【Museums Link Asia-Pacific】Site of Historical Events: Battlefield in Australia as Contemporary Museum

Author: Chen, Pei-Yu (art critic)

The thought of museums often conjures the image of a grand double-height building, where documents, history, precious artefacts and life sized sculptures are neatly placed in predetermined rooms. The arrangement of rooms varies. It could be chronological or theme-based, such as world wars or the February 28th Incident. Interestingly, the locations where historical events took place are often reproduced in models or shown in historical photos. While some locations no longer serve the same purpose, having being destroyed or redeveloped, many others have been well preserved and are now open to public on a regular basis, as exemplified by a well-endowed country like Australia. This article uses many war locations in Australia during the World War II as examples to explore how such locations can be repurposed as contemporary museums, where historical archives and memories become sustainable and are passed down via diverse ways.

Keywords: Bombing of Darwin Australia, the Pacific War, museum built on ruins, Darwin, Broome


Air Raid 1: Australian Version of the Attack on Pearl Harbor

Darwin oil storage tunnels emerging from the war as a historical spot, which is only opened for tourism during dry season. Darwin is the city being part of the history of Pacific war in World War II and also the only location that suffered from air raids in Australia. On February 19, 1942, Darwin city was decimated by Japanese army without warning, which was a dramatically attack since the surprising military strike on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. After occupying most strongholds in North Australia, Japan had used it as a base of operation to raid surrounding island countries. From 1943 to 1945, Japan had invaded and occupied some Southeast Asia regions under the Dutch East India Company, such as East Timor, Borneo, Java and Sumatra etc.; this is well-known as “Japanese Occupation of the Dutch East Indies.” In 1943, Douglas MacArthur had make Darwin Harbor as a military base and the starting point for the allied forces operation, where he commanded all allied forces to launch a comprehensive counterattack and direct bombers to assault main military locations occupied by Japanese army in Indonesia. Finally, he regained the control of the Pacific from Japan.

Darwin oil storage tunnels. (Photo by Chen, Pei-Yu)


In the history records of the war in Taiwan, the important sacrifice of Australia and other places in the period of World War II is rarely spoken, not to mention the awareness of locations of the incidents because the connectivity between Taiwan and Australia is weak on aspects of military, culture and history. Besides, Australia was not even recognized as a country since it joined the war on behalf of the colonial countries under Great Britain. However, people should not neglect these parts of record in the history of World War II. In addition to the Hollywood film “Pearl Harbor”, the incident of bombing Darwin Australia was adapted into the film “Australia” by the Australian Director Baz Luhrmann for conveying the complicated pain though vision. These historical incidents have make impact on the lifestyle of White Australians and local aboriginals, and residents of surrounding island had immigrated to Australia due to war clauses. Take Darwin as example, 60% of its population are from East Timor.

Regarding “Darwin oil storage tunnels”, as a memorial museum being regularly opened to the public, the most special feature is how it connects the emotion between the space and visitors, reminding us the experiences of the war and educating the public. The oil storage tunnels and pipelines were constructed fully underground to protect the fuel supply around Darwin in World War II because the standard oil storage tanks would be easily targeted and destroyed. Now, the long tunnels are used as entrance for visitors, and the first work at the corner is a touchable and a completely human-formed robot named “The Digger” which was made up by remaining pieces and debris of tunnels, symbolizing the soldiers, who carried all the burden, sacrificed themselves with broken bodies in the war. After visitors make a turn at the corner, there is a large-scale tunnel as the main exhibition area which is the only dry and still workable space. It displays the description and pictures of historic incidents and photos of remaining tunnels and items left in wars shot by photographers in the deserts and jungles in the northern territory of Australia. Although this exhibition area is not grandeur or has abundant processions as museums do, it creates the style based on the history of war and idea of contemporary artists. Moreover, it has visitors feel turning back time with old radios playing past broadcast recordings of that time.

Interactive robot “The Digger” (Photo by Chen, Pei-Yu)


To learn more details about Darwin city during the war, visitors should go to “Darwin Military Museum.” This museum was reconstructed from an old fortress and the interior was decorated as a bright display space. Besides, the museum keeps instruments at that time as exhibits and also displays weapons such as air crafts, artillery battery and tanks in the park. Even though the air raids occurred exactly in Darwin city, different locations convey different stories from these two exhibition areas. Oil storage tunnels are for prevention and protection; on the other hand, forts are for defense and offense. These vicarious experiences of history, relics and geographically locations cannot be finely preserved and expressed in one single museum.

