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Public and Popular Histories of Anzac: A Symposium for History Week 2015, 8 September, State Library of NSW

We would like to thank the students and seminar chair, Professor David Christian, from the Frontiers of Advanced Research Seminar, Macquarie University, for attending and reviewing the symposium “Public and Popular Histories of Anzac” which was held on 8 September 2015 at the State Library of NSW as part of History Week 2015. We invite our readers to peruse the detailed and enjoyable accounts by Ruby Arrowsmith-Todd, Greer Gamble and Marian Lorrison, given below.


Ruby Arrowsmith-Todd

In 2010, prominent Australian historians Marilyn Lake, Henry Reynolds, Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi posed the question, What’s Wrong with Anzac? Lamenting the “relentless militarisation of our history,” they argued that Australia had conflated its national and military identities. Over time, the Anzac spirit (Anglo-Saxon and masculine in its virtues) had become “profoundly ahistorical,” a tenacious myth malleable to government intervention. Yet as Joy Damousi acknowledged, the public’s emotional attachment to the events of 1915 has long seemed to “defy historical or political engagement”. Historical analysis, she argued, is “urgently needed to understand the emotional dynamics of the new wave of popular pride in the Anzac story.”

In many ways, the Public and Popular Histories of Anzac Symposium held at the State Library of NSW for History Week 2015 was a response to Damousi’s call for an ‘emotional turn’ in Anzac historiography. Convened by Macquarie University Associate Professor Michelle Arrow, the Symposium brought together academics, public historians and screen producers who interrogated how ordinary Australians’ affective ties to the past have changed the meaning of Anzac over time.

Anzac From Below

Dr Carolyn Holbrook’s opening plenary ‘Anzac from the Bottom Up’ provided a useful overview to the Symposium’s themes and orientation. Holbrook rallied against Marilyn Lake’s claim that Anzac has been revived through political co-option. This ‘top-down’ approach overlooked how, since the 1970s, popular culture and public consumption have been fundamental in “salvaging the legend from the scrapheap.” The publication of Bill Gammage’s The Broken Years (1974) and Patsy Adam-Smith’s best-selling The Anzacs (1978) replaced Anzac’s traditional military connotations with a newly accessible emphasis on trauma and suffering. As the old-guard of the RSL lost its institutional clout, the release of Peter Weir’s blockbuster Gallipoli (1981) seared a new image of Anzac into the popular imaginary: a young, beautiful Archie, the anti-warrior, both iconic everyman and ‘Jesus in Khaki.’

As Dr Anna Clark’s paper highlighted, everyday historical consciousness lies at the intersection of both intimate, family histories and national narratives. Reflecting on oral-history interviews conducted as part of a national research project, Clark offered a welcome interrogation of one of public history’s fundamental tenets – the ‘ordinary,’ public. The diversity of her interviewees’ responses to the meaning of Anzac commemoration, stressed instead the existence of multiple, ambivalent publics both emotionally attached to the “ancestral allure of Anzac” and critical of its political co-option. The commemorative space of Anzac – at least from the ground up – is constantly evolving as national myths are negotiated at a local level.

Anzac fictions – Film, TV, Literature, Diaries and Selfies

Following morning tea, the next two sessions took up Holbrook’s proposal that Anzac is best understood as a popular and artistic rather than political phenomenon. Focusing on a range of traditional and new media representations, the sessions highlighted the scope and diversity of our commemorative, popular culture. Associate Professor Daniel Reynaud proposed that the history of Australian WWI cinema offers a mirror to the evolution of popular conceptions of Anzac. Reynaud concluded by speculating on the demise of Anzac cinema from the 1990s until the recent centenary revival. Was the Australian public suffering Anzac screen fatigue? This question was taken up in Associate Professor Fay Anderson’s discussion of the recent Foxtel mini-series Deadline Gallipoli which, while a critical success, rated poorly at the box-office. Anderson puzzled at its lackluster reception, speculating that perhaps the viewing public prefers affirming, familiar narratives. PhD candidate Kylie Flack’s paper on junior WWI historical fiction was an engaging contribution to the growing body of research on children and young adults’ engagement with public history outside the classroom.

Shifting the discussion to the digital realm, PhD candidate Tom Sear suggested the usefulness of Marianne Hirsch’s theory of ‘postmemory’ in understanding the appeal of new and emerging forms of digital commemoration. Public historians have been slow to embrace the opportunities for ethnographic observation of online communities yet Sear’s analysis of #Anzac2015 hashtags suggested its potential. The public, as SLNSW’s Manager of Research & Discovery, Maggie Patton discussed, want to forge emotional, personal connections to the past. Visitors’ desire to “see the world through their eyes” was reflected in the phenomenal success of News Corp’s #anzaclive campaign which drew on material from the Mitchell Library’s collection.

