If there is only one place you visit while your in the city, make it this one.
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If there is one absolute must-see attraction in Canberra, it has to be the War Memorial Museum (FREE ENTRY) located at the end of Anzac Parade. Although it was a hot day, I’m glad catching the bus meant we had to walk up this amazing street rather than drive. This allowed us to really appreciate the memorials along the way, as they serve as a great introduction to what can be expected at the museum. Although the heat was exhausting, overall, the experience was well worth it. I would be lying, however, if I didn’t mention how much we welcomed the blast of air conditioning that hit us when we finally arrived at the main entrance.
But this alone did not give us the rejuvenation we needed to start exploring the museum, as the walk from the bus stop up Anzac Parade nearly killed us! So our first stop was the lovely Poppies Café (which was also air-conditioned – winning!). Located just to the right of the main museum, it is housed in a long and thin concrete building with trees and plants on the outside, making for quite an idyllic setting. As we were eating our lunch of cheese sandwiches and ham and cheese croissants (yep, we are a family of cheese lovers!), we slowly started to feel human again after the heat had really sucked it out of us. The outdoor settings at the back of the café let you look directly down Anzac Parade, where you will get a really lovely view of Parliament House. I was so looking forward to finally exploring around here later.
While walking back towards the main museum building, we had the chance to look at some more statues along the way, including one of my favourites, Elevation of the Senses (2015). It shows a dog crouching down on uneven terrain, looking into his soldier-handlers eyes as he gives him a pat for being such a good boy! But it was the story behind the statue that really melted my heart. The soldier was Sapper Darren Smith and his dog Herby. They were on tour together in Afghanistan, where they were sadly killed in action. The bronze artwork genuinely symbolises the brilliant effort these brave canines undertake in the line of duty. You can tell that this is a popular statue with the rest of the public also, as there were so many poppies placed on this particular monument.
The main building is built from stone and designed in an Art Deco style. Manicured lawns surround it, and the roof is raised up in a striking green dome. Before you head off to explore the excellent exhibits, be sure to check out the Memorial Gardens courtyard right by the entrance. It’s a really tranquil garden area containing a rectangular pond with a small waterfall flowing into it. The sound of the flowing water really gives it a peaceful feeling. Manicured hedges and trees surround the perimeter, and there are names of past wars displayed on the walls. This was one of my favourite parts of the whole museum.
At this point, we headed to the First World War exhibit on the ground floor. Here you can view many photos of past war veterans and artifacts from the war, such as old uniforms, medals and other personal possessions. They even had things like the plates and drinking cups that the troops would have carried with them. There is also a magnificent aboriginal art painting on the left wall by 19 different artists on the APY lands of South Australia. The work is entitled Kulatangku Angakanyini Manta Munu Tjukurpa, which means Country and Culture Will be Protected by Spears. It’s a huge piece that took over fours days to complete. It is a standout exhibit, and I think I must have stood in front of it for about five minutes just taking in the bright colours, patterns and intricacies.
It was around this time that Aria started to get super tired and cranky, much to the annoyance of everyone in the museum. I don’t know whether it was because she was too overstimulated or not, as this section was quite busy, with lots of displays and noise happening all around us. It also happened to be near her afternoon nap time, so we put her in her pram, and she was out light a light for over an hour! I would definitely take children to the museum, but maybe try to time your visit better than we did, as we kind of just winged it. Ideally, we should have gotten up early to arrive just after breakfast so she would have enjoyed it more. Live and learn, I guess.
While Aria snoozed in her pram, I continued exploring the exhibits, where I got to learn how and why the First World War actually started. In June 1914, the heir of the Astro-Hungarian throne was in Sarajevo, where he was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb. Austria was absolutely livid by this act of aggression and invaded Serbia. These actions caused everyone else to get involved, and so began the First World War.
As I wandered through to the back of the exhibition, I came across several highly detailed models reconstructing Australian soldiers fighting in well-known wars. One of my favourite scenes was the battle of Gallipoli. Soldiers were carrying injured comrades on makeshift beds, while others were diving for cover to escape heavy gunfire. These set-ups were very realistic. Nothing was plastic or cheap-looking; only true-to-life materials were used, such as wood, dirt and burlap. The lights set up in the trenches below were spaced intermittently, leaving some parts in total darkness. It’s these details in the displays which really made the battles come to life, so much more than a photograph ever could. You could almost feel what the soldiers were facing as the battles unfolded in front of them. It was very cleverly done and my favourite section of the whole museum.
I also enjoyed perusing the Second World War section. It was just as impressive, with many more of the same style displays and model set-ups. Make sure to check out the photograph called ‘Symbol of the End.’ It’s a large black and white photo that shows a group of soldiers sat down in a trench. In front of them is a large piece of metal with a big hole in it from a bomb blast. This piece was recovered and is now displayed below the photo. You can’t help but think how easily that huge hole in the metal could have been in one of the soldiers. It was a little chilling to see it up close, yet it really helps to bring the picture to life.
Before heading up to the top floor, be sure to check out The Artillery Hall, which is really impressive with its displays of tanks and warplanes. Most of the hall is in darkness, with only the exhibits on display being illuminated. This included aircraft, which had been suspended in mid-air, making them look like they were going to dive-bomb you. Some smaller planes on the ground level even offered access to the cockpit, and you could imagine being able to fly in one at high speed. There was also an excellent section remembering the women nurses who went to the front line to take care of the sick and injured soldiers. There were photographs and old uniforms, but what I enjoyed most were the original letters that were on display. Seeing them written in the nurse’s own hand made reading them so much more poignant.
I didn’t get to explore much of the first floor as, by now, Aria had woken up and was even more cranky than before. Therefore, we decided to skip most of this section and head to the top floor, the Roll of Honour, which has to be the most emotional exhibit in the museum and somewhere that you can’t leave Canberra without visiting.
As soon as we headed up here, we could instantly feel how peaceful and somber the mood was. Even Aria seemed to settle down, quietly sit back in her pram, and give us time to look around. There are rows and rows of black plaques that wrap all the way around the top floor. It’s sad to think that all of the names on display here are of deceased soldiers. It must be very confronting to the families of the fallen who visit here. Even I found it a very emotional experience. Make sure to check out the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier memorial. It is a very fitting tribute to the war effort, with a fantastic stained-glass window showing past soldiers of war, both men and women. The gold patterned dome glitters from above while an inscribed stone lies on the floor beneath. Many people have left their poppies here in remembrance, and there is space for you to do so as well if you desire. Make sure to take advantage of the beautiful views you can get of the Memorial Gardens as you walk around. Towards the front of the building is an excellent view of ANZAC Parade that extends all the way to Government House and beyond.
By this time, we were all pretty tired and drained after a hot day exploring, and the weather had gotten even hotter. We decided to head back to the hotel for some much-needed air conditioning, as it was nearly 3 PM, so we skipped Parliament House and put it on the list for our next visit to Canberra.
Thanks for reading my post on the War Memorial Museum in Canberra. I’d heard how fantastic this museum was before heading inside, and I expected it to be great, but what surprised me the most was how emotional some of the exhibits made me feel. It truly is a wonderful attraction, and has to be number one on your list of things to do in the city, when you visit. Have you visited the War memorial in Canberra before? Are you planning on visiting in the future? Will you be adding it to your Australian Bucket List? Let me know in the comments section below.
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