19 May 2009

Museum of Australian Democracy at OPH

The Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House was opened last week.

Our contribution to MOAD was relatively small - particularly compared to the amount of work we've undertaken at Old Parliament House over the past few years - but important nonetheless. During the design of the new exhibitions in 2008, we provided detailed recommendations on how to install the exhibitions into the building with minimal impact on the significant heritage fabric of the building.

We were fortunate enough to be part of the soft opening for museum and heritage professionals last night. Primed by an inspiring speech on the nature and value of democracy by artist Robyn Archer, we were most interested to see how the galleries that housed the National Portrait Gallery (now of course housed in their own purpose-built building almost over the road) had been redesigned.

Context is everything they say, and there can no more appropriate building in which to talk about democracy, or indeed space within a building, as the Museum opens directly off King’s Hall, with the House of Reps on the left and the Senate on the right. The themes it covers are those to be expected; Bill of Rights, the Constitution, suffragettes etc. but the nature of the space, which is the old Parliamentary Library, suits silos of information delivered in this way.

It’s a didactic exhibition, i.e. heavy on words without a large number of objects, but there is a lot of information to get across. The main gallery is dominated by the ’timeline’, a vast lectern type installation with a series of touch screens, which allows you to data mine deep into a whole range of issues and events according to the period you have selected.

I never find openings the easiest time to assess exhibitions, but this has the look and feel of a well researched and well presented exhibition. It is not as big as I thought, but it has the relocated and revamped Prime Ministers of Australia Gallery next to it, a new visitor experience now happening in the cabinet room (Cabinet in confidence), and a temporary exhibition called Living Democracy: the Power of the People soon to open.

Overall, I am a great fan of Old Parliament House as a building, and it is great to see its reason for existence post Parliamentary use finally having real resonance and meaning.

Julian Bickersteth
International Conservation Services

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