Making Anzac Histories

Throughout the Symposium, speakers shifted the discussion of ‘what’s wrong with Anzac’ from politics to pop culture. Yet as ‘Brandzac’ reaches its tipping point in the centenary year, the question of how public histories themselves refigure or even distort the past loomed large. Having complicated the critique of Anzac as a singular narrative, the Symposium’s final industry panel – featuring makers of recent, more nuanced WWI screen histories, confronted an unsettling question: why did this year’s Gallipoli centenary offerings rate so poorly?

Panelists Lisa Scott (producer, Anzac Girls) and Andrew Anastasios (screenwriter, The Water Diviner) reflected on the process of telling new stories from female, New Zealand and Turkish perspectives. Rachel Landers and Kate Aubusson (producer and presenter, Lest We Forget What?) also argued that audiences appreciate challenging takes on Anzac. Why then, did the public respond apathetically? Christopher Lee, screenwriter of mini-series Gallipoli (2015) proposed that audiences didn’t want to be told what to feel about Anzac. Despite this, panelists returned time and again to the importance of tapping into audience’s emotions. As Lee put it, “we want to make you cry.” As the Symposium wrapped up, these industry perspectives were a vital reminder of the need for ongoing research into the complex and shifting emotional dynamics of popular and public histories.


Greer Gamble

As 1988 approached and the consequences of two centuries of Indigenous dispossession began wreaking havoc on the national conscience, Australians became more and more interested in convict and military, particularly Anzac, history. Funnily enough, these histories managed to paint white Australians as victims. What’s more, by playing up the anti-authority element of the Australian ethos they distanced ordinary men and women from the decision-makers responsible for what some were arguing constituted genocide. Historians, who –as one questioner at last Tuesday’s Public and Popular Histories of Anzac Symposium pointed out– tend to sit on what John Howard called the “black armband” side of the fence, have been understandably uncomfortable about this for a while.

While academics like Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds in What’s Wrong with Anzac?  (2010) pointed the finger for “the relentless militarization of Australian history” squarely at the Howard government and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Anna Clark and Carolyn Holbrook, who both spoke at Tuesday’s symposium, argue that the picture isn’t so simple. No one’s suggesting Howard didn’t capitalize on the popularity of Anzac –Holbrook talked about his clever integration of Anzac egalitarianism with his own agenda of economic liberalization– what they’re saying is that he didn’t invent it. Paul Keating’s attempts to wrestle the Australian imagination apart from Anzac and replace it with Kokoda was a dismal failure that, for Holbrook, shows that even before 1996 the Anzac legend was deeply etched in the popular mind. Clark decided to interview some of the “ordinary” folk conservatives often presume to speak for. She found that actually, for most Australians, the Anzac myth is “overwhelmingly personal” and doesn’t have much to do with nationalist politics. She found a huge gulf between official histories and people’s own experiences of history, which tended not to have much to do with formal schooling at all 

Tom Sears, who spoke later in the day, was also less interested in how governments present history than in how individuals process it. He found that this process, strangely enough, often takes the form of selfies. With selfies, young Australians –who as we learned from Anna are much more interested in Anzac than their Boomer parents– are positioning themselves within history. Sears isn’t just talking about the buxom blondes posting a pouty photo of themselves captioned “Lest We Forget”; he’s talking about an individualization and personalization of Anzac which, he predicts, might lead to a deeper, more complicated connection with history than can be got from textbooks. Sears, Holbrook and Clark aren’t alone. An increasing number of historians are tired of the assumption that the general public simply accepts whatever it’s told. These historians are less interested in official accounts of history. What they’re interested in is how the people adapt, negotiate, and sometimes even rebuff them.

Christopher Lee, the screenwriter of Channel Nine’s Gallipolli (2015), was asked an uncomfortable, if unavoidable, question on Tuesday’s afternoon panel: why was it such a flop? Fay Anderson and Daniel Reynaud both asked the same question in their respective talks on Anzac cinema earlier in the day. Reynaud drew our attention to a twenty-year creative silence in the wake of Peter Weir’s hugely influential Gallipoli (1981), while Anderson tried to understand why, now the silence has broken, the public isn’t interested in hearing what’s being said. She suggested it might be because we like affirming stories and don’t want to see “our boys” suffering as they do in Lee’s miniseries –“I wanted it to be violent because it’s war”– or perhaps because we’re suffering from compassion fatigue. This interpretation is interesting, but hard to square with the skyrocketing sales of “misery memoirs”.

Kylie Flack’s talk on representations of Anzac in recent junior fiction offered another answer, albeit indirectly. Talking about the proliferation of Anzac-themed picture books, she asked if it was right to teach military history to toddlers. But as Clark and Holbrook showed, military history isn’t really what Anzac’s all about anymore. Michelle Arrow, a chair of Tuesday’s event, has written that scholars often forget about people’s personal attachments to Anzac (Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television 33.4, 2013); Ann Curthoys has pointed out that for many Australians, military history is in fact family history (Australasian Journal of Popular Culture 1.1, 2012). Maggie Patton from the State Library revealed some feedback from visitors to a recent exhibition of WWI soldiers’ diaries that confirmed Arrow and Curthoys’ arguments. “This is about the people not the war,” said one visitor approvingly. Another respondent wanted to feel “like I was a close friend of every soldier.”

