Review of Romain Fathi: Représentations muséales du corps combattant de 14-18

Représentations muséales du corps combattant de 14-18: The Australian War Memorial de Canberra au prisme de l’Historial de la Grande Guerre de Péronne


In this study of the Australian War Memorial through the optic of the Historial at Péronne in Northern France, Romain Fathi offers a fascinating reflection on the contrasting orientation of the two institutions towards the representation of war. This is not a comparative study in the strict sense of the term since Fathi recognises that they are not strictly comparable – the mission of each, the period of their inauguration, the scope of their collections., are very different, as the titles of the institutions reveal. The Memorial, inaugurated in 1941, was raised to record, commemorate and celebrate the service of soldiers in Australia’s external wars; the Historial, opened in 1992, was the result of a conscious and considered decision by historians to avoid heroisation of war and to induce reflection on the way WWI has been represented. However Fathi, through establishing a series of analytical oppositions that he sees as uncovering the fundamental characteristics of each, demonstrates how revealing it is to study each institution in the context of the other.

His main focus, as the title suggests, is on the representations of the soldier’s body: the way that war is enacted by bodies and its effect on bodies, and his guiding thread in undertaking the comparison is the opposition between verticality and horizontality. At the AWM the soldier is typically represented holding himself erect or in an active, attacking position, confronting the enemy head on, exposing himself to danger, sacrificing himself in a heroic élan that is a conscious choice. At Péronne, through the device of displaying much of the material in a series of ditches sunk into the floor, the emphasis is on the horizontality of war fought in the trenches. The soldiers are not represented as heroic figures in frontal combat but as mere elements of uniform, laid out in the earth, drab as camouflage demanded. The items displayed at Péronne bear mute witness to the inequality of a combat that pitched heavy artillery against the almost defenceless human body.  At the AWM, however, the injured are usually depicted in ways that minimise the dismemberment, blood and gore of battle.

Péronne displays the modernity of this war that was without precedent, the anonymous nature of the struggle that saw men wiped out by an invisible enemy, its industrial nature. The AWM continues the epic tradition, representing combat (notably in the dioramas to which Bean attached such importance) as a series of battles with visible enemies. The dioramas, pictures and sculptures chosen or commissioned for the Memorial drew on a traditional artistic vocabulary of heroic military conduct. Fathi devotes considerable attention to the sculptures of Simpson and his donkey, using this case study to demonstrate, through a study of the letters exchanged between the instigators of the Memorial and the artists, that the latter had to conform to certain constraints concerning ‘what the public expected to see’.

The author draws upon a wide range of material to illustrate and substantiate his argument: correspondence; visitors’ books; the comments of museum guides and personnel; tours for children that offer ‘real-life’ experiences of wartime conditions. He explores how the physical characteristics of the institutions: the layout of the buildings and disposition of the rooms (an important passage on the significance of the room devoted to the Victoria Crosses won by Australians), together with the selection and display of items, all combine, he argues, to orient the visitor towards a certain experience of war. The gap between representation and interpretation can be wide, however, and, as Fathi recognises (170), he cannot be sure what message the visitors are in fact taking away with them. This is one of a number of intriguing questions raised by this study, for future consideration. To offer another example, since among the historians responsible for the Historial was a group who argued for the existence of ‘patriotic consent’ amongst the belligerents (68), it would be interesting to explore what impact this theoretical orientation may have had on the collections and presentation at Peronne.

The AWM offers a rich field for reflection on the multiple ways in which commemorative, political and military imperatives and priorities impact on the design and functioning of a museum.  The final chapter brings the story of the Memorial up to the present with an analysis of the mutually beneficial relationship forged between recent Australian Prime Ministers and the AWM, a relationship that accords legitimacy to the politician and the assurance of funds to the Memorial (which is financed by a special Government grant).

Recognising that a museum is oriented to the present and the future as much as to the past, Fathi poses finally the question of the model of citizenship the AWM promotes, arguing that it seeks to instill a sense of civic virtue based on self-sacrifice and an incitement to emulation in the young. In this regard it is interesting to note that last year’s AWM report stated that it had achieved 125,800 student visits in 2010-11, the highest number ever recorded.

