Merritt’s husband Flight Lieutenant Paul Pardoel was the first Australian serviceman to be killed in the Iraq War in 2005 and his name features on the War Memorial’s commemorative roll.
Replacing the existing hall with a “gigantic structure to display decommissioned military hardware” distracted from an understanding of the impact of war and the act of honouring Australia’s war dead, Merritt said.
“Bigger does not mean better and more expensive does not buy broad commemoration,” she said, appearing as a representative of the Medical Association for Prevention of War. “This proposal, I feel, runs the risk of glorifying war.”
The association joined Steve Gower, a former director of the War Memorial, in suggesting there was little or no medical evidence to show the provision of galleries or exposure to familiar aircraft or weaponry could help veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Before his departure at the end of last year, former War Memorial director Dr Brendan Nelson argued the expanded building would provide a “therapeutic milieu” for veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mr Gower said the memorial could find 3000 square metres of space by making hard decisions around exhibition placement, and it was preferable that funds be redirected to address the unmet needs of veterans’ mental health.
Retired Colonel Susan Neuhaus, who serves on the council alongside Stokes and former prime minister Tony Abbott, said the power of the war memorial was to validate and recognise the service of veterans. The expansion would enable the memorial to tell the stories of peacekeepers, servicewomen and Indigenous soldiers in a more meaningful way.
“One of the biggest challenges for my generation is that when the War Memorial was built we were a whole society at war,” Col Neuhaus said. “You could go down to the grocer or the school, to anywhere and everyone’s life was affected by war. That’s clearly not the case now and for most of us, it’s difficult for our families to understand our experiences that we’ve had.
“But it’s almost impossible for the general society to understand what that means to us. It’s just so important that they do connect, that they remember why we committed troops to Afghanistan, why we sent people on peacekeeping missions, and why any of us were prepared to put on a uniform and serve our country.”
Mr Stokes said the War Memorial welcomed 1.1 million visitors last year including 160,000 school children, and that the expansion would alleviate crowding.
He said a small number of people, relative to the size of the project, were disaffected. A comprehensive community engagement process will begin at the end of the year to determine the type of exhibitions and objects to be displayed.
Julia Cambage, chief executive of the Australian Institute of Architects, opposed the “wasteful and unnecessary” destruction of Anzac Hall.
Opened in 2001 at a cost of $11.3 million, Anzac Hall was considered young in public building terms, she said, where average life cycles are 50 to 100 years. Over time, it was extremely likely that Anzac Hall would obtain heritage listing in its own right.
Architects Denton Corker Marshall won the Institute’s prestigious national Sir Zelman Cowen Award for Public Architecture for the building. Demolishing it is a breach of the War Memorial’s heritage plan and set a dangerous precedent for other iconic sites, Ms Cambage said.
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Linda Morris is an arts and books writer at The Sydney Morning Herald