Tuesday’s speakers showed that Anzac isn’t just the founding myth of our nation; more and more, it’s the founding myth of our families, and even ourselves. With the battle receding from living memory, it’s becoming easier to project ourselves onto the place where it used to be. And maybe that’s why Gallipoli was such a flop, and why public debate about Anzac has been so hushed: it’s much harder to reinterpret a myth than an event. In fact, trying to counter mythology with historical fact is, to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, about as useful as putting on full armor to attack a hot fudge sundae. 


Marian Lorrison

Good public history acknowledges the validity of personal attachment to the past, so it’s hardly surprising that the words ‘emotional connections’ were heard often during Public and Popular Histories of Anzac, a symposium held at the State Library of New South Wales as part of History Week. Throughout a series of stimulating presentations, it was obvious that feeling rather than intellect looms largest when it comes to Anzac, and that this is an obsession with a firm stronghold in the Australian psyche.

While our allegiance to Anzac has apparently waxed and waned since Gallipoli, presenters confirmed that it’s still gathering momentum, perhaps unsurprisingly so given this year’s centenary. With diverse projects looking at how Anzac resonates for ordinary Australians, this was ‘history from below’ at its 21st century best, revealing the potential of popular, visual and material culture to serve as a rich historical source base.

Carolyn Holbrook kicked off by describing her desire to understand how ‘a beaten up old legend’ was repackaged and revived by popular culture. Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli, for instance, had enormous impact on how Australians felt about Anzac, as did the family history boom in the 1970s.  Suddenly Great Grandpa’s war medals started to look more interesting, and Uncle Bill’s war stories not quite so dreary. On the negative side though, we’ve seen what Holbrook referred to as ‘Anzacery’, an increasing commercialisation that this year witnessed a major supermarket chain slammed for jumping on the Anzac ‘brandwagon’, but tolerates a major beer company doing just that.

Anna Clark described using oral historiography to investigate contemporary historical consciousness, a sort of Australian Thelen and Rosenzweig. Clark’s work has wider implications for public and popular history today, given the growing divide between academic and popular history, and that more people than ever are turning away from conventional ways of learning about the past.

The most surprising idea to emerge during the day was that our passion for Anzac began and continued as a groundswell movement stemming from the general public, rather than from conniving politicians (apologies to Marilyn Lake).  Daniel Reynaud and Fay Anderson both looked at the kinds of war films made in Australia and their huge impact on Anzac fever. Film has clearly has been one of the major avenues by which ordinary Australians have connected to Anzac, confirming historian Michelle Arrow’s suggestion that it will always attract a far greater audience than the academic historian can hope to achieve.

Another way that the legend has been engendered emerged in Kylie Flack’s presentation, which looked at children’s Anzac-themed literature to understand how pride in national identity is conflated with Anzac even for the very young. Flack tallied more than fifty such picture books published since 2001, which was a little scary. It would be interesting to compare this with other historical picture-book subjects to see if authors realise there’s more to Australian history than Anzac.

Beaming us into the cyber-age, Tom Sear described how digital technologies are transforming the way we consume and produce history. Sear’s presentation emphasised the many advantages of digital media, which allow the historian to gauge who’s using a site, and how they’re doing so. Sear described a recent and phenomenally successful historical experiment, Anzac Live, which allowed users to connect emotionally with online Anzac avatars. Given our increasing engagement with one screen or another, digital technologies clearly offer enormous potential to engage and stimulate users, but perhaps now more than ever historians need to help facilitate the process, and exercise some sort of quality control (collaboratively and consultatively of course).

State librarian Maggie Patton described the library’s very successful exhibition of WW1 diaries. Again the focus was on the ‘emotional connection’ brought on by standing in front of the diaries. Patton outlined the initial collection criteria established by former State Librarian William Ifauld in 1918, to show how the public response to such materials has always emphasised the personal and emotional. The image of the diaries was undeniably moving, and I’m sure we were all thinking about what happened to the men who wrote them.

Apart from leaving me with a list of ‘must-sees’ that includes Deadline Gallipoli, Gallipoli (the mini-series), and Anzac Girls, the final session of the day was a lively panel of historical film and TV makers/writers who talked about their work in relation to the facts and fictions of Anzac. This was the forum in which ‘emotional connection’ was repeated loudest and most frequently; panel members made plain that the key to box-office success is via the audience’s heartstrings. Not hard to do with Anzac content.

At the end of a thoroughly stimulating 7 hours, it occurred to me that in questioning the intensity of Australia’s Anzac attachment, we had all in some way contributed to it. A Catch-22, but it’s the centenary after all.