Australian War Memorial development: a quick guide

30 September 2020

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David Watt
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security


Proposals to redevelop the Australian War Memorial (AWM) were first announced during the early months of 2018 as it emerged that the AWM was seeking funding and putting together a business case to put to the Australian Government. The AWM director at the time, Dr Brendan Nelson, stated that the cost of the project might be as much $500 million.[1]

On 1 November 2018 Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that the Government would provide funding of $498 million over nine years for the redevelopment. When making the announcement, the Prime Minister said:

The Australian War Memorial, the soul of the nation. That is what is housed within its stone and brass walls. It is sacred to us all. It transcends politics, it transcends all of us.[2]

A media release from the Prime Minister and the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs stated that the redevelopment would allow the AWM to display more of its collection and tell the story of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Solomon Islands and East Timor.[3] The release stated that the redevelopment would increase the size of visitor areas by 83 per cent, or around 10,000 square metres.

The Shadow Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Amanda Rishworth, immediately stated that the Labor Opposition would honour this commitment if elected to government in the 2019 federal election.[4] The 2019–20 Budget contained $166.78 million worth of funding across the forward estimates for the AWM’s redevelopment.[5]

Brendan Nelson put the case for the redevelopment in the following terms:

The Memorial’s ability to tell the stories of those men and women who serve in Australia’s Defence forces has now reached its limits. The Memorial’s galleries are at capacity, and yet the Memorial must continue to grow.

Just a fraction of the collection is on display. In crowded galleries the stories of Australian military service from the Boer War through to the First and Second World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam are all largely told. Yet, the service of 70,000 young Australians in the Middle East Area of operations of the past two decades currently covers only 2 per cent of available space.[6]

Dr Nelson provided further detail to a Senate Estimates hearing, stating that the Memorial’s Council had been presented with four designs on 4 July 2018 and had been unanimous when choosing the winning design. Dr Nelson said that the preferred design ‘was chosen on the basis of minimum complexity, maximum efficiency, minimum threat to the integrity of the existing heritage building and best value for money for the Australian taxpayer’.[7]

He went on to say that construction would commence in the last quarter of 2019, starting with the demolition of Anzac Hall and that this would be rebuilt in 2021 to be ‘wider, deeper, two levels, and with an atrium in the centre’. Dr Nelson also informed the Committee that the AWM was negotiating with the ACT Government to acquire land behind Treloar Crescent (that runs behind the Memorial), which initially would be used for site management purposes and in the longer term as a car park.

On 7 March 2019 former Lendlease General Manager of Operations Wayne Hitches was announced as the Executive Project Director for the redevelopment project.[8]

On 18 November 2019 the Prime Minister released the official plans for the Australian War Memorial Development Project, which were made publicly available in the AWM information gallery. The AWM stated that it had submitted a ‘referral under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999, including a Heritage Impact Assessment, to determine if the plans require formal assessment and approval’.

After the plans were made public the War Memorial announced that it would hold a series of community consultation sessions in each Australian state and territory during December 2019. The memorial also stated:

Preparations for early works construction to extend the underground car parking facilities on the eastern side of the precinct have begun. It is expected work on the new Anzac Hall will begin in the second half of 2020, with work on the southern entrance commencing the following year.

On 14 November 2019 the project was referred to the Department of Environment and Energy for consideration under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). On 18 December 2019 the project was declared a ‘controlled action’, requiring an assessment decision under the Act. The second phase of EPBC Act consultation began on 2 July 2020.[9]

Parliamentary inquiry

On 30 April 2020 the Governor-General referred the War Memorial development project to the Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works.[10] The Committee received 77 submissions, which prompted further public comment on the development project.

In its submission, the AWM set out its view as to why the project is necessary:

The need for the Project can be divided into four categories which are described in detail below. The Project will address: spatial constraints that prevent

  1. the telling of the stories of recent conflicts and operations at a level of detail consistent with earlier conflicts, and
  2. the Memorial properly recognising the service of those who served in recent conflicts and operations; b. the lack of capacity to include large technology objects such as planes, helicopters and armoured vehicles within galleries, as these objects are critical to telling the stories of recent conflicts and operations;
  3. circulation challenges caused by the numbers of visitors being well in excess of what the building was designed for, and which has now been in excess of one million per year for the last five years; and
  4. the lack of compliance with the Federal Disability Discrimination Act, 1992 to ensure the facility is accessible for all Australians, regardless of physical capacity.[11]

The AWM has engaged in a process of public consultation about the redevelopment and what it calls the Precinct Masterplan. Consultations are ongoing at the time of publication.


The redevelopment has not been universally welcomed. For example, members of the Canberra community took issue with the plan to acquire land behind the AWM for use as part of the building site and longer term as a car park, pointing out that the land is now what is known as Canberra Remembrance Nature Park and is meant as a place of quiet reflection.[12] The Memorial later decided not to proceed with this part of the plan.[13] Richard Thwaites, whose parents were responsible for persuading the ACT Government to create the park, made the point that the AWM was allowing its role as a tourist attraction to take precedence over its function as a place of commemoration: ‘The worrying thing with this development is it’s amplifying a trend which has happened in recent times, which is since self-government, the ACT government sees the memorial as a tourism site...’.[14]

The proposed demolition of Anzac Hall has also been criticised. This display space is only 17 years old and was awarded the 2005 Sir Zelman Cowen Award for Public Architecture. The Australian Institute of Architects, which is running a ‘Hands off Anzac Hall’ campaign, has called the proposed demolition a ‘colossal waste’.

