Commemorate Anzac Day this April at one of Australia’s most significant monuments; the Australian War Memorial.
For more than 75 years, The Australian War Memorial has been a symbol of patriotism, pride and respect, erected to commemorate and honour Australian servicemen and women (past and present) who have proudly served their country.
Opened in 1941, the mission of the Memorial is “…to assist Australians to remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society.”
One of the many ways the Memorial achieves this is through a dedicated and passionate team of voluntary guides, like Sonya Davidson.
Through these guided tours, we can delve deeper into the real stories of war to better understand the true experiences of those who fought, the loved ones who lost and other tales that we otherwise might not uncover. Ultimately, it’s a more richer experience.
A day in the life as a voluntary guide at the Australian War Memorial
On the morning of a tour, Sonya starts the day early to check if anything has changed and if she has to alter parts of the tour. Then after checking in with the front desk, it is time to greet the tour members.
“We always ask people what they like to see so we can tailor the tour to suit them if necessary,” Sonya said.
The 90-minute tours take visitors on a journey through the history of the wars as they happened, beginning in the Commemorative Area. It is here, amidst the Eternal Flame and Pool of Reflection that visitors take a moment to contemplate the sacrifices made by our servicemen and women. Surrounding the courtyard is the Roll of Honour, where the names of virtually every Australian who has died in war since 1885 – more than 102,000 people – are cast in bronze panels. It is here that Sonya begins her story.
“What I like to do is pick a name from the Roll of Honour that I can refer to throughout the tour,” she explains.
“For example, one of the names I’ve picked before was Keith “Bluey” Truscott, an ace fighter pilot who was an Aussie Rules player at the Melbourne Football Club.
“Bluey joined the Royal Australian Air Force in 1940 and despite difficulty with depth perception, he became the second highest Australian Second World War fighter ace. Sadly, he was killed during a training flight in WA, possibly due to his depth issues.
“Bluey’s name comes up twice in the museum, so I get to mention him three times during the course of my tour. This creates a story that the visitors can connect with.”
After a moment of reflection in the Commemorative Area, Sonya always starts the tour with a brief introduction into the history of the museum itself.
She often tells the story of how Charles Bean, the man who came up with the idea of a national memorial, had to fight hard to have it built in Canberra.
“At the time, there was a lot of debate about whether it should be built in Sydney or Melbourne because Canberra wasn’t really established until the 1920s. However, as it was a national monument it made sense for it to be in the nation’s capital,” she said.
“What’s also interesting is that this particular location was chosen because it is in direct line of sight with Parliament House. It was so those sitting in Parliament wouldn’t make decisions that impact the country without looking at the Memorial as a constant reminder of the past.”
The tour then continues into the First and Second World War galleries, the Hall of Valour and Aircraft Hall, with a large collection of records, photographs, videos and artefacts – such as weapons, vehicles, clothing and personal items – that show war from different perspectives; bravery, tragedy, horror, love, companionship and duty. Sonya’s job is to unlock the stories behind these items.
“Typically, I will tell up to 20 different stories on any tour, with another 10 up my sleeve in case there are last minute detours or changes,” she said.
“We get to develop our own tours, so I am always researching new ideas and spend time wandering the museum looking for interesting things to talk about.
“One story I like to tell is that of a boy called Jimmy Martin, who against his parent’s wishes, enlisted into the army during the First World War when he was just 14 years old.
“The age limit to enlist during the First World War was 18, but they were so desperate for people that he was never reprehended. Jimmy served at Gallipoli where he contracted enteritis and later died of heart failure. He is one of only 60 on the Roll of Honour that were under the age of 16.
“It is stories like that visitors to the Memorial want to hear.”
The last leg of the tour is Anzac Hall, which showcases some of the Memorial’s larger objects using vivid sound and lighting shows, one of which was developed by Peter Jackson – Director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
In the future, Sonya is looking forward to conducting tours through the post-1945 Conflicts galleries, which focus on conflicts such as Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan.
“This has really become an obsession for me – it’s a constant learning experience,” she said.
“Since retiring I have worked in various volunteer roles with organisations like Barnados, but this is something I’ve always wanted to do for myself. My father was in the British military and I am a bit of a history buff, so volunteering for the Memorial was a perfect fit.
“The Memorial tells the Australian experience of war. I’m anti-war, but it’s about honouring those who served and died for our country.”
In cooperation with the Returned and Services League of Australia ACT, The Australian War Memorial will host the following Anzac Day services for the public to come and pay their respects to Anzac troops:
Dawn Service: 5.30am to 6.00am, at the Parade Grounds, followed by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commemorative Ceremony
The National Ceremony: 10.30am to 12.30pm, at the Parade Grounds
The Last Post Ceremony: 4.45pm
The Last Post Ceremony is expected to draw a large crowd, so additional viewing screens will be placed outside the Memorial entrance for people to watch the proceedings, while the ceremony will also be broadcast live via on the Memorial’s website.
For more information, visit the official Australian War Memorial site here.
Campbell ACT 2612
25 April 2017
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