Women in War - in the Second World War Gallery, Australian War Memorial. Commemorative opening ceremony, Telstra Theatre Fri Feb 26, 1999. Program Coordinator: Carolyn Newman. Keynote Speaker: Julia Zaetta, Editorial Director of The Australian Women's Weekly.
Theatre often takes you by surprise. So it was when Beryl Williams, an original WAAAF, described the showers at Bradfield Park in 1941: a long pipe with shower roses every 18 inches. "Can you imagine all us 18 year old naked girls every morning?" she asked. Bradfield Park! I was there - a ten-pound (Sterling) migrant in 1955! I'm sure the showers had cubicles by then.
"Theatre of war" was a US term for a geographical region, but this exhibition gives it new meaning. Julia Zaetta spoke of the contrasts: the loss and sorrow which her generation was fortunate to miss; but the cameraderie and community among women which the war experience gave them, and which she envied.
The new Second World War Gallery certainly is a living theatre surrounding us with all the contrasts. I felt quite overwhelmed and unsure of my feelings in the midst of lights, moving pictures and soundscapes. Ms Zaetta had asked people to speak of their memories, and I talked to many other women among the exhibits and at afternoon tea.
The strongest memory for so many women was that joining up gave them independence and a feeling of control of their lives. Nurses told me how they couldn't wait to get into the air force and the army. They had no family responsibilties, were anxious for adventure. "I didn't think it would matter if a bomb got me", said one. But the other response was disappointment that the end of the war saw most women back in the old woman-in-the-kitchen role.
They lost the opportunity to put all their skills and training into practice, and expressed regret that young women in recent times have had to "re-invent the wheel, when we were doing it all back then."
And what of the exhibition? Some felt it was too overwhelming emotionally - indeed one woman had to leave. Some were concerned it seemed to glorify war's excitement, and yet thought the young today will get to know more about the war than the 60's generation which had scoffed at it. Some felt it glorified the enemy: "I was really non-plussed when I walked into the light and saw I was standing on an image of the Japanese flag - the Rising Sun. I think it might be..." She didn't say "offensive" but I felt that's what she meant.
Many said the film and sound exhibits made them shiver and re-live feelings from that time. "But we would like to put that back in the past. Perhaps it is concentrating too much in the past, when we should think of the future." "But the exhibits are very well done."
Mixed feelings. Controversial thoughts. Strong theatre indeed.
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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