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Shrine Stories: The Peace Graffiti

The Shrine Stories podcast takes you on a deep dive behind the objects on our gallery floor.

Just before Anzac Day in 1971, Melburnians woke to the news that the Shrine had been graffitied. Officials were understandably furious, but the identities of those involved remained a mystery.

Shrine curator Kate Spinks-Colas joins us on this episode to unpack what happened, and why. 

Music

Across the Line - Lone Canyon

Transcript

LAURA THOMAS: The Shrine of Remembrance embraces the diversity of our community and acknowledges the Bunurong people of the Kulin Nation as the Traditional Custodians of the land on which this podcast was recorded. We pay our respects to Elders, past and present.

Welcome to the Shrine Stories podcast, a place where we take you on a deep dive into the stories behind the objects on our gallery floor. My name is Laura Thomas, and in this episode we’re looking at a bit of a mystery in the Shrine’s history…

Just before Anzac Day in 1971, Melburnians woke to news that the Shrine had been graffitied. Officials were understandably furious, but the identities of those involved remained a mystery…

Joining me now to tell us exactly what happened is Shrine Curator Kate Spinks-Colas…

Welcome Kate…                 

KATE SPINKS-COLAS: Hi, Laura. 

LAURA THOMAS: This story is a very interesting one up in our galleries and I was hoping you could start by telling us what the story behind this photograph actually is. 

KATE SPINKS-COLAS Yeah, sure. So, in the early hours of the morning on the 23rd of April in 1971, the Shrine was vandalised. The words 'peace' and two Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament insignia, which is more commonly known now as the peace symbol, so two peace symbols, were painted on the Shrine columns in white paint. And this happened in the lead up to of course, Anzac Day, on the 25th of April, and there was actually, Melbourne Legacy had a children's commemorative event planned for the 23rd, so on that day. According to the lone Shrine guard who was on duty that morning, just after midnight, he disturbed two men who had just finished painting the graffiti, and he alleged that he was grabbed from behind by two other men. And in a scuffle, he received head wounds, and then the four men fled the scene according to his statement. So there was very little time, obviously to remove the paint, you know, being...

LAURA THOMAS: The day of the service. 

KATE SPINKS-COLAS Yeah, exactly. So the Acting Chairman of the Trustees at the time, Colonel Sir Alfred Kemsley, decided to leave it visible for the Legacy event and Anzac Day itself. So as a result, there were several photographs taken of the peace graffiti, and they were printed in the newspapers at the time.

LAURA THOMAS: I can imagine there was big public outcry, which we'll get to later. But I first want to know why? Like, what was the motivation to do this to such a sacred monument that meant so much to so many people? 

KATE SPINKS-COLAS Well, that's a great question. We don't actually know the answer to that.

LAURA THOMAS: Right

KATE SPINKS-COLAS Because despite a police investigation, no one was ever arrested or charged with the vandalism, so to this day, we don't know who did it. And we don't really know their sort of true motivations. A day after the vandalism, The Age newspaper did report that they had received a phone call from one of the men who painted the graffiti, and he claimed that there were only two of them. And whilst they did deface the Shrine with the white paint, he he claimed that no violence had occurred. And that was his main reason for contacting the newspaper. And according to The Age, he didn't offer any more information than that and hung up.

LAURA THOMAS: So no one was ever tracked down. 

KATE SPINKS-COLAS No.

LAURA THOMAS: Obviously this was happening at a time during the Vietnam War, during conscription. Can we hazard a guess that that, you know, there were other peace protests going on at the time, that's surely got to have some place in this?

KATE SPINKS-COLAS Absolutely. I think that that's, you know, you have to look at the social, cultural and political context, as you say, and as you mentioned, before, the incident did draw wide condemnation. And there would have been very few people who would have supported, you know, the Shrine being vandalised in that way. However, I think, potentially, the message itself was possibly something, you know, that would have resonated with a large number of people, given the climate at the time. There was a huge anti war and anti conscription sort of movement during that period. And there were people at that time, you know, people's support for the war in Vietnam, and conscription had really soured. And there was probably a lot of people who were coming out and getting involved in anti war protests and anti conscription protests, who probably didn't consider themselves particularly political before this, and, you know, maybe had never been involved in protests of any kind before. So, you know, it was a fairly sort of distinct, you know, period of time, I suppose. And between March 1970 And June 1971, there were several moratorium marches that were held across Australia. And the two objectives of those moratoriums were to pressure government to withdraw troops from Vietnam and to end conscription. And about 200,000 people nationally took part in the first one, and the largest event was held in Melbourne, where around 70,000 people marched peacefully down Bourke Street. So, you know, thinking about the the graffiti, and that message of peace, in that context, I think, probably, you know, it did echo a common sentiment at the time. However, I think the execution and the presentation of that message, you know, painted on the Shrine was certainly very controversial and majority of people would have condemned that for sure.  There are some Vietnam veterans who became pacifists after\ their experiences of war, and, you know, they probably would have connected with that message of peace but would have condemned the graffiti and the defacing of the Shrine because, you know, it's a very sacred place for all veterans and you know, the wider Victorian community in terms of commemoration, and you know, what the site means to people. 

LAURA THOMAS: And it was definitely condemned by the leadership at the Shrine at the time. Can you talk about how else they responded, you mentioned that they left it up for the children, but what else was happening around that time?

