Monday, 15 April 2013

A visit to the National Vietnam Veterans Museum.


One of the things that I have meant to do on my countless travels to Phillip Island but always neglected for one reason or another is to visit the National Vietnam Veterans Museum (NVVM). For many years the museum was in what I assumed was a small hall on the outskirts of the San Remo shopping district until 2007 when it was moved into the larger and more imposing site on the Island proper at Newhaven next to the airport. This January I had only a couple of nights one weekend to join the rest of the family on a summer break, so I made it a priority to visit the museum at the first opportunity.


  Saturday afternoon I travelled across from Cowes and pulled into the museum - which from the outside is reminiscent of a basketball stadium-and, its almost empty car park, I wasn't sure if this was a good sign. The entry foyer is deceiving with the small Nui Dat CafĂ© to one side and the usual merchandising section with the counter for admissions on the other side. It was all rather small and compact. It is a wonderful deception and doesn’t prepare you when you pull open the small shop front doors to be greeted by the vast open area filled with history and exhibits. It is only when you remember the aircraft hanger size of the building that you should not have expected less. I believe it is actually much larger than it appears from the outside. 
The museum is so comprehensive in the subject it houses that there is nothing you shouldn’t have answered within its walls. The building houses no less than three complete helicopters including a Cobra Attack Helicopter., a Centurion tank, a Howitzer artillery gun (compete with parachute suspended from the ceiling), transport vehicles as well as many smaller models and dioramas. These items alone will fascinate the kids. I however was fascinated by the detailed listings of those who served and died as well as the large ephemeral collection, including newspapers, log books, beer cans, script currency and the many photos of diggers doing their daily deeds at rest as well as in the field.


One of the most stunning exhibits is the Sound and Light Show This world-class program is a short history of the Vietnam War using multi media and holographic technology, an informative show lasting eighteen minutes that leaves you much wiser and probably more than a little amazed at the brilliance of the presentation. Moving between exhibits and pieces you will find complete uniforms from different services as well as support staff, with a collection of arms and munitions. The Museum also doesn’t shy away from the negative aspects of the times with many articles and videos of the protests and anti war movements that were active during the wars latter years. It also has a set of the infamous marbles used for the ballot to conscript young men into the services.

Though the Vietnam War was smaller in commitment and territory than World War One and Two, Australia’s involvement actually lasted longer than the latter two combined. And when this is taken into account it highlights how much the Vietnam War had an effect on a country finding its own identity leading up to the 21st Century. Though I have mentioned the size of the Museum’s area of exhibition, it is not to you move towards the rear that you get another glimpse of the potential of this museums growth. At the back half of the building is the aircraft restoration area where two massive Wessex helicopters (one partial, one close to completion) are housed and an even larger Canberra bomber with its wings standing beside it, by far the largest piece of the collection and dwarfing all other pieces. This place is so big and full of interesting things that you don’t see it until you’re on top of it.

 I grew up watching the Vietnam war on TV every night and it seemed to desensitize me to what was really going on and I don’t remember talking about it with my family or friends, not even at school. It just seemed to be in the background through my pre-teen years. When I did start to pay attention (though not to intensely) in my latter teens it was the different way the Vietnam war was portrayed compared to other current wars. The First World War was about farmers (like granddad) rushing off to the other side of the world and then coming back to farm again, on the way giving us a day off from school. The Second World War was all about the Americans and the thousand and one movies I watched showing us how they won the war for everyone. Whilst the older kids I knew whose dad’s went to war all seemed like normal dads and not a bit like the Americans. The Korean War was M.A.S.H as far as I was concerned, but the Vietnam vets were portrayed as unloved, unwanted fighting a war no one wanted. In most movies they were cast as crazy loners who didn’t fit in and didn’t want to talk about it. Eventually, as I grew older I realized all that most of all the above was pure toss and things weren’t as simple as I first thought. The National Vietnam Veterans Museum gives a comprehensive view of the history of the war, the times it was set and the effect it had on Australia and the rest of the world . The whole presentation is done in a way that makes it stimulating and entertaining as well as thought provoking whilst all the time being very informative. In closing the museum is excellent value for money and worth a repeat visit.

Originally printed in the April 2013 edition of the Basin Boronia Community News

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