a conflict once thought to be the "war to end all wars".
At the memorial's opening in 1941, events had long since taken another turn.
"By the time it had opened, it had changed," Mr Anderson says of the memorial. Already, it had needed to be reimagined in order to recognise Australia's involvement in World War II.
"Sadly, we have not seen the end of war," Mr Anderson says.
Inside the memorial and downstairs, the institution's account of Australia's longest war is limited to a small exit corridor. Mr Anderson says more space is needed to tell the story of the nation's involvement in the Afghanistan war, and other recent conflicts.
Little space remains for telling Australia's recent military history. As services personnel continue returning from overseas deployments, Mr Anderson wants to avoid repeating the memorial's past delays in telling the stories of World War II and the Vietnam War within its halls.
Mr Anderson says the expansion's purpose is to recognise the service of veterans from more recent wars.
The Australian War Memorial is not a static institution.Matt Anderson
The planned demolition and replacement of Anzac Hall will grow the institution's heritage value by creating more space to tell Australia's military history, he says.
"The heritage value of Anzac Hall is the stories that are told within it, not the blade wall and the roof line," Mr Anderson says, referring to the building's signature design features.
"If we're doubling the space available to tell the stories, we're doubling the heritage value of that building, and of the memorial's power to tell the story of continuing service and sacrifice.
"We're just not doing that, we're not meeting that obligation to be fair to contemporary veterans, modern veterans, in the same way we've told the stories of their forebears.
"This is about providing the space so that we can recognise the generation of 100,000 women and men who have served in our name in the last 30 years whose stories are not told in the current building."
Mr Anderson says critics of the expansion are entitled to their views, and that he receives more expressions of support than criticisms of the development.
Responding to the Brereton report
Public attention focused on the memorial's presentation of Australia's involvement in the Afghanistan war for another reason in 2020.
Four years after it was launched, an inquiry into alleged war crimes committed by Australian defence personnel in Afghanistan delivered its report.
The investigation, led by Justice Paul Brereton, found credible evidence of murder and wilful cover-up of war crimes in Afghanistan by Australian special forces personnel.
In response, the federal government announced a new office - the Office of the Special Investigator - would begin investigations to look at potentially criminal matters raised in the Brereton report.
The spotlight soon turned to the memorial's gallery dedicated to the conflict in Afghanistan.
Mr Anderson says the memorial's position, six months after a redacted version of the report was released, is to wait for the results of the new office's investigation.
"We start with the presumption of innocence," the memorial director says.
"[Veterans] want whatever the outcome is, when that outcome is known, to be told, but to be told in the context of Australia's longest war - and that's what we're going to do."
Careful not to make any commitment ahead of the investigation's outcomes, Mr Anderson says the contents of the new galleries, once approved, will be decided in consultation with the public, including advisory bodies representing veterans.
Mr Anderson says the ugly reality of war, no matter how embarrassing, will be told by the memorial but with the necessary context once investigations are complete.
The federal government has cautioned the investigations into the alleged war crimes would not be quick.
Mr Anderson says in the meantime, the war memorial will remain firm on its stance - nothing will be put up or taken down.
He says the memorial's exhibits can be adjusted in the future if allegations are proven and prosecutions undertaken.
"Galleries change. The Australian War Memorial is not a static institution," Mr Anderson says.
Mr Anderson returns to his office at the memorial after a walk through the grounds and halls where visitors gaze at exhibits.
After stints as a diplomat in the Pacific, Africa, Afghanistan and London, he says he's happy to be back in the open and green spaces of Canberra.
He was Australia's ambassador in Kabul, one of the toughest postings, and earlier led the humanitarian and consular response to the 2009 Pacific tsunami.
However his newest job carries its own weight of responsibility - and he says it builds on his previous roles working alongside Australian services personnel and representatives overseas.
"All of those vectors, all of those influences, all come together here at this place, at this time," he says.
"It sits very, very heavily on me. On three separate occasions in my presence in the past 12 months, the Prime Minister has described the Australian War Memorial as Australia's most sacred place. I believe that too.
"With that comes enormous responsibility and that's why I think it's the most important job I'll ever do."
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