I couldn’t take my eyes off him his long and slender back was tilted supported by the knees slightly bent jawbones showing, brows narrowing he stood looking at the girl in front who didn’t care, glanced elsewhere unwavering he glared, his round pupils measuring her tiny frame, flashy hair unmoving he observed, taking in her being and her every movement his soul concentrated at his object betraying not an emotion in his face shifting only his wrists, the master outlined her outline, his spine still for hours he watched her, and I him filling up my heart with so much joy and his canvas with all that grace I missed the sunset over my head but he saw colour fade from the girl and moved with alarming swiftness he clapped. Packed. And strode off ciao, street painter. Until tomorrow.
Australian politics and history have evaded us for a long time. I realised this as I walked past portrait after portrait of the Australian prime ministers. Most of Canberra’s suburbs have names of these Prime Ministers, but aside from that I hadn’t heard of even one of them before. What a shame. Though I grew up in Asia, I knew leaders of Britain, the US, and Canada from an early age—they were always in our history books or the ugly political discussions at awkward family dinners.
Wondering about the weirdness of it all, I wandered the old parliament house in Canberra.
Although it was built as a temporary parliament in the 1920s, the provisional parliament building ended up serving as the actual parliament for over fifty years. Today, though, it’s a storehouse of exhibitions and historical monuments.
Apart from the primary attractions like the House of Representatives Chamber, the Senate Chamber, the Prime Minister’s office, the Cabinet, and the Opposition Party Room, the parliament building is also home to plenty of smaller, yet significant exhibitions.
When I walked in, I had no idea what to expect. Equipped with a though floor plan of the entire building, I wandered through the corridors looking into each exhibition.
Finders keepers My first stop, this exhibition showcases the different types of collectables famous Australian figures collected—like the telephone collection of a former telecommunications officer, the tie collection of a former minister, the t-shirts and badges owned by a social activist, and the porcelain collection of a parliamentarian. Each of these collections ties into the larger story that museums themselves are collectors.
OnetoEight Moving along, I paused at a large room dedicated to remembering the Prime Ministers of Australia. Apart from photographs and descriptions of their work, you can also hear recorded versions of some speeches they delivered throughout their reign.
Wives of the Prime Ministers Inspiring and eye-opening, though they were, more striking was the portrait exhibition of the wives of prime ministers. A surprise, it was—although every museum I’ve been to celebrates public leaders and their achievements, none of them mentions the families that supported the great menfolk of our time. This exhibition, albeit small, casts a vital spotlight on the womenfolk of the nation.
Whenever I visit historical sites, I don’t set time limits to myself. I don’t like rushing through exhibits to move on to the next attraction on my list. That’s such a touristy thing to do. Instead, I take my time to explore, read inscriptions, watch the videos, and linger. As a result, I spent $2 (entrance fee) and over 4 hours inside the parliament building.
I have no regrets, though. If I hadn’t stayed on, I would’ve missed the witty and thought-provoking political cartoons on display. Couriser and couriouser, huh?
I would’ve missed the #UDHRquilt project. UDHR stands for Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and this project was the work of craftivists (craft+activist), Tal Fitzpatrick and Stephanie Dunlap. They made four quilts, embroidered with the articles mentioned in UDHR. I’m no activist. I have mixed feelings about how human rights are so subjective at times. But I still enjoy a good piece of art.
Oh, and I would’ve missed the crown jewels. Not the real ones, though, of course. When Queen Victoria visited Australia, they made a separate area in the parliament to accommodate the Queen and her party. And as I stepped into her living space, I couldn’t believe how simple everything was. The dining table was just a basic wooden structure, the bathrooms, the kitchens, the sitting area, though impeccable, were more functional than fancy. It reflected that the royalty and the highest members of the government were still so human, so vain.
Had I left any sooner, I’d have missed the most exciting exhibit of them all—the Press Gallery. It’s hard to fathom that the small, even stuffy, rooms above the house of representatives were the life of the government. Everything that the world knew and heard of about the rule makers came from the press—every printed phrase and every uttered word makes a world of difference. And as I stood where so many print and radio journalists had stood in the past, I felt proud to appreciate the power of the written word and its influence in the world.
Other highlights in the museum:
Prime Ministers’ office
Opposition party room
Opposition party whip’s room and the television that let him observe the proceedings at the house of representatives without being there
Dress Code of the Empire: A look at Edmund Barton’s (first prime minister of Australia) costume
Copies of the Australian Constitution, Declaration of Independence signed by the Queen, Australia Act, and its modifications
Various signs and slogans of Australian politicians – then and now
A brief history of democracy in Australia
In the end, it was like any other trip to the museum—so satisfying, so full of lessons, and so overwhelming. And still so worthwhile. By the time I left, I didn’t have time to go elsewhere because most of the museums and historical sites in Canberra close at 5 pm. Remember that when you visit—and do visit.
Nowadays, it’s ever so common to see crowds gathering in front of government houses, with upheld banners and raised voices, protesting. It doesn’t matter what for—policies, opinions, misspoken words, misspellings on social media—why, some people even oppose the existence of other people. Regardless of the “why” of these protests, almost every rally I’ve seen and heard of has a similar streak: violence. In its core, whenever anyone disagrees or rebels, they use harsh and violent behaviour to make themselves seen and heard.
Of course, in recent years, silent, un-violent, and fasting protests are becoming more desirable. But even today, all the marches and show of disagreement contain angry outbursts, name-calling, and plain spite. What’s sad, though, is that just as a self-fulfilling prophecy, these violent protests get more attention than the others. Even though our generation understands and even professes the effectiveness of the pen over the sword, the influence of weapons in conflicting opinions is far too significant to ignore.
That’s why it feels amazing to come across a different form of protest. Both in movies and real life, we’ve seen governments cutting off funds to public welfare systems like health care programmes, transport services, and university courses. Each time it happens, the government—factual or fictional—faces large mobs of angry citizens, swearing through megaphones and wasting fuel on stick figures and flags.
But then I saw this:
It’s a necklace. It’s also a sign of protest. When the state government of Canberra (Australian Capital Territory) cut off funds to the National Institute of Arts, teachers and Canberra sponsors together presented this necklace to the Chief Minister at the time, Kate Carnell, as a sign of their protest. What’s unique about it though is that each metal link in the necklace has a tag with the name of a sponsor. So each piece resembles a protestor, and together it makes a neckband for the chief minister of the then ACT.
No hate speech, no blood, an no fasting to death. What a daring rebellion! And what a beