22 April 2015

What is the significance of the Anzac experience at Gallipoli—a story now a century old and one with no living participants—to what it means to be Australian in contemporary Australia? How is it relevant to Australians today, or to new Australians?

A current research project, supported by an ARC-funded Discovery Project grant (DP130101258), is exploring how the Anzac story—as interpreted at commemorative sites and museums in particular—helps to develop and define our sense of national identity and allows reflection on what it means to be Australian in our modern multicultural society.

The project is led by Associate Professor Jan Packer from The University of Queensland (UQ). Her team includes UQ colleague Professor Roy Ballantyne and Professor David Uzzell from The University of Surrey, United Kingdom.

Annually, around one million people visit the Australian War Memorial (AWM), our foremost national commemorative site for the Anzac story. There is high attendance at notable ceremonies such as the Anzac Day dawn service and national ceremony, and around 25 000 people each year attend the Last Post ceremonies that occur daily at the AWM.

This research project explores  the ways in which generations of visitors engage with, reflect on, assimilate—or reject—national collective memories about the Anzac story in their sense of Australian identity.

Dr Packer said that through this project, her team hopes to be able to identify those aspects of interpretive experiences at museums and heritage sites that best meet the needs of visitors in today’s multicultural society.

The research is being conducted at several prominent sites that tell the Anzac story, including the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, the Anzac commemorative site in Gallipoli, the Melbourne Museum and the National Anzac Centre in Albany. Comparative data is also being collected as part of the project from museums in New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

From 2013 Dr Packer’s team has been conducting interviews with visitors to the Australian War Memorial. This included recent arrivals to Australia as well as second and third generation Australians, and some New Zealanders. 

“We asked them about the impact of the visit on their sense of national identity, the importance of the Anzac story to their sense of national identity, and the aspects of the Anzac story that continue to have meaning and relevance today.

“Into 2014, we developed, pilot tested, and refined a web-based questionnaire designed to probe visitors’ responses to a visit to an Anzac or a First World War-themed exhibition.

“At each of our research sites, we invited visitors to participate after their visit, drawing on their own unique experience. So far we have had almost 1000 responses.”

The project is particularly meaningful because it focuses on understanding the Anzac story from the perspective of the visitor, rather than from an historical or political perspective. 

“We hope that the knowledge and understanding we gain will be useful to museums and heritage sites as they interpret the Anzac story for visitors from diverse multicultural backgrounds.

“It will identify some of the key factors that facilitate visitors’ engagement in and reflection on issues relating to war and national identity and will inform the planning, design, management and use of exhibits that challenge and enhance the ability of visitors to draw meaning.”

One third-generation Australian participant reflected on why this is important:

‘I think more than anything, for people of other nationalities who come to Australia and choose to adopt our country, it's just so important to make them feel, eventually, that they are Australians and they value the things born and bred Australians value and they share in our ideas of democracy and freedom. And dare I say, mateship.’ 

Dr Packer said that museums are important because they act as repositories of national memory, and provide important settings for people to learn about the nation, its history and values, how it sees itself, and how it has become what it is.

“The objects and artefacts that museums collect, display and interpret for visitors tell a story about what is important to us as Australians.

“Through the use of original, authentic objects, museums are able to bring these stories to life in ways that are not possible in classrooms, books, or even the mass media.

“However, museums need to continually strive to understand their visitors—why are they coming, what are they looking for, what do they find most engaging—so that they can remain relevant as the needs and interests of the community change over time. 

“The needs of 21st century visitors, who no longer have a living connection with the original ANZACs, and whose family heritage often includes a diversity of national origins, are likely to be different from those when the Australian War Memorial, for example, was first established.

“The Australian War Memorial itself has recognised this by recently refurbishing their First World War gallery, in preparation for the Anzac Centenary.

“One of the aspects of the Anzac story that continues to resonate most with people is the character traits of courage, sacrifice and mateship. These, especially mateship, are seen as aspirational qualities for Australians. One second-generation Australian suggested that it is important to have an annual event (Anzac Day) that reinforces and reminds people of these qualities.” 

With the research project now in its final year the experience of the 100 year commemoration of Gallipoli may deliver even more interesting outcomes.

Asked about the importance of funding received through the Discovery Programme for her project, Dr Packer said she could never have carried out the research without the assistance of ARC funding. 

“The funding for this project has enabled us to include a wider range of research sites here and abroad, and comparisons between these sites will be able to give us much greater insight into the factors that impact visitors the most about the Anzac story and how it feeds into our national identity.” 

For more information about this project please contact Dr Jan Packer