An Overview of Australian War Memorial

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An Overview of Australian War Memorial

History and Description

The AWM (Australian War Memorial) serves as a world-class museum, extensive archive, and shrine. AWM commemorates the ultimate sacrifice of the Australian citizens who die in war and help visitors to understand, interpret and remember the country’s experience of war, as well as, its enduring effect on the larger Australian society (Waterton & Dittmer 2014, 122). The notion of AWM is mostly attributed to Charles Bean, a journalist who was immensely affected by his personal experiences during WW I (World War I). Bean was dedicated to conveying the war experiences, and he is among the people who have significantly shaped the Australian understanding of war over the last 100 years.

An Overview of Australian War Memorial

Bean served together with troops on the Western Front and Gallipoli after being chosen by his colleagues in journalism to act as the official war correspondent of Australia in 1914. He conceived the concept of creating a memorial museum while serving at Western Front to best share the experiences of the suffering soldiers (Kellett 2015, 130). The foundation work commenced with the tedious task of setting up a section for Australian War Records (AWRs) in 1917, established to make sure Australia maintains its individual collection of war relics and records. John Treloar was the first director of the Memorial and served from 1920 until his untimely demise in 1952.

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The AWRs also commissioned several official photographers and war artists who have immensely contributed to the visual records of war. Waterton & Dittmer (2014) point out that an essential portion of the AWM vision was the inclusion of the Hall of Memory and the Memorial itself features the Unknown Soldier, transferred from the Western Front’s battlefield and entombed later in 1993 (127). The Hall of Memory is a unique and quiet place that creates the best environment to contemplate the initiatives of the ordinary Australian people in war and to remember those who died or suffered.

Each of the fifteen glass windows in the Hall of Memory demonstrates the defining quality of the Australian servicemen and women and includes images of soldiers, nurses, sailors, and airmen all from the WWI. A Victorian artist, Napier Waller, who also lost his right arm in the war, designed the windows (Stephens 2014, 160). The magnificent work of Waller is evident in the dome and the walls of the Hall lined with one of the biggest mosaics in the world. The mosaic inside depicts the souls of the deceased rising from the hectic earth towards their beautiful and enduring spiritual residence, professionally represented using a glowing sun in the Southern Cross.

Cultural Significance

The Hall of Memory is one of the sections that feature the rich cultural significance of the Australian people. The figures incorporated on the walls, a servicewoman, an airman, a sailor and a soldier recall the country’s experience of the WW II. The Italian craftsman used more than six million pieces of glass tesserae in the whole composition and took over 36 months to complete (Waterton & Dittmer 2014, 130).

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Mosaic at the Hall of Memory

In 1937, the AWM board resolved to commemorate all Australian sacrifices in the WW I by commissioning the mosaic, stained glass windows, and sculpture to complete the Hall of Memory. Napier Waller, a reputed mosaicist, and a large-scale mural artist was chosen to design, as well as, create the mosaic based on his vast experience in the field. Stephens (2014) notes that the Hall of Fame was a special section intended to be accessible to all Australians. According to the pioneers, the facility would provide a cathedral-like atmosphere where all Australians would quietly and peacefully contemplate the unmatched spirit of sacrifice of others who had suffered and lost their lives in past wars (165). Towards the end of 1946, the Art Committee unanimously decided to commemorate WW I. The Hall’s pendentives would be used to remember WW II. Such ideas would focus on the women’s services, the air force, the navy and the army.

The Hall of Memory’s Four Pillars

Janet Laurence designed the four pillars of the Hall of Memory that nicely duplicate in similar spacing and location, the appealing four mullions in each of the arched and stained glass designed by Waller. The design of the four pillars echo the colour and the dimensions of the replicated mullions but are subtly varied in the real material and form to complement their illustrative purpose. Waterton & Dittmer (2014) point out that the four pillars do not dominate the tomb owing to their simple and abstract shapes but uniquely fulfil the architectural need of completing Hall’s symmetry and filling the vacuum of the apse without comprising the importance of the Tomb area at the centre (136).

The four pillars depict Leslie Bowles’s concept of the Four Freedoms and the original sculpture suggested for the apse. However, they also have personal symbolism buying fundamental notions from the old Greek world perspective that still guides the philosophy of the modern world; each pillar is dedicated to the four basic elements of water, air, fire, and the earth (Stephens 2014, 170). The four elements are closely associated with the four seasons of the year, creation, and destruction, as well as, the aspects of life and death. In the absence of specific religious references, they embrace the symbolism of stained glass and mosaics coined by Waller.

The Water Pillar is designed from glass to give the colourless and ice-like appearance. It is associated with the continuous flow of change, transfiguration, as well as, the souls of the living. The Wooden Pillar symbolizes air where its polished surface represents the souls of the deceased and the disembodied spirit (McKernan 2017, 7). The metal pillar is associated with fire and represents bravery, patriotism, passion and energy. The Earth Pillar is designed from marble and has close links with endurance and permanence, the coldness of death and the physical structure (Waterton & Dittmer 2014, 137). The four pillars also make a row of totems providing a contemplative background to the centred tomb while still offering a proper completion of the entire Hall of Memory’s architecture.

The Hall of Memory’s Large Figures

The large figures included in the walls incorporate a servicewoman, airman, a sailor, and a soldier from WW II. The woman figure dons a skirt and blouse representing the standard part of the uniform in every woman’s services (Kellett 2015, 140). The different branches of the services are represented by their badges that are part of the design in the lower right hand. The figure has slightly stepped forward from the open doorway and a halo of winged light bursts from the door. The woman (The Women’s Services) in the figure recalls the numerous disasters and sacrifices made by her sisters.

The flying officer (The Air Force) stands and then surveys the destruction of human ideals and beauty in the Cathedral’s remaining walls. The officer is also ready to defend his norms. The sculptured wyvern grins about the stupidity of the man and on the immense ingenuity by which the person can damage what has taken centuries to create in only a few moments (McKernan 2017, 12). The sailor in summer uniform (The Navy) is just preparing to hoist the precise white ensign that depicts the oldest convention of the fighting services as his ship goes to the real action. The nautical compass is behind him to remind him of the service of the navy in all seas. The last traces of the storm shows water running down a tree trunk while the sunshine is still bursting via the tree and causes the soldier (the Army) to contemplate that the sufferings and the sacrifices of his dead colleagues will increase hope in the coming days(Waterton & Dittmer 2014, 139).


Dittmer, J. and Waterton, E., 2016. 10 Embodied Memory at the Australian War Memorial. Memory, Place and Identity: Commemoration and Remembrance of War and Conflict, p.169.

Kellett, S., 2015. Truth and love: the windows of the Australian War Memorial. Journal of Australian Studies39(2), pp.125-150.

McKernan, A., 2017. Discomfort at the Australian War Memorial: learning the trauma of war. History Australia, pp.1-16.

Stephens, J., 2014. Forgetting the wars: Australian war memorials and amnesia. In Lest We Forget? Marginalised aspects of Australia at war and peace (pp. 159-182). Black Swan Press.

Waterton, E. and Dittmer, J., 2014. The museum as assemblage: bringing forth affect at the Australian War Memorial. Museum Management and Curatorship29(2), pp.122-139.