Représentations muséales makes a very valuable contribution to the fields of Museum and Memory Studies, sharpening our awareness of the role that the diverse features of the War Museum – design of the building, displays, artwork, literature – play in constructing narratives of conflict.

Paris. L’Harmattan, 2013

ISBN : 978-2-336-00579-9

22 euros (print)

16 euros (Adobe digital edition)

Elizabeth Rechniewski, University of Sydney



The Great War archive online (“Europeana collections 1914-1918”)

The “Europeana Collections 1914-1918” program  is an online corpus dedicated to the Great War. Europeana Collections 1914-1918 will create by 2014 – the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War – a substantial digital collection of material from national library collections of ten libraries and other partners in eight countries that found themselves on different sides of the historic conflict.

Here is an article (in French) by Sylvie Lisiecki  about this new archive tool by the French National Library magazine (Chroniques de la BNF, n°64).

The website can be consulted here:


The Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux: national identity and geographies of affect

Since 2008, on the 90th anniversary of the Great War battle that took place there, the Australian government has held a commemorative service at the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux site every Anzac Day. The first service attracted around 3,000 people, and by 2011, this had increased to almost 4,000 people, a number that is expected to continue to grow. Here, I explore the relationship between this site, its symbolism, its use during Anzac Day and at other times, and the construction of Australian national identity.

 My previous research about place and its relationship with national identity suggested that the Villers-Bretonneux memorial would be important for shaping or narrating Australian national identity, perhaps even helping to illuminate some of its intricacies or contests. This was based on work about urban public place that demonstrated its ability to frame multiple discourses of national identity, shaping the interactions amongst different national groups and illuminating some of the complexity of how such groups understand the nation in different ways. The large body of scholarship on the relationship amongst place, monuments and artworks, memory, history and national identity coalesce around a range of issues including the flexibility (or otherwise) of national narratives, and their capacity to incorporate a range of perspectives.

 If the symbols built into sites of national memory are important, so too is the way such sites are used. An important part of how such sites are activated is through affect, the embodied and unpredictable responses to the experience of place. This is undoubtedly important when it comes to Anzac sites, for at least two reasons. The first is the emotional impact that many visitors report experiencing when visiting such sites. McKenna and Ward[i] , for example, take up the sentimentalism they identify in mostly young Australian ‘pilgrims’ reactions to visiting Gallipoli, pointing to ‘their profound emotional investment in the Anzac legend’. They question whether visitors had been primed to be ‘moved’ by the experience as a result of prior exposure to conventional ways of the media constructs this event in Australia: ‘[the] montage of mournful soundtrack, waving flags and quietly weeping diggers on parade’.

 The second reason affect may be a useful way to frame the relationship between the memorial and Australian national identity is because of the link between spatialised politics of meaning and the individual. Thrift offers a politics of affect in which a ‘top-down’ process determines how the built environment is shaped or manipulated to produce a reaction in people who experience it, including through ‘design, lighting, event management logistics, music, performance’[ii]. He argues that ‘affect has always been a key element of politics and the subject of numerous powerful political technologies which have knotted thinking, technique and affect together in various potent combinations’[iii]. Such ‘engineering’ has a long history of being used to reinforce identification with, for example, national or metropolitan identities, and is also on show during Anzac Day ceremonies that turn memorial sites into televisions sets on which the rituals of national identity are performed.

 Geographies of affect at Villers-Bretonnuex

 The rituals of Anzac Day at Villers-Bretonneux follow a familiar pattern recognisable for anyone who has ever been to a Dawn Service ceremony. The rhythm of the readings, hymn-singing, official speeches, a minute’s silence and a bugler playing the Last Post are all well-known elements of this Australian state ritual, even as they have gradually changed over time.

 Newspaper description of the event have often focused on the affective or emotional aspects of the ceremony, picking out a few choice phrases from officials’ speeches, or have emphasised the individual experiences of either soldiers who fought in 1918 or people who had come to ‘honour’ these experiences. For example, coverage in The Australian newspaper of the 2009 Dawn Service focused on visitors with a family history of military service. In the same newspaper, coverage of the 2010 ceremony conflated the official and the personal by focusing on the family history of Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, who had two great uncles who died on the western front. The report underlined the merging of the official and the personal by quoting a line from Smith’s speech: ‘there was hardly an Australian family that wasn’t touched by the tragedy’[iv].

