An introduction to the Australian Living Peace Museum

By Associate Professor Bobbie Oliver, the University of Western Australia

The histories of the peace movement and the labour movement have converged at significant moments in Australian history, such as the campaigns against conscripting young men to fight overseas in both World War I and the Viet Nam War.

The conscription referendums of 1916 and 1917 were some of the most important events in Australian history. The two campaigns divided Australia and split the government, the ALP and the union movement. John Curtin, who was then the Secretary of the National Executive of the Anti-Conscription Campaign was imprisoned briefly for refusing to enlist in 1916. In Perth in 1917, Curtin and Lilian Foxcroft were both fined for making statements that were ‘prejudicial to recruiting and likely to cause disaffection to his Majesty the King’. The anti-conscriptionists left an enormous legacy. The failure of the two conscription referenda were possibly the biggest success ever achieved by peace activists in Australia.

An anti-conscription poster from 1917

During the Viet Nam War, Jim Cairns (later Federal Treasurer in the Whitlam government) and his family were beaten up because of his public opposition to Australia’s involvement, maritime unions refused to load armaments for the war and many other labour figures spoke out in support of imprisoned war resisters. Jean McLean, ACTU Arts Officer from 1981 to 1985, was Melbourne convenor of the Save Our Sons (SOS) movement, which from 1965 to 1973 campaigned against conscription and Australia’s involvement in the Viet Nam War. SOS had a presence in every state.

The Australian Living Peace Museum (the peace museum), which tells many of these stories, is an online museum that you can access at: . 

You will find exhibitions featuring movements and individuals. Among significant Labor figures, you can learn about Jim Cairns’ stand against conscription when he led the Viet Nam Moratorium march in Melbourne in 1970. Looking out on a crowd estimated at 70,000 people, Cairns later reflected that “the sea of upturned faces” gave him “even greater confidence in the Australian people”. He wondered, “What other issue could have produced a crowd like this?”.

The idea of a peace museum was proposed by Ivo Lovric at the ANU Library on 27 July 2013. The proposal was circulated to a number of peace organizations and taken up by members of the Melbourne Anzac Peace Centenary Committee during 2015, particularly Michael Hamel-Green, Fran Newell, Martin Bush, Jenny Gerrand, Dale Hess, David Buller and the Borderlands Cooperative (Jacques Boulet and Lesley Shuttleworth). The aim was not only to have exhibits that focus on Australian peace initiatives in the historical sense, but also contemporary and ongoing peace initiatives whether by individuals, groups or whole movements.

The peace museum was officially founded as a co-operative in March 2015 and launched online at a Melbourne Anzac Peace Centenary Forum in October of that year.

As well as detailed articles on individuals and organisations of the peace movement, the museum’s collection of over 100 virtual items includes pamphlets, photographs, badges, cartoons, news items and art works. 

There may be some surprises among the exhibits. For example, in the section “Resisting Australia’s Wars”, among the stories of anti-conscription campaigners, you will find an exhibition about those who went to war. “Project Albany” by Bruce Scates tells the story of 100 people who served in World War I, but who did not fulfill the “heroic Anzac” image of recruiting posters. These include those who returned home permanently disfigured by horrendous wounds, suffering from PTSD (then known as “shell shock”), often excluded from society and its benefits. Only a few of the 100 stories are told here, but they are an introduction to the project.

A protest against the war on Viet Nam

The site also hosts lesson plans for history teachers, designed to fit into the Australian high school curriculum. This section is adding new material this year that features women’s opposition to the Viet Nam War. Another forthcoming feature is an honour roll of the names and details of conscientious objectors, draft resisters, and peace makers from Australia’s involvement in all the wars of the 20th century. Once the honour roll is publicly available, people will be invited to provide further details of existing entries or information about potential additions to the roll.

The museum is also seeking funds to create virtual peace heritage walks in the capital cities.  These will be accessed by an app on your mobile phone. They will include sites of significance in labour history: speaking venues such as the Sydney Domain, the Perth Esplanade and the Adelaide Botanic Gardens; the Melbourne and Perth Trades Halls; the office of the Westralian Worker where John Curtin served as editor from 1917 until he entered parliament in 1928; the Melbourne Exhibition Building, and the Victorian State Parliament.

People interested in the museum’s work may join as a subscriber by paying a $10 annual fee and purchasing a share in the cooperative. Membership entitles you to newsletters and other updates, as well as invitations to events. Board members are elected at the AGM to serve for terms of three years. The current board has members from Melbourne, Perth and Sydney, with experience in universities, trade unions, secondary schools and the peace movement. It consists of Jeannie Rea (Chairperson), Martin Bush (Treasurer), Bobbie Oliver (Secretary), and committee members Mali Rea, Geoff Sandy, Dale Hess, Peter Herborn and Alex Pierce.

For further information, please contact: [email protected]

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