Saturday, April 25, 2015

First World War memorials in Australia

Last year I was asked to write an article on First World War memorials in Australia for the UK National Trust’s Views Magazine. It was published in September 2014 and it seems apposite to retell in my blog today. 

By the time the Great War ground to a close in November 1918, 416,600 Australians had enlisted out of a population of 4 million, representing almost 40 per cent of men aged between 18 and 44. Australia's casualty rate was amongst the highest in the war at 65 per cent, including almost 59,000 dead.

The impact on a small and new nation (Australia had become a federation only in 1901) was profound. One of the most difficult issues to come to terms with was the remoteness of the battlefields. Whereas Britons could easily cross the Channel to visit the graves of their loved ones, the high cost of travel to visit Europe was beyond most Australians. As with Britain (but unlike the USA), the Australian Government made the decision not to repatriate any bodies from the war. The only exceptions were the body of an unknown Australian soldier and Major General Sir William Throsby Bridges, killed in Gallipoli, who was the country’s first major general and the first to receive a knighthood.

The war memorial scene in Australia
War memorials and their honour rolls therefore became critical points of remembrance for grieving relatives. They were not new to the country as Australians had died in relatively large numbers in the South African War in the 1890s and even in the New Zealand wars of the 1840s. But it was the sheer number of Great War memorials that transformed Australian townscapes.

Their form followed those created in Britain. They range from statues of soldiers to obelisks to arches and cenotaphs. Some of the designs were uniquely Australian, such as depicting Australian Diggers (soldiers), and almost without exception they used local stone except for imported carved figures in Carrara marble.

The city response
In the capital cities, Melbourne chose a vast Shrine of Remembrance with an inner shrine surrounded by an ambulatory where books in glass-topped cabinets record the names of the 114,000 men from Victoria who went to the war, a fresh page turned every day to this day. Sydney also chose to record all those who had gone to the war in its Anzac Memorial, not by name but by a gold star attached to the domed ceiling, some 120,000 in all. Beneath them, in the so-called Well of Contemplation, lies one of Australia's greatest bronze figures, a naked warrior carried on a shield supported by three women sculpted by Raynor Hoff, a Royal College of Art-educated Englishman of Dutch descent who had migrated to Australia in 1923. Considered somewhat shocking at the time of opening in 1934, it was heavily toned down from the original bronze concept entitled the Crucifixion of Civilisation, which had been denounced by clergyman for depicting tastelessly vivid horrors.

A mile from the Anzac Memorial, Sydney commissioned a stone cenotaph outside the City's General Post Office designed by Australia's most eminent sculptor of the day, the Royal Academician Sir Bertram Mackennal. Mackennal chose to place a bronze soldier and sailor either end of a large block of local granite. Brisbane initially commissioned Sir Edwin Lutyens to replicate the Whitehall Cenotaph with the addition of bronze servicemen but when this proved too costly they went for a Delphic-colonnaded temple designed by local architects.

 The Cenotaph, Sydney. Photo: Julian Bickersteth

The Anzac Memorial, Brisbane. Photo: Julian Bickersteth

The National Memorial in Canberra, known as the Australian War Memorial, was conceived and developed by an Oxford-educated Australian journalist, Charles Bean. Bean had reported from the Western Front and after the war ended was determined to do all he could to help Australians commemorate their loss. Principal amongst his means of doing this was the creation of the Australian War Memorial, which is actually a war museum centred on a Hall of Memory. This vast domed space is covered by the southern hemisphere's largest mosaic, designed by Australian artist Napier Waller. Waller was himself a war veteran; having lost his right arm on the Western Front but, undaunted he taught himself to draw again with his left hand.

Placement of guns
Bean also struck upon the idea of shipping back to Australia large quantities of captured ordnance. Again he saw the power in the tangible form of these weapons in bringing the battlefields a little closer to Australia. In all some 500 pieces of artillery, 400 mortars and 4,000 machine guns were shipped back and held in Melbourne for cities and local councils across Australia to apply for them. Due to over demand, a complicated system of ceding where each item of ordnance would end up was developed based on the number of men that had enlisted locally, the number of medals won and whether the particular gun had been captured by a local battalion. The allocation did not please everyone, with some councils complaining that they had only been awarded a machine gun when their war contribution surely justified at least a mortar.

Trees and arches
Avenues of trees are a particular feature of Australian war memorials. They came about as a reminder of the avenues of trees that lined northern French roads, beneath which the Australian Diggers would have marched. The avenues serve the useful purpose of allowing individual trees to be planted as a memorial to a slain relative or platoon. Occasionally these avenues begin with triumphal arches, a form which does not seem to have become widely popular due almost certainly to its celebratory tone.

The Ballarat Arch of Victory and Avenue of Trees. Photo: Chris Betteridge

Conservation issues
Conservation work undertaken on war memorials reflects the broad approach taken in Great Britain and generally involves careful cleaning, repointing to keep them weather tight, re-gilding of incised lettering and protective waxing of bronze honour rolls and figures.