KATE SPINKS-COLAS Yeah, so the Acting Chairman Alfred Kemsley said, he would not remove the paint for the Anzac Day March. And he was quoted as saying, 'I want all of Melbourne to come and see and be repulsed'. And the Premier and State Opposition leader also condemned the vandalism. So yeah, there was obviously a very strong reaction against the incident. And look, in some ways, the Shrine itself already stands for the message of peace. It is a monument that signifies the huge human cost of war. And the ultimate consequence, when peace isn't maintained. So that, you know, the Shrine was originally built as a place of mourning for, you know, the families and friends and the wider community of the 19,000 Victorians who, who died during the First World War. So in a sense, you know, you don't need to paint the Shrine in with the word 'peace' and the peace symbols, because, you know, it really already represents, you know, that huge cost.

LAURA THOMAS: And there's some quite incredible photos from the services of, I can guess tens of thousands of people with 'peace' sprawled across the columns themselves. So it's, it's quite incredible to look back and see, and I strongly urge you to come and view this image in the Shrine itself. It's obviously not there today, Kate, so how, how did they manage to get this paint off?

KATE SPINKS-COLAS Well, look, I mean, even though, the acting chairman at the time said, you know, he was going to leave it up, so that people could be repulsed, I think their hand was probably also a little forced, because there wasn't very much time to figure out a way to effectively clean off, you know, the paint. So they didn't do this until sometime later. And they were able to use a chemical to remove the paint, although, when they did, it kind of left these sort of white marks on the columns, you know, that they were obviously it sort of stripped away, you know, any patina that the columns had. So, you know, in in years later, you know, you can still see a sort of slightly different colour on the columns because of where they've had to clean off the graffiti. And I think at a later date, they ended up cleaning the entire columns, like all of them. So I think six of them were defaced of the eight. So they ended up having to go a bit further and using another sort of cleaning process for the rest of them to kind of make the match again, I guess.

LAURA THOMAS: Yeah, right. Now, it's not the only time that an iconic Australian monument has been used as a vehicle for this kind of anti war sentiment. And you discovered some other quite iconic monuments have been defaced as well. Do you want to talk about that Kate?

KATE SPINKS-COLAS That's right. Yeah. Well, on the 18th of March in 2003, two activists Dave Burgess and Will Saunders climbed the sils of the Opera House no less, and painted the words 'No War' on the side of the building in red paint. And this stunt got the attention that the two men had hoped for, with their anti war message appearing, you know, on global media at the time, and you know, similarly to the collective mood in 1971 when the Shrine was vandalised, In 2003, a large number of Australians objected to Australia sending troops to participate in the second Gulf War in Iraq. I think across the world at that time, there had been huge protests, and Australia obviously wasn't alone in joining in those those protests against the invasion of Iraq, ultimately, though, to no avail. And Dave Burgess and Will Saunders said that, you know, their act of vandalism was a desperate attempt to have that anti war message heard. And reflecting on the incident last year in 2023, Dave Burgess said that he ultimately didn't regret the actions they took, and he he was quoted as saying, 'I think it was an action that had to be done'. And he said, 'I think it spoke the feelings of Australia'. And interestingly, the Australian War Memorial now has the tin of red paint, the paint roller and some paint splashed Dunlop volley sneakers that were worn by Dave Burgess during the protest, as well as a handmade snowglobe that he had produced to raise money to help pay the $150,000 fine that he and Will Saunders had to pay. They also received nine months intermittent detention as punishment. So I mean, this case is a little bit different because they did this act. And, you know, they, they knew that they would be caught in the act of doing it. And they they were doing it to make a very public statement, and they knew that their actions would result in some kind of punishment. But the incident at the Shrine, as I said, it's still a bit of a mystery. You know, no one was ever caught. No one put their hand up to, you know, to say that they, they did it and why. 

LAURA THOMAS: I would just be so intrigued to speak to whoever it was that did it and ask why. I mean, presuming they're maybe still around now, I wonder if it will ever come out? We might never know. 

KATE SPINKS-COLAS Yeah well, maybe this podcast might elicit some information. You never know.

LAURA THOMAS: We'll see, exactly. As we've heard this incident, upset a lot of people, it caused a lot of trouble at the time, but we do have this image up in our galleries. Why do you think it's important that we remember this incident and this time in history and tell our visitors about it?

KATE SPINKS-COLAS Well, I mean, it's all part of, you know, the social and cultural, historical political fabric of Victoria, of Australia, and, and the world. It tells of the interesting layers of history that have occurred here. And as part of the Shrine, and I think it yeah, it sort of highlights the broader significance of the Shrine as a monument in Victoria to Victorians whether or not you know, it's used as a vehicle for, you know, protest in this way, or it's this sacred site for commemoration. I think all of that, you know, really feeds into just how important the Shrine is as a place to the fabric of Victoria and our history in terms of our involvement in war and conflict and, you know, the desire to maintain peace.

LAURA THOMAS: Well, thank you so much, Kate. It's been absolutely fascinating speaking to you and learning about this story. 

KATE SPINKS-COLAS Thanks for having me.

LAURA THOMAS: Thanks for listening to the Shrine Stories podcast. If you’d like to keep up to date with other episodes, be sure to subscribe to our channel on whatever platform you listen.

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