The Australian War Memorial – A Century on from the Vision by Steven Gower – Book Review

When retired Major General Gower was appointed Director of the Australian War Memorial in 1996, he wisely decided to keep a diary – perhaps a practice too infrequent these days. It paid off well! As well as being a chronicle of events in the life of the Memorial until he left it in 2012, it is an analysis of key issues that affect this important and unique Australian institution.

Wakefield Press 2019
Hardback 440pp RRP $59.95

There was an earlier volume about the Memorial, by its deputy director Michael McKernan, (Here is Their Spirit: A history of the Australian War Memorial 1917-1990, University of Queensland Press and AWM, 1991). By 1994 the Memorial was in a budgetary crisis, with an annual shortfall in its budget of over $2 million. It was subject to a review of its workplace practices by the Merit Protection Review Agency, whose report was eventually quashed by the Federal Court. It was fair to assess the situation at the Memorial (as the RSL President did) as one that was unhappy, [beset with] conflict and loss of confidence [in its leadership]. To add to this, its museum displays were tired and its building infrastructure inadequate. The new director faced serious challenges on almost every front.

This book outlines Gower’s methodical and successful approach to the solution to this wide range of problems. It is at every level a balanced and engaging read. He understood the need for a balance between the functions of commemoration, museum display and archival repository. He worked effectively with the Council. While not a ‘museum professional’ he showed that his leadership and considerable management skills resolved the key problems of the institution and renewed its position, but as Australia’s premier tourist attraction. Its staff were often stressed and challenged, but always rewarded by their achievements. I could not put the book down: it tells a great story!

If you have not visited the Memorial for some time then consider a visit, if only to see state-of-the-art displays and in particular the object-theatre presentational techniques used in Sydney Under Attack and Striking by Night.

Gower probably did not oversee the captioning of the photos for this book – he would have spotted that it is Russ Crane not Ross and have spelt the VC winner Mark Donaldson’s name correctly.

Reviewed for RUSIV by Michael O’Brien, August 2019

Contact Royal United Services Institute about this article.

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