Meet Your Local FM: Australian War Memorial’s Jana Johnson on connecting to a cultural institution

by Helena Morgan
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When attending a concert at a theatre, moseying around an art gallery or museum, strolling past the local PCYC or experiencing child-like wonder at the zoo, have you ever stopped to ponder who is in charge of the management and operations of this bustling and beloved facility?

This year, Facility Management launches a new editorial series called ‘Meet Your Local FM’, where we talk with the facility and operation managers, technical service and safety operators, and sustainability officers of iconic Australian institutions.

We’re diving deep to reveal a facility’s inner mechanics, along with the who and how of what it takes to keep these special spaces running so smoothly. We’re putting a face to a facility and debunking any assumptions surrounding this essential profession which many don’t know a lot about.

As far as stereotypes about facilities managers go, the assumptions pertaining to Jana Johnson’s role as facilities manager of the Australian War Memorial (AWM) err on cinematic, nationally significant and headline-worthy. 

“A lot of my friends think from the stories I’ve told them that I simply make sure the eternal flame stays lit,” says Johnson.

As usual in Facility Management’s ‘Meet Your Local FM’ series, the assumptions regarding facilities management are far from reality, and myths are busted and lessons learned. 

Johnson’s role in overseeing the maintenance of a revered and sacred site dedicated to commemorating Australian servicemen and women covers a wealth of responsibilities and roles. She possesses immense pride towards playing a key role in preserving this heritage-listed and cherished cultural institution. 

Jana Johnson in Commemorative Area with Hall of Memory in background. Photograph by Harry Brazil.

A place of irrepressible significance for Australians 

Johnson has worked at the AWM for 18 years, starting as an information assistant in front-of-house services while studying industrial arts education at university. 

It was working on the floor as an information assistant that prompted Johnson to develop a fierce respect and appreciation for the AWM. She is grateful to have interacted with visitors from all walks of life and found fulfilment in assisting in the interpretation of different gallery displays in the Memorial. 

She observed first-hand the power and meaning of the Memorial to Australians, particularly when facilitating discussions and interviews between veterans and school students. “It was a time in my career that I felt very special and honoured to be working with veterans,” says Johnson. 

In a pursuit to use the knowledge gained from her industrial arts education degree, Johnson jumped at the opportunity to work within the building and services team at the Memorial, which resembled a more hands-on and operational role. 

She has been the facilities manager for three years, and is delighted by the fact that there aren’t many other people in Australia who know the nooks and crannies of the Memorial as intimately as she does.

Commemorative Area after Last Post Ceremony

Gendered assumptions linger

Johnson says that while the perception that facilities management occasionally resembles a boys’ club rings true, she is inspired by the wider inclusion, involvement and acceptance of women in the field.

“When I first started at the Memorial, it was only myself and one other woman on the team,” she says. “But now, we currently have a major reconstruction project happening across the Memorial and I’m working alongside numerous female project managers and tradeswomen.”

Johnson is still disheartened by baseless gendered assumptions, however sporadic, that result in her being sidelined and dismissed as the “junior admin girl”.

Hall of Memory

“There are times when I have a meeting with one of the managers for a project that I am overseeing, and sometimes if I am with a male colleague, I’m overlooked as the junior admin girl – they look men in the eye, but ignore me,” says Johnson.

Such assumptions are symptomatic of outdated and archaic beliefs that women are not capable of taking on responsibility beyond administration work, even though Johnson possesses the valuable asset of knowing the Memorial’s maintenance needs and demands like the back of her hand. If necessary, Johnson could be led around the Memorial blindfolded, and she could cite the location.

Australian War Memorial Big Things in Store 2023, Treloar Technology Centre, Mitchell.

Strategy and psychology play a bigger role than anticipated  

Armed with an unshakable determination to continue learning about the Memorial’s history and socio-cultural context, Johnson is eager to debunk certain misunderstandings about facilities management. 

She acknowledges that most people have a fairly rudimentary understanding of what the job entails, and how it involves more than attending to the menial – yet important – tasks of changing light bulbs and ensuring the facilities are clean. 

Johnson reveals that a successful facilities manager holds a tight grasp on the psychology behind human relations, and relies on strategy in brainstorming how to complete tasks economically, seamlessly, and now more than ever, sustainably.