Darwin Military Museum (Photo credit: Darwin Military Museum)
Darwin Military Museum (Photo credit: Darwin Military Museum)


Air Raid 2: Pearl Harbor in Australia (The origin of pearls)

After a month, on March 3, 1942, the essential pearling town “Broome” in Western Australia was bombarded by Japanese air force, and the wreckage of aircrafts is now still preserved in “Broome Air Raid Memorials.” In fact, Broome was a chief entrepot for trading in Australia in the early days, and as early as 1889, Eastern Extension, Australasia and China Telegraph Company Limited, E.E.T. Company had used ships to connect submarine cable between Java and Broome, making this town the second telecom relay station between Australia and Asia. E.E.T. Company had expanded its trading markets to Southeast Asian in late Qing dynasty and early Republic of China era and also established many essential constructions. Meanwhile, Japanese had controlled most of the pearling industries and many people died of from decompression sickness for the excessive workload. Broome Japanese Cemetery is established in remembrance of their crucial devotion. In addition, in the book of The Pearl Frontier: Indonesian Labor and Indigenous Encounters in Australia’s Northern Trading Network, it is mentioned that Japanese businessmen and white Australians introduced a great number of Indonesia labors and hired local Australia aboriginals to maintain the source of jewelry to Europe, even involving the trades between Australian pearl king James Clark and Indonesian pearl king Said bin Abdullah Baadilla.

Broome Air Raid Memorials (Photo credit: Peter F. Williams. Maritime Quest)
Broome Japanese Cemetery (Photo by Chen, Pei-Yu)
The picture of Indonesian pearl king and the Dutch royal family (Photo credit: Washil Bahalwan)


At that time, while the pearl industry was flourishing, the movie industry was also promising and vibrant in this small town. “Sun Pictures” (1903- present) ran by Japanese and located in Broome, self-proclaimed the first outdoor cinema in the world. It not only became an entertainment venue for pearl workers after work but also witnessed a history over hundred years. Surviving from World War II, “Sun Pictures” is still open today and many films come out regularly. The display of these vintage objects such as 35mm movie projector, roll film, ticket booth and movie posters has reproduced the golden age of movie invention as a museum of movie history and provided the spiritual comfort during the wars. However, the pearl industry has been impacted and faded away because of the air raids, and at present, Broome is dominated by the tourism industry. With these relics of Cable Beach connecting Java, dinosaur footprint fossils, staircase to the moon, Broome Japanese Cemetery and Sun Pictures, Broome has survived from the devastation of war. This town now resembles an important part of the developments of Australia, with different parts of the area undergoing the trading history and the war and now serves as a historical site to preserve the history of the blooming age if the nation.

Sun Pictures (Photo by Chen, Pei-Yu)
Outdoor cinema of Sun Pictures (Photo by Chen, Pei-Yu)


Excluded in the history of war: sent into battles; completing a neglected history

Australia, as a long-term colony of Britain, its role in the two world wars were rarely mentioned in historical record; however, we can learn the neglected history from local holidays and monuments in Australia. For example, “ANZAC DAY” is for remembrance of Battle of Gallipoli in World War I, and The Great Ocean Road was built after soldiers returned home; furthermore, after the air raids in World War II, there was the Battle of the Coral Sea in Queensland. WA Maritime Museum in Western Australia has kept grounded ships and objects during the period of Dutch East Indies. These separate war incidents and locations in Australia diversify the ways we tell and preserve historical stories, allowing people to go through all of the sites in person to experience the journey beyond time and space.

  1. From 1881, Clark had operated pearl trading business at Cape York Peninsula in northern Queensland, Australia and controlled the local aboriginals and surrounding islanders in the Pacific as labor workers. Since the owners of nearby islands had developed their own farms one after another, he decided to move west to Darwin and Broome and went back and forth between western and northwest Australia. Clark built up cooperation with Dutch East India Company and started promoting legalization of international pearl trade in 1905.
  2. The Baadilla family joined consortium of pearl trade and became the main competitor to Clark. His father had established the foundations in Banda, Surabaya and Java. The lineage of this family includes Arabia, China and Indonesia. A prophecy in 1873 said the Baadilla family needed to unite marriage with east Indians to accomplish the role of “stranger kings.” In the next few years, Clark provided the opportunity to get into the market in London for the Baadilla family. Sjech Said bin Abdullah Baadilla had been designated as pearl king by the Queen of the Netherlands in 1933, showing the close connection of pearl market between Australia, Indonesia and Europe.

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