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Revisit Canberra: The Australian War Memorial

Bethany Nevile

Typical of a travel brochure, many of our iconic Canberra attractions are really only ever visited by locals when family or friends come to town. As was the case for Bethany Nevile. Having only ever visited places such as the National Library, National Museum and National Gallery for school excursions, complaining about being dragged to them as a kid, or realising she had never actually ever checked them out, Beth decided to make a re-visit and live it list—for Canberra that is.

In this series, Beth has revisited iconic landmarks around the capital and rediscovered tourist attractions that are often forgotten (the ones we’re all guilty of driving by each day without giving a second thought). This series will hopefully inspire you to revisit some of Canberra’s institutional treasures with new eyes, fresh enthusiasm and the determination to reinvigorate an appreciation for the city you call home.

As I made my way down Mount Ainslie the other day, I was taken aback by the beauty of our Australian War Memorial. It is a stunning building, first envisioned by war correspondent Charles Bean in 1918 as “on some hill-top – still, beautiful, gleaming white and silent, a building of three parts, a centre and two wings”, the War Memorial was completed in 1941 and has been extended several times since (you can read more about its history here). It now houses museum displays and archives inside, as well as the shrine and honour roll surrounding the outdoor courtyard. The War Memorial holds a special place in Canberra and remains a place of remembrance, a testament to sacrifice and an insight into our country’s history.

My friend and I began our revisit outside, in the Commemorative Courtyard. It is a place to reflect, as wherever you stand you are surrounded by the Roll of Honour, listing the names of every Australian who has died in war since 1885.


As there are so many names, sorted chronologically and by battalion, the War Memorial’s website has a search function, where you can input as much information as you know from Name, Service Number, Unit Name and Conflict.

This is incredibly useful, as clicking on the link not only helps you find the exact location of a name on the Roll, perhaps to place a poppy beside it, but it also provides a wealth of historical details. During the centenary (2014-2018), each and every name of an Australian who gave their life in the First World War will be projected above the Hall of Memory for 30 seconds, from sunset to sunrise.

You can also use the Roll of Honour search to check the estimated date and time a particular name will be displayed. As we approached the First World War cloister, which is beautifully covered in poppies, we heard a soundscape of children reading out the names and age at death of each Australian lost, which will run throughout the centenary.

It was deeply moving.

We then stood by the eternal flame on the Pool of Reflection, which represents Australia’s commitment to never forget our servicemen and women. At the end of courtyard stands the Hall of Memory. This is a special space.

The tall stained glass windows took my breath away, and when I got home and researched them I learnt each image represents a personal quality, such as Endurance, Patriotism, Chivalry, Devotion. The ceiling of the Hall is a stunningly beautiful Byzantine dome that reaches 24 metres above the ground, a pinnacle of the intricate tiled pattern that covers the walls. In the centre of the Hall is the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Solider. The tomb is inscribed at the top as “Known unto God” and the bottom reads “He symbolises all Australians who have died in war”.

All visitors should spend some quiet time here.


As we walked into inside into the museum, I was struck by the quote from Charles Bean across the wall which acts almost as the motto for the War Memorial:

Here is their spirit, in the heart of the land they loved; and here we guard the record which they themselves made.”

It sets the tone for the exhibitions to follow, both reflective and respectful.

Neither my friend nor I had been to the War Memorial in a decade, and we both had the same thought when we went inside — was it always this big?!

We heard one tourist remark that the interior of the War Memorial “feels like the Tardis”, as the many expansive galleries spread around the building. It is never confusing however, as each room is set out chronologically making it simple to wander through and interact with each exhibition.


The First World War galleries recently went through a major overhaul and now occupy the west wing of the memorial. It includes interactive displays, overhead sounds and much, much more. I was glad to see the large dioramas I remembered were still intact and was awed by all the authentic clothes and objects on display. The War Memorial also offers snippets of personal experiences and stories, providing insight into the lives and deaths of these 102,000 Australians.


In commemoration of ANZAC Day, for this revisit I particularly decided to focus on the First World War area and the outside spaces, but we also spent some time in The Hall of Valour, which honours the 108 Australians who have received the Victoria or George Cross.

There is an image of each Australian, their medal and a short description of their bravery.

Of course the War Memorial also contains an expansive display on the Second World War, which includes separate sections for each time period, from 1939 when the war was declared until the final campaigns of 1944-45.

The War Memorial also has classic aircrafts on display in the Aircraft Hall, and galleries covering more recent conflict, such as the Korean War and the Vietnam War as well as modern peacekeeping efforts. It is especially worth mentioning that the Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan and Alex Seton…As Of Today displays will run in the Special Exhibitions gallery until 17 June 2015, both of which deal with the war in Afghanistan. As the official war artist Ben Quilty found himself uniquely positioned to use art to tell the stories of service men and women, while Alex Seton created sculptures in memory of the 41 Australians who lost their lives. See them while you can.

As we were leaving the War Memorial, my friend remarked that it had been like “peeling back the layers of time”, which I felt perfectly sums up how it feels to visit the Australian War Memorial. As a Canberran, you probably drive past or see this building regularly but if you’re anything like me, may not have taken the time to revisit it in too long. Now is the time to return.

The essentials

What: The Australian War Memorial
Where: Treloar Crescent (top of Anzac Parade), Campbell
When: Open daily, 10 am to 5pm
Admission: Free
Web: www.awm.gov.au


Bethany Nevile

Bethany Nevile is a Canberra local and recently graduated from the ANU with an honours degree in English Literature. She loves op shopping, baking, binge reading, live music, theatre, trashy TV and thinks there is always room for dessert. More about the Author

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