In addition to the complaints above, some members of the community feel that the AWM is being given a significant amount of money at a time when many other cultural institutions have struggled to maintain funding. In March 2019 eighty prominent people signed a letter stating their disagreement with the proposed redevelopment, which, in part, read:

The Australian War Memorial’s $498 million extensions should not proceed. They cannot be justified, they show the Memorial is being given preference over other national institutions, and the money could be better spent.[15]

A submission to the inquiry by a former AWM director, Steve Gower, was critical of a number of aspects:

  • the lack of Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment clearance of heritage matters
  • the proposed demolition of Anzac Hall and
  • the lack of medical evidence supporting the AWM’s claims that the new galleries will be good for veterans suffering from PTSD.

In evidence to the inquiry, military historian Peter Stanley and Margaret Beavis, a GP and the secretary of the Medical Association for Prevention of War, have both criticised the ‘therapeutic milieu’ rationale for the development. Dr Beavis described the notion that the development would have a beneficial impact on the mental health of veterans as ‘wishful thinking’.[16] Stanley went further, stating:

They claim, for example, that the expansion of the memorial’s displays will have a supposedly therapeutic benefit upon former service personnel who visit. Medically speaking, that is simply snake oil. They offer anecdotes in support, but there is no demonstrable therapeutic benefit in traumatised veterans visiting the display of their former weapons, vehicles or aircraft. It’s meretricious to suggest so—that is, it’s superficially attractive but it has no real value, no substance, in any clinical study or academic test.[17]

Stanley had previously described the case for the development as poorly articulated and stated that in his view:

The Memorial has not demonstrated that it has suffered any undue harm to its fabric or, more importantly, its collection. It has not shown that there is any stated need to increase its space on the Campbell site, or that it has suffered by any comparison with comparable national collecting institutions.[18]

Retired senior Royal Australian Navy officer and former Chief of the Defence Force Chris Barrie has suggested an alternative use for the development budget. In his submission to the Public Works Committee inquiry he argued that the money could be better spent on developing ‘a national advanced brain and mind research institute that is dedicated to becoming a world class centre of excellence in the treatment of PTSD’. [19]

Another former AWM director, Brendon Kelson, has written to the Prime Minister stating that the redevelopment should be abandoned and that, instead, work could be done to extend the AWM’s annex in the Canberra suburb of Mitchell.[20]

Mr Kelson said in his letter that an upgrade to the AWM’s Mitchell campus should not exceed $100 million, as the existing infrastructure is already ‘state-of-the-art’.

Other people have argued that the redevelopment would provide the AWM with an opportunity to tell the story of Australia’s frontier wars. During 2013 Brendan Nelson explicitly rejected this suggestion, stating:

But the Australian War Memorial is not in my very strong view the institution to tell that story. The Australian War Memorial, as I say, is about Australians going overseas in peace operations and in war in our name as Australians. The institution that is best to tell those stories, in my view, is the National Museum of Australia and perhaps some of the state-based institutions who are most likely to have whatever artefacts or relics that exist from this period in our history.[21]

Former AWM employee Richard Llewellyn published a lengthy critique of the design options for the redevelopment.[22] In particular, Llewellyn was critical of what he saw as the lack of rigour in the AWM’s assessment of its future needs:

The Memorial’s future space requirements are vaguely expressed – essentially an ambit claim – and seem to be driven mainly by the need to find space to ‘park’ superannuated military equipment taken on from the Department of Defence.


The treatment of the options lacks assessment against metrics, but is subjective (including a subjective assessment against subjective criteria) and often emotive and evidence-free.[23]

Former director Dr Nelson defended the AWM against many of these criticisms, pointing out that the AWM has endured funding cuts similar to many other institutions, and advocated the AWM’s role in the ‘therapeutic milieu for men and women and their families coming to terms with what they’ve done for us and the impact it’s had on them’.[24]

The current AWM director, Matt Anderson, responded to the ‘therapeutic milieu’ criticisms by telling the Public Works Committee that the AWM had been ‘told by veterans and their clinicians’ that signing the Tarin Kowt wall for Australians who served in Afghanistan, has ‘positive mental health benefits’.[25]

Former director Dr Nelson rejects the criticism of the ‘therapeutic milieu’ aspect of the development:

