This article reports on an undergraduate public history research project on war memorials in Australia, drawing on a framework of historical learning expounded by Raphael Samuel. Samuel believes that “history is not the prerogative of the historian … it is, rather, a social form of knowledge; the work, in any given instance, of a thousand pairs of hands.”
In a related argument, Christoph Kühberger suggests that “it is quite unlikely that a sustainable, critical study of history can take place by ignoring historical interpretations which we encounter in everyday life.” For Samuel, we can do this through “an attempt to follow the imaginative dislocations which take place when historical knowledge is transferred from one learning circuit to another.” In these multivalent and overlapping “circuits”, history is transcribed, retold, remade and circulated – often outside of academia by, and for, the general public.
In Australia, there is no more prominent example of public history making and re-making than the Anzac legend. This has been described as a “civic religion” that exalts idealised features of an Australian national type. Its characteristics include mateship, egalitarianism, irreverence, and scepticism towards authority.
Historians have presented a number of arguments for its popularity such as the state’s interventionist role in school curriculums, the influence of popular cultural products like Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli, and the need for a unifying narrative in an era of globalisation. Others have pointed to the growing popularity of genealogy and family history, as well as familial connections to soldiers and the military.
These represent learning circuits that have had a clear influence on undergraduate students’ historical understanding. In the first week of classes, many of our students described Anzacs as “true heroes” who sacrificed their lives for Australia, or “us”. The Anzac legend, one noted, “is something that everyone has grown up with.” This historical understanding is notable for being generalised, cliched and lacking in detail.
The memorial research project offers students an opportunity to dig beneath the legend and to analyse memorialisation in Australia. Students are asked to photograph a local war memorial and the names inscribed upon it. They type the names of soldiers into a spreadsheet and gather information about them through online nominal roles and databases. They then write a report on the memorial and the soldiers it commemorates. In it, they interrogate the design, location and community role of the memorial. They also describe and analyse the demographic features, war records and fate of the memorial’s soldiers.
By connecting classroom learning, personal and cultural understandings of Anzac, and memorialisation, the project situates students at an intersection between different learning circuits (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1: Anzac Learning Circuits
Kühberger argues that students bring public history into the classroom from their own life experience. In our case study, students arrive to class well versed in the Anzac narrative which they have developed through personal experience. They then encounter a different vocabulary and approach in the classroom, where the dominant narrative is critiqued and discussed.
This represents the intersection of two different learning circuits. The memorial project generates an additional, overlapping learning circuit by scaffolding applied historical inquiry into familiar but opaque local landmarks. Fig. 1 indicates these learning circuits and some of their constituent components.
Connecting and Critiquing Learning Circuits
The classroom learning circuit encourages students to think critically about representations of Anzac. The research project then asks students to identify, locate, access and critique material sources that further disrupt popular understandings. This research task –in which students observe, dig for detail and connect to context – attempts to reproduce what Samuel calls “elementary training in deconstruction.” It also aligns with Kühberger’s argument that critical analysis of a wide range of real-world historical representations can enhance critical thinking skills.
After completing the memorial research project, our students told us that they thought more deeply about ideas, public spaces and memorials that they had previously taken for granted. Many described a new interest in local history and a connection to place as a result of their research. They said that this added complexity to a history that they had tended to understand in generalised terms, and helped them connect local monuments to the broader process of memorialisation in Australia. Others indicated that the research skills they acquired and the interest the project generated motivated them to undertake further local history research.
- Anna Clark, “The Place of Anzac in Australian Historical Consciousness,” Australian Historical Studies, 48(1) (2017): 19–34, 10.1080/1031461X.2016.1250790.
- Carolyn Holbrook, “Family History, Great War Memory and the ANZAC Revival,” Social Alternatives 37(3) (2018): 19–25.
- Paul Ashton and Paula Hamilton, “Places of the Heart: Memorials, Public History and the State in Australia Since 1960,” Public History Review 15 (2008): 1–29.
- AIF Project, University of NSW, Canberra: https://www.aif.adfa.edu.au/index.html (last accessed 1 December 2022)
- Anzac Portal, Australian Government Department of Veterans Affairs: https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/personnel/anzac-legend (last accessed 1 December 2022)
- Virtual War Memorial Australia: https://vwma.org.au/ (last accessed 1 December 2022)
 Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory (London; New York: Verso 1994), 8.
 Christoph Kühberger, “The Private Use of Public History and its Effects on the Classroom”, in Public History and School: International Perspectives, ed. Marko Demantowsky (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018), 70.
 Samuel, Theatres of Memory, 8.
 Carolyn Holbrook, “The Anzac Legend in Australian Society: Recent Historiographical Debates,” Teaching History 53, no. 1 (2019): 4–8.
 Cited in Daisy Martin, “Teaching, Learning, and Understanding of Public History in Schools as Challenge for Students and Teachers,” in Public History and School: International Perspectives, ed. Marko Demantowsky (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018), 85.
 Samuel, Theatres of Memory, 278.
Title image: ANZAC memorial © Heather Sharp personal collection.
Figure 1: Anzac Learning Circuits. © Authors.
Bailey Matthew, Sean Brawley: Student Learning Circuits, War Memorials and Anzac. In: Public History Weekly 11 (2023) 1, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2023-21039.
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