Gerard Pratt - Assistant Manager of Events and Ceremonies, Australian War Memorial, Canberra

Gerard Pratt
'When I was younger I had two uncles who were in the navy and that was all I ever talked about. So since I was five, the navy was always something I knew I was going to do.'

Gerard served in the navy for 17 years before joining the Australian War Memorial as a floor supervisor in the Visitor Services Team. He has worked in a few different positions at the Memorial and is now the assistant manager of events and ceremonies, which involves working on the Anzac Day and Remembrance Day ceremonies as well as many other special events and ceremonies that take place at the Memorial. He is still a member of the Navy Reserves.


 

Why did you join the navy?

When I was younger I had two uncles who were in the navy and that was all I ever talked about. So since I was five, the navy was always something I knew I was going to do. I always had a strong interest in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) – where they were, what they were doing and how they were doing it. So as soon as I was old enough off, I went and enlisted.

What did you do while you were in the navy?

I was working in communications. Initially I joined as a radio operator and my primary role was radio communications between ships and shore establishments through radios and satellites using automated teletype and morse code. In 2002 that position was amalgamated with the Signalman branch   the people who communicate via visual signals such as semaphore, flags and morse code through flashing light   and in addition the position took on IT as well. So we became super communicators because we did radio and visual signals and IT.

I did 17 years in the navy, and in that time I served ashore in Melbourne, Canberra, Darwin, Sydney and Nowra. I was also posted ashore to Dili in East Timor from January to May 2000 just after the Australian Forces went in to help the East Timorese people make the transition to an independent nation so that was pretty exciting. I also served in a number of ships, including the destroyers HMAS Brisbane, HMAS Hobart and HMAS Perth. My last sea posting was in HMAS Kanimbla where we were involved with the initial actions against Iraq in 2003.

Why did you decide to retire from the navy?

I loved the navy to death, and I still do, but while I was in the navy I rarely saw my wife and we wanted to have kids. A number of people with whom I'd served said that if they had their time again they would have discharged and been there for their kids – to witness first steps and that sort of thing – and I thought there was something to what they were saying. I decided that I needed to identify a job before I got out, which is how I came up with the idea of working at the Australian War Memorial. When I got back from Iraq in 2003 I approached the Memorial and asked what I needed to do to improve my chances of getting a job there. They suggested I volunteer and do a Certificate IV in Museum Practices at the Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT). So for just over two years I was a volunteer in the Discovery Room with all the school kids and, at the same time, I was completing the course at CIT. I was quite lucky because the navy were more than willing to accommodate my requests to attend CIT during normal work hours and also work at the Memorial as a volunteer.

How has your experience in the navy helped you in your current job?

The navy is a big team and no-one works alone. I've been a member of a team in every position I've held here at the Memorial. It's not as though I'm working as an individual and doing my own thing – I'm part of a bigger team. Every decision that I make has a follow-on effect. In a similar way to being in the navy, you've got to look out for your team-mates, and your team-mates look out for you. Other skills the navy helped me to hone such as time management and discipline in general have also been of great help.

What are you responsible for as assistant manager of events and ceremonies?

The team I'm in is responsible for the running of major ceremonies such as Anzac Day and Remembrance Day. We put the main building blocks together and facilitate the events on the day to ensure that everything runs smoothly. We also conduct smaller ceremonies with veteran groups such as plaque dedications and wreathlayings. I also assist in coordinating visits by Presidents and Prime Ministers of visiting nations as well as prominent VIPs, heads of defence and politicians to the Memorial. Whenever we put on a new exhibition our team looks after the launch on the night prior to the opening. We also organise events such as the Memorial's Christmas carols and things like our biannual Open Day.

How many people work in your team?

There are six members of the Events and Ceremonies team from the manager down.

What exhibitions are on at the moment?

The current special exhibition is Lawrence of Arabia and the Light Horse. Our newest gallery, Conflicts 1945 to today, was opened a month ago by the Prime Minister and covers every conflict from the Korean War right up to the conflicts today in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What does the Australian War Memorial have planned for Anzac Day this year?

For us, Anzac Day is pretty big. Last year we got 28 000 people to the Dawn Service and 18 000 to the National Ceremony. The Dawn Service starts at 5.30 am and finishes at 6 am. Then we have about four hours to turn the site around for the more formal National Ceremony at 10.15 am, which usually has the Governor-General, Prime Minister and a number of other VIPs in attendance. As per every National Ceremony at the Memorial, one of the highlights is the march-past by the veteran organisations, which this year numbers just over 70 different groups.

This year, the day before (24 April) is also going to be quite busy as we have a plaque dedication for the First Armoured Regiment Association, also known as Black Hats, and the Olympic Torch will be passing through Canberra. There'll be 600 or 700 Black Hats here for the plaque dedication ceremony on April 24, which puts us under a bit more pressure, and as soon as we finish with the Black Hats we'll turn around and look after the Olympic Torch   and then we do Anzac Day. It will create a lot of extra work for us, but that's the business we are in.

When do you start preparing for big events, such as Anzac Day?

As soon as we finish Remembrance Day in November, we start coordinating with RSL ACT to plan Anzac Day in April. This means sending emails, making phone calls, organising audio and booking seating to make sure we've got it all under control. There's so much work going on in the background. Until I found myself in this team, I didn't realise how much work goes into making a major event like that happen.

Our day actually starts at about 2 am on Anzac Day and finishes after 4 pm. At first I didn't think the long day would affect me, as I had previously done 18-hour days in the Gulf in Kanimbla, but by the time we'd finished packing everything up after my first Anzac Day in the team last year, I was absolutely exhausted   I got home and slept through my favourite Anzac Day footy game between Essendon and Collingwood.

Who has been the most impressive person you've met in your job?

Visitor wise to the Memorial, I wouldn't say anyone in particular, but there are certain visits that I've been responsible for that I've been proud to be part of. My first major visit by a prominent person was the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair. Since then I've been responsible for visits by a number of foreign Heads of State and Governments. Regardless of whether it's Tony Blair or the President of East Timor, I think they're all as important as each other. It's not that I actually get to chat to them all, I usually communicate with their organising team to make the visit happen.

From a work perspective, I would probably say our director, Steve Gower. He has taught me a lot about my position and what is required from it, be that a gentle push in the right direction or a subtle word of advice.

Do you need any particular qualifications or experience for this type of job?

I think I kind of fell into this position. If you'd asked me three years ago if I could see myself in an events career I would have said no. As it turned out, my training within the navy in teamwork and discipline put me in good stead for the transition from military to public sector life. By all means qualifications in areas like cultural heritage or conservation will assist you a lot if that's the field you want to work in. I think I've been quite lucky as I've been in the right place at the right time, and I think my success has been about hard work and a willingness to learn, which put me in good stead for this position.


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