Wars provoke strong emotion. The new $100 million Sir John Monash Centre, which tells Australia's World War I Western Front story through "interactive media installations and immersive experiences" is a case in point.
The new centre, which opened last year at one of the most poignant points on Australia's Western Front remembrance trail, the Australian National Memorial outside Villers-Bretoneux in northern France, reports that visitor feedback has been "overwhelmingly positive".
Others disagree – it's been referred to as "an over-the-top multimedia temple" – a reaction perhaps amplified by its cost – five times more expensive than any war museum France has built. The SJMC is tucked into the hill beneath the memorial on land containing about 234 kilograms of unexploded ordnance.
There's also concern about visitor numbers. The Herald's Nick Miller reported in December that the centre is "threatening to become a white elephant, with visitor numbers far below those promised when the project was given the green light by the Abbott government".
The SJMC, budgeted to cost about $2.6 million annually, is not a traditional museum – for that experience, look rather to The Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 in Zonnebeke or the Museum of the Battle of Fromelles. We visit those on our battlefields tour, but the SJMC is decidedly different – an "interpretive centre" rather than an object-based museum and it's attracted some criticism.
"The app didn't work on 50 per cent of people's phones. Getting up to start the video is also a pain. There are no real artefacts, everything is just videos," says one online comment.
"Do we really spend such extraordinary amounts – on the other side of the planet, on the dead – while the living continue to need assistance in the modern age?" offers another. And, "Pity the tech glitches ruined the whole vibe of the centre."
While many of our group were impressed, some couldn't get the app to work, some gave up, and some thought the technology was "clunky". Multimedia "stories" run on strict loops, meaning you wait.
The centre has big-screen galleries, offering audio-visual experiences, with voice-overs drawn from letters and diaries, accompanied by life-size images and some confronting images. Visitors download the SJMC app, which offers stories depending on location. The centre has 80 devices to lend.
Bring earphones or buy for €3 and headphones for €25. They aren't suitable for iPhone 7 and later models. You'll chew through your battery but charging stations are available.
SJMC director Caroline Bartlett says feedback is closely considered and they are committed to "taking it on and managing the best possible centre for all visitors". She says that staff take time to explain how the application works and most "soon get the hang of it".
Almost all feedback from the 50,000 visitors so far is that the app is user-friendly but a scheduled refresh is planned, she says. Some older Android devices have a 20-second delay so sound is out of synch – borrow a device.
Do visitors receive a simplified, "dumbed down" narrative? Bartlett disagrees, saying that an audio-visual presentation "is an exciting new way to present detailed, explicit and targeted content, to explain in depth and on a more personal level a complex subject matter that traditional artefact displays cannot".
Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson has been reported as saying he thinks young people in particular will be energised by the creative use of technology to bring the story to life. One wonders if this is an indication of what is planned for Canberra's Australian War Memorial's $500 million expansion.
On the question of the graphic SJMC installations, Bartlett says, "War is an upsetting topic and the horror of the First World War is beyond what any of us can imagine today … the centre is about the realities of the war and in a small number of instances in the centre, it can be difficult." Staff are trained to prepare visitors for the immersive gallery's confronting content and warnings are displayed. Families with children under 12 are advised against the immersive gallery and two other galleries' confronting themes.
Some online comments take issue with the lack of discussion about how politicians failed to stop the conflict and how subsequent Australian governments did not adequately address issues of PTSD in returning soldiers.
Bartlett says the centre's purpose is to "ensure the memory of ordinary Australians in extraordinary circumstances is not forgotten … we do not delve into political decisions or processes. We do however talk of PTSD in the 'Fates and Impacts' section."
The centre is free, which concerns some worried about the fate of the fee-charging Villers-Bretoneux Franco-Australian museum at the Victoria School, with its poignant "do not forget Australia" plaque. Our guide says tour buses often now "just drive past" for a look.
Whatever your impression, the SJMC, set in its beautiful Cox Architecture-designed building, provides an overwhelmingly sensory interpretation of Australia's devastating Western Front campaign.
Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours operates a variety of Western Front battlefields tours from April to November. His four-day Western Front Explorer Tour in 2019 costs $1997 a person twin share. See battlefields.com.au/
Vietnam Airlines flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Paris via Ho Chi Minh City. See vietnamairlines.com/
Alison Stewart was a guest of Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours.