When you enter the grounds of the Old Parliament House, you will be astonished by the dynamism of the atmosphere. The dynamism is caused by the startling contrast of cultures that exist in its surroundings. The Old Parliament House, an authoritative place where Australia housed its parliament for almost half a century from 1927 to 1988, is somewhat provoked by the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, who claim their political rights with handmade signs and tents. The Old Parliament House itself is a gigantic, white building, which resembles many of the Official Residents of the world, including the White House from the United States. Yet, when you enter the grounds of the Old Parliament House, you will constantly be reminded of the crucial part of history that must not be neglected; you will soon smell the smoke from the smoldering logs and leaves being burnt by the people of The Aboriginal Tent Embassy. The Museum of Australian Democracy in the Old Parliament House does not just tell a one-sided story of Australian democracy, but its history as a whole, that tries its best to capture many different themes from various perspectives.
The exhibition I chose to have my journey on was the permanent exhibition at the Museum of Old Parliament House called “Designing Democracy”. This exhibition explores the international events, people, philosophy, and the media that have shaped Australian democracy and had on influence on the Australian people. The exhibition does not proceed chronologically but thematically; it is divided into several sections, which are Challenges, Rights, Equality, Suffrage, Press, Changing the Constitution, Documents and Democracy, Growth, Governing, and finally Action. These sections cover both domestic and international issues.
The exhibition first starts with a screening of the first Pericle’s democracy in Greece, later showing a street interview that asked the Australian people of their opinions on and their definitions of democracy. There are many opinions among Australians, both reflective and simply apathetic. It also acknowledges that the word “democracy” has multiple meanings. For example, for some people, the year 1901 when the Federation was proclaimed does not necessarily represent the date when Australia became a democratic nation. There is also a section where the political systems around the world are displayed. Here, the curators have utilized an interactive, digital method of display where the audience could simply touch the display screen on the country of his/her interest, and many statistical data and graph will appear on the screen, allowing for an easy comparison.
What I liked about this exhibition was its use of technology in each of the sections. At every section, there is a digital opinion polling that asks the visitors for their opinions about a specific topic of the section. For example, at the “Changing the Constitution” section, the digital opinion-polling screen gives a background on the Australian Constitution, and asks if Australia needs to change its constitution. 28% answered “Yes”, 54% answered “No”, and 18% answered “Not Sure”. Moreover, when asked if you would sell your vote if given the opportunity, 20% answered “Yes”. These are great informational technology where visitors could interact actively with the exhibition display, but not all visitors engaged actively with its functions. This interactive display also made me realize that in order to be a citizen of civil society, one needs to have an adequate understanding of democracy, and that if a state fails to provide such learning environments, it is failing to serve their people, and Old Parliament House would be nothing but a gigantic white building of superficiality.
Before going to the museum, I had always kept in mind the critical question of: what does this museum exclude in its exhibition? Are the aboriginal issue, gender, and race also important themes of this exhibition? Is it really integrated and not marginalized? However, as far as I was keen, this exhibition was fairly inclusive and integrated. For example, the exhibition proceeds by presenting a “Democracy Ranking” by the United Nations and the World Bank, explaining that Australia has one of the world’s best democracy. The exhibition tells its audience, however, that this democracy was not achieved through one night; before developing into this level of democracy, Australia had to go through many challenges, including the rights of the aboriginal peoples, migrants, and suffrage of women. While the exhibition presented democracy as an ideal way of the government, it also mentioned the downside of democracy, which included the possibility of excluding minorities through elections. Democracy is a term that is broad and hard to summarize into one definition, but this exhibition did quite well in encompassing the theme in multiple perspectives.
While I was walking around in the exhibition, I wondered if my home country had anything like the Museum of Australian Democracy. Although Japan is a democratic nation with many museums and institutions that are intended to educate the people of what Japan has done during the imperial era or how democracy in Japan was formed, many are merely privately owned, which contrasts with the Australian case where the government actively participates in presenting such topics in the form of a museum. The few national museums that deal with such issues are memorial museums for individual events such as raids and atomic bombs, and the Showa-Kan, which is a nationally funded museum that claims to represent war memory of the Japanese people. However, its presentation is not as whole and integrated as the Museum of Australian Democracy and Australian War Memorial. Museum of Australian Democracy not only interprets the theme of democracy with multiple angles that range from domestic to international issues, but it also presents those issues both subjectively and objectively.
My visit to the Museum of Australian Democracy at the Old Parliament House has allowed me to learn not only about how democracy in Australia was formed but also realize the egalitarian spirit of the Australians. The fact that a national institution that deals with many controversial issues could exist, and that the Aboriginal Tent Embassy could protest right in front of such a place as the Old Parliament House, and the digital opinion polling all taught me that Australia is now a country with the right to freedom of speech.
Permanent exhibition: Designing Democracy At the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House
18 King George Terrace, Parkes, ACT 2600, Australia Open daily from 9:00am to 5:00pm