I note those appearing have derided the notion of the Memorial being a part of the ‘therapeutic milieu’ for veterans and their families. It is, and powerfully so. I saw and felt it every single day of my seven years leading the Memorial. Appreciating it requires both an open mind and emotional empathy. The Memorial tells stories that hurt, in doing so they heal. Apart from many powerful stories in support of this, one of the key drivers of Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) is meaninglessness. If you believe that what you did doesn’t matter, doesn’t count—that people neither know or care about what you did, as a veteran you feel a devalued and diminished individual. Having ‘your story’ told and proudly so at the Nation’s War Memorial is a very important part of the solution. Many Vietnam Veterans suffered such emotions for decades after their return.[26]

An AWM spokesperson responded to Richard Thwaites’ criticism of the encroachment on the Canberra Remembrance Nature Park by stating, ‘Any design would consider the natural aesthetic of the area and would improve the amenity for visitors to the memorial and people seeking to access Mount Ainslie’.[27]

On 29 June 2020 Mr Anderson also rejected some of the criticisms made of the development:

‘‘When people criticise the development as saying it’s going to bring ‘a theme park’ to it, I wonder what it is they’re talking about,’’ Mr Anderson said. ‘‘Typically when I ask them that question they say it’s the use of modern technology, bringing in modern fighter jets or Chinook helicopters, and overpowering what is a serene environment. ‘‘I would argue that every single item that we have in the memorial right now, including some very large technology objects like the Lancaster bomber, exist to tell the story of the individuals who served them, who crewed them, who farewelled them, who welcomed them home.’’[28]

The Australian Peacekeeper & Peacemaker Veterans’ Association conducted a survey of its members and found that most members supported the development. In its submission to the inquiry the Association supported the development arguing that it would ‘deliver social heritage value to current and future veterans, their families, and all Australians’, and stating that ‘there is a need to tell the stories of operations much more quickly than has been done in the past’.[29]

This publication was updated on 22 October 2020 to reflect developments.

[1].   E Williams, ‘War memorial pushes for $500m revamp’, The Sunday Age, 8 April 2018.

[2].   S Morrison (Prime Minister), Address to the Australian War Memorial masterplan redevelopment, media release, 1 November 2018.

[3].   S Morrison (Prime Minister) and D Chester (Minister for Veterans’ Affairs), Telling the stories of our service men and women, media release, 1 November 2018.

[4].   A Rishworth (Shadow Minister for Defence Personnel and Veterans’ Affairs), Address to Australian War Memorial development launch, Canberra, media release, 1 November 2018.

[5].   Australian Government, Portfolio budget statements 2019–20: budget related paper no. 1.4B: Veterans’ Affairs portfolio, p. 92.


[6].   B Nelson (Director, Australian War Memorial), Building the Memorial of the future, Australian War Memorial, 2 November 2018.

[7].   B Nelson (Director, Australian War Memorial), Evidence to Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Estimates: Defence portfolio, 20 February 2019.

[8].   D Chester (Minister for Veterans’ Affairs) , Project lead for Australian War Memorial redevelopment announced, media release, 7 March 2019.

[9].   Second phase of EPBC consultation begins, Australian War Memorial, 2 July 2020.

[10].   The Public Works Committee Act 1969 allows the Governor-General to refer a public work to the Committee for consideration when the Parliament is not in session or is not sitting for a period exceeding one month.

[11].   Australian War Memorial, Statement of evidence to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works, Inquiry into Australian War Memorial development project, February 2020, p. 9.

[12].   D Dingwall, ‘Nature park at Mount Ainslie is for remembrance, not cars: advocates’, The Canberra Times, 6 March 2019.

[13].   D Dingwall, ‘War Memorial retreats’, The Canberra Times, 6 August 2019, p. 1.

[14].   Ibid.

[15].   ‘Opposition to War Memorial’s $498 million extensions grows; more than 80 distinguished Australians sign letter’, Honest History website, 23 March 2019.

[16].   P Karp, ‘Experts deride “snake oil” mental health claims for $498m Australian War Memorial expansion’, The Guardian, 14 July 2020.

[17].   P Stanley, Evidence to Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works, Inquiry into the Australian War Memorial development project, 14 July 2020.

[18].   P Stanley, Submission to Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works, Inquiry into the Australian War Memorial development project, 16 June 2020.

[19].   C Barrie, Submission to Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works, Inquiry into the Australian War Memorial development project, 17 June 2020.

[20].   F O’Mallon, ‘Former Memorial boss slams upgrade’, The Canberra Times, 24 June 2019.

[21].   B Nelson (Director, Australian War Memorial), National Press Club address 2013, Australian War Memorial, 2013.

[22].   R Llewellyn, ‘The Australian War Memorial extensions: a critique of the design choice’, Honest History website, 24 June 2019.

[23].   Ibid.

[24].   B Nelson, ‘The Strategist Six: Brendan Nelson’, The Strategist, blog, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 24 April 2019.

[25].   Karp, op. cit.

[26].   B Nelson, Submission to Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works, Inquiry into the Australian War Memorial development project, n.d.

[27].   Dingwall, op. cit.

[28].   T McIlroy, ‘Memorial boss rejects “theme park” concerns, The Australian Financial Review, 29 June 2020.

[29].   Australian Peacekeeper & Peacemaker Veterans’ Association, Submission to Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works, Inquiry into the Australian War Memorial development project, 6 August 2020.


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