It is the guns shipped back from France and placed on top of many an Australian war memorial that often prove to be the most problematic element for the memorial's conservation due to the metal elements corroding and the wooden elements (e.g. wheels) rotting. The numbers of the most fragile of them, however, the machine guns, were dramatically reduced during the Second World War when they were removed and refurbished for action.

With the passage of time, war memorials have inevitably deteriorated, but it is a testament to the resilience of the materials selected and the care with which they were built that they remain in remarkably good condition.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Winged Victory rises again

Seated in the sun outside Marrickville Town Hall in Sydney on Sunday morning to witness the unveiling of the Marrickville War Memorial I was thinking back 93 years to the same ceremony. The great difference of course was that the audience then included mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters and even children of the 458 local lads who had so recently given their lives. 

That said almost 100 years on it was a very moving experience to be part of, but, you may well ask, why was a war memorial being unveiled now.

The original Marrickville Soldiers’ Memorial was unveiled in 1919 by Sir Walter Davidson, Governor of NSW, before 15,000 people. The monument for the top of the Memorial was created by local artist and sculptor Gilbert Doble. Doble created a hollow Winged Victory sculpture, surrounded by a copper cast that created a dominant artwork within the tight constraints of the Memorial Fund’s budget. The instability of the resulting artwork became apparent as early as 1927. Within 40 years, the condition of the sculpture had deteriorated so badly that it had to be taken down in 1962. Despite being returned to the Memorial in 1988 following restoration work, the continued instability of the Winged Victory sculpture saw its removal a second time in 2008.

Gilbert Doble's original Winged Victory sculpture

Here at ICS we considered various options for restoring and reinstalling the statue but in July 2013, Marrickville Council voted to commission a new sculpture for the Memorial. Council also endorsed the transfer of ownership of Doble’s original Winged Victory to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. We undertook the complicated restoration of the original and oversaw its transfer to Canberra, where the sculpture has now become the focal point of the Memorial’s new First World War Galleries, which opened in November 2014. 

Doble's Winged Victory sculpture 
now on display at the Australian War Memorial

Meanwhile Winged Victory, 2015 was commissioned from Melbourne's Meridian Sculpture with lead artists Peter Corlett and Darien Pullen in cast bronze. Reflecting and respecting the original Doble sculpture, there are subtle changes, most noticeably with the position of the sword changed from being raised in triumph to pointing down to touch the earth (‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes’ etc). Along the way it stopped the sword from being a lightning rod, which we had discovered was a significant cause of the damage that had been inflicted to the original. 

Winged Victory, 2015 by Peter Corlett and Darien Pullen

So Doble’s legacy lives on, both in original form at the Australian War Memorial and in reinterpreted form in its original location, and the citizens of Marrickville once again have a focal point to honour their local war heroes.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Why we take audio tours

I must be honest that the audio guide desk is not something I regularly head for in museums. Why? My immediate response would be that a) I don’t have time and b) I have listened to too many overly didactic and drawn out commentaries. I have blogged before on the technology challenges to the traditional audio guide (January 2011February 2011, August 2012February 2015). A few years on from some of those blogs, the predicted smartphone take over has not happened with the audio tour still very much alive and well. My view is that visitors have decided the distraction of a further visual aid in what is already a highly visual experience, particularly in an art museum, is too much of a sensory overload.

Technology aside, it is fascinating to see what drives people to take up audio tours through new research by the British Museum, entitled 'An audio state of mind: Understanding behaviour around audio guides and visitor media'. Their starting point was the perceived low take up (160,000 out of nearly 7 million visitors) with the aim being to increase this and also understand how visitors use the audio guides.

Amongst a number of interesting discoveries:
  • Time plays a key role (I can empathise with that) with many visitors presuming the audio tour will take a long time (though the definition of ‘a long time’ varied between three and six hours) and force them to spend more time than they had.
  • It appears that the traditional visitor segmentation of streakers, strollers and studiers (see my blog from October 2011) is poorly servicing our understanding of visitors, with people moving between segments during visits, displaying much more personalised and flexible motivations and identities.
  • Confidence plays an important role, namely whether the visitor feels they can successfully negotiate the museum unaided, relying on labels.
  • Many visitors come knowing what they want to see, but once they have done so, they tend to wander aimlessly, a perfect time to take up an audio guide, if they could be corralled to be offered such.
A couple of other points. This research is from a paper due to be given at Museums and the Web 2015 in Chicago next week. Having been to three previous ones, the MW annual conference, now in its 19th year, remains for me the most wide ranging of the mainstream museum technology get-togethers, the others being the more US based MCN (Museum Computer Network) and the more European based MuseumNext.

Also I liked the way this project was put together. Described as an ‘agile‘ project, it had a small team of one staff member, three free lancers and an intern, a defined time scale, a project room, daily ‘scrums’, an initial research phase, and then a prototype testing phase, resulting in some really useful outputs.