“There’s a lot of strategising how we can make operations more efficient and economic,” says Johnson. “When you are rearranging and planning office fit-outs and accommodation, there’s a degree of psychology that you have to put in place as well.”

ANZAC DAY Veterans March 25 April 2023

Human-centric job

Facilities management is often underappreciated as a people-centric job. Johnson is far from skulking unseen and unheard in the wings, instead relishing cooperating with staff, stakeholders and visitors in guaranteeing a meaningful experience for all users of the space. 

The behind-the-scenes is a swarm of activity and a soundboard of new ideas, suggestions and recommendations by a united team that is bound by an understanding of the importance of the site. 

She works with everyone from greenkeepers and horticulturalists to historical advisors, grateful to be tasked with making sure needs and functional requirements are addressed, and passions nurtured to ensure the essence of the Memorial is lucid to patrons. 

“I find working with contractors who are experts in their field really enjoyable, as they’re so passionate about what they do,” says Johnson. 

“They’ll come to me with all these different ideas about how to make these improvements so that the best of the Memorial is on display.”

Eternal Flame

Respectful and inclusive national pride

The AWM team is committed to making sure the initial purpose of the Memorial, proposed by historian and journalist C.E.W Bean is effectively communicated to staff, stakeholders and visitors. Bean was Australia’s official war correspondent during World War I and articulated the vision for the Memorial as ‘Here is their spirit, in the heart of the land they loved and here we guard the record which they themselves made’. 

After witnessing unspeakable atrocities and soldiers gathering souvenirs from the Western Front battlefields, Bean envisaged the creation of a war museum to exhibit these wartime relics.

The AWM opened in 1941 – two years into the Second World War – as a memorial to the fallen and an eternal reminder of the ultimate sacrifice. 

“We all share a passion and enthusiasm for what the Memorial stands for,” says Johnson. 

She says devotion and pride function as an almost guiding light for staff. “There’s a lot of pride behind what we do, how we operate and what we represent,” she says.

Commemoration not celebration 

However, honouring sacrifices made at a national level comes with the risk of this respect lapsing into jingoistic or aggressive displays of national pride and something that is intended to be commemorated, is in fact wrongly celebrated and glorified.

Johnson says the overarching goal of the AWM is to ensure the site is conducive to respectful, inclusive and solemn displays of national pride that allows visitors to connect with national identity in a safe and meaningful way.

The AWM is a site for reflection, education and emotion, and from a facilities management perspective, maintaining the site to the highest possible standards is critical to ensuring the Memorial is appropriately presented to those who come here to honour those who have served. 

“It’s very important for us to do whatever we can to make sure that we’re operating and presenting the place to the best of our ability. We want to pay tribute to servicemen and women – it’s a commemorative place,” says Johnson.

WWII display

The interface between facilities management and construction 

A day in the life of the facilities manager at the AWM is predictably varied, depending on the different projects in the pipeline. 

Johnson’s weeks are currently packed as she juggles providing logistical support to the the installation and opening of the Sufferings of War and Service sculpture with overseeing day to day maintenance, building accommodation planning and preparing for the re-opening of the Memorial’s Parade Ground on Anzac Day. 

Maintenance is made complex by the multi-use nature of the Memorial, as there are offices, labs and scanning and exhibition rooms that transform the AWM into a bustling cornucopia.

Johnson comments on the strong relationship between facilities and construction works, in the current development project that includes a new southern entrance, Anzac Hall and glazed link, and gallery fit-outs in the main building, among other things.

Major construction works risk disruptions and the inhibition of a rich and memorable visitor experience, therefore Johnson says that ensuring services continue is paramount, which can be achieved through attending to maintenance tasks after hours.

“It’s not uncommon for me to start work at 4am,” she says.

“I often supervise or manage a project in a heritage-sensitive area where we need to make sure we’re doing all we can to complete and clean up before opening to the public at 10am.”

Sophisticated technology allows facilities team to overcome hurdles 

Technology plays a major part in the AWM’s facilities management, particularly with the imminent introduction of electric vehicles (EV) into the vehicle fleet, alongside strides to pursue carbon neutrality in operations management. Johnson is excited to soon rely on building information modelling (BIM).