 The theme of personal connection to the Great War or the soldiers buried at Villers-Bretonneux is common in media reporting on Anzac Day ceremonies. For some people, the emotional experience of ‘pilgrimage’ is closely linked to national identity: in 2009, Donna Turnbull told Belinda Tasker from The Herald Sun that ‘My dad was in the services so I feel a big affiliation with [the Diggers]. We go to a dawn service every Anzac Day. You aren’t an Aussie if you don’t come.’[v]

 The relationship that visitors have to the Memorial is conditioned by the official narrative that is engineered, in Thrift’s terms, into the site. This includes the built environment of the bullet-marked tower and the solemn rows of headstones. The national narrative is also evident in the content of Anzac Day ceremonies themselves, and the official Australian government participation. This link between the personal experience of both fighting and remembering at Villers-Bretonneux on the one hand, and an officially sanctioned national narrative on the other underpins how the Memorial works through a selective process in which personal or individual memory is appropriated as national remembrance through the lens of the memorial’s landscape and symbolism. Here I follow Jay Winter’s [vi] distinction between individual ‘memory’ and collective ‘remembrance’, the latter a term that implies both agency and a reliance on the commitment of people to continue the work of remembering. Winter also offers the possibility that the collective memory that national sites activate can be held by sub-national groups.

 I suggest that the collective remembrance of a sub-national group, namely those people who travel to engage in remembrance at the Memorial, is reshaped through official channels to form the national history of all Australians. What gives this process particular power is the emotional resonance of stories of wartime death, constructed as sacrifice and heroism. This suggests that a limited sub-national group is shaping the meaning of Villers-Bretonneux, in part through its use of the site and its geographies of affect. This group is bound together by their common act of remembrance, sometimes due to a family history of military service, with accompanying stories of loss, heroism or grief. However, the overlap of the use of Villers-Bretonneux by this group with an official national ceremony in the form of Anzac Day means that this group’s collective memory has become merged with a national ritual. The effect is that their memory is constructed, in large part through television and newspaper coverage of the event, as an Australian memory.

 ‘Unprescribed’ uses

Unlike some other types of national sites, this process, at least in the case of Villers-Bretonneux, appears to diminish the possibility of multiple narratives of national identity, creating a singular discourse that activates and amplifies the experiences of a limited sub-group of the nation. This process, initiated and nurtured by successive Australian governments of both main political parties, presents the memories and experiences of war as universally ‘Australian’ despite their limited applicability. I propose that the singularity of the national narrative constructed through the use of Villers-Bretonneux is partially due to the nature of the site itself, and by the fact that there are not a wide range of practices that occur within the site. The fact that Villers-Bretonneux is a cemetery, as well as a memorial, shapes the practices that occur there on every day of the year. Unlike the ‘unprescribed uses’ of some Anzac sites in Australia, most of the visitors to Villers-Bretonneux are there for a very specific purpose – the visiting of graves[vii].

 The relationship between the national narratives of loss and memory evident in the Viller-Bretonneux Memorial’s built environment on the one hand, and the use of the site by visitors on the other, appears to be straightforward. Australians go there to visit graves, reflect on Anzac sacrifice and try and understand the Australian history of the Great War a bit better. There does not appear to be strong evidence of other ways of using the site that might complicate its narratives of national identity. Rather than opening up the possibility of narrative complexity, as many other public national sites do, it appears to narrow them.

[i] Mark McKenna and Stuart Ward (2007) ‘‘It was really moving, mate’: The Gallipoli Pilgrimage and Sentimental Nationalism in Australia’ Australian Historical Studies 38 (129): 141-151.

[ii] Thrift (2004), pp. 67-68.

[iii] Nigel Thrift, N (2004) ‘Intensities of feeling: towards a spatial politics of affect’ Geografiska Annaler 86B (1), p 64.

[iv] The Australian 26 April 2010 ‘Villers-Bretonneux personally poignant’,, accessed 10 Apr 2012.

[v] Belinda Tasker (2009) ‘Thousands attend Anzac service in Villers-Bretonneux, France’ The Herald Sun, 25 April 2009. Accessed 16 April 2012.

[vi] Jay Winter (2006) Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[vii] C. Winter (2011) ‘Visitors on the Somme’.