“Instead of working off 2D plans, we’ll be able to access a 3D walkthrough of the site on our computers and click on certain plant and assets to work out faults and how they’re upgraded,” she says. 

Daily life for the facilities crew at the AWM will be made smoother by using technology that allows remote monitoring of equipment.

“I can log onto my phone and turn on the sprinklers, check irrigation faults or monitor and program the lighting controls,” says Johnson. 

She fronts a slightly humorous and almost Mission Impossible-esque anecdote to illustrate how remote-controlled technology delivers efficient outcomes in facilities.

“A part of our facilities role is to make sure that the site is in darkness just before the Anzac Day dawn service starts,” she says.

“When I first started at the Memorial, I had to run around to three different buildings and turn circuit breakers off, which could take half an hour. Now, it’s just the click of a button on an iPad, and the Memorial is in Anzac Day mode, which means the site is dark and the service is ready to commence.”

However, Johnson sees this past frenzied panic as a superpower. “I often think, if this button does not work, I know where the switchboards are!” she laughs. 

Australian War Memorial Big Things in Store 2023 Saturday 2 September Treloar Technology Centre, Mitchell.

Maintenance that dodges dishonouring historical authenticity 

The inclusion of the AWM on Australia’s Commonwealth Heritage List and National Heritage List necessitates care and consideration towards maintaining the historical integrity and prestige of the site. The Memorial is also protected under the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act. 

Johnson says that installations or projects that knowingly impact heritage must undergo several internal and external assessments by heritage consultants. 

“There’s an assessment to determine an alternative for something as small as drilling a hanger for an artwork into a heritage fabric wall, and to see that if damage does occur, can it be reversible,” she says.

“We go through a rigorous process to make sure we’re making deliberate and calculated steps to protect the heritage fabric of the Memorial building.”

Regular maintenance includes steam cleaning the building’s sandstone and applying biocides onto the building’s facade to stall moss growth. The Memorial is also fitted with vibration monitoring to ensure that areas of the building aren’t affected by vibration from construction works, in addition to designated exclusion zones that prohibit construction from being completed.

“There’s definitely different levels of controls when it comes to protecting the building, the collection and the heritage listing,” says Johnson.

Last Post Ceremony. The Battle of Australia VIP WWII Veteran Les Cook

All departments committed to a shared objective 

Johnson collaborates with a vast array of departments at the Memorial, yet mainly works with events and ceremonies and the national collection team to guarantee peak visitor experience and the conservation of items, respectively.

“Facilities is an assistive team in a lot of different projects throughout the Memorial, and we need to make sure we all have the same objectives,” says Johnson.

The lasting impact of the AWM as a powerful and emotional museum, research centre and archive is never lost on Johnson. “It gives back to Canberra and Australia through the way it honours the sacrifices of Australian servicemen and servicewomen,” she says. 

Roll of Honour

Johnson’s team are instrumental in providing a calming and accessible site for commemoration and reflection. “The AWM is a social benefit for Australians wishing to engage in commemoration,” she says. 

A site of deep emotion

The AWM is undeniable as a major attraction – welcoming visitors from all over Australia and the world and drawing in plentiful economic benefits to Canberra. There is no charge to visit or even to park, yet a gold coin donation is encouraged.

Johnson revels in how the AWM extends beyond the traditional offerings of a museum in terms of the emotional gains for visitors, who range from veterans, schoolchildren, university students and families who have a loved one honoured on the Roll of Honour..

“The displays at the Memorial evoke a gamut of different emotions, and you can feel that connection when you are walking through the galleries,” she says.

Last Post Ceremony

“I feel a sense of pride, not just because I’ve contributed to the displays or helped work on a project, but seeing how people connect with the Memorial is really fulfilling.”

Johnson reiterates the importance of ensuring facilities are well-maintained, so the sacredness imbued within the displays is not tarnished, or the meaning misconstrued.

A Memorial favourite for Johnson is the Commemorative Area, the courtyard within the Memorial building that features the Roll of Honour, Pool of Reflection, Eternal Flame and the crowning feature to the courtyard, the Hall of Memory.

“The space is quite powerful, and every time I walk in, I feel a sense of pride and respect,” says Johnson.

Photography supplied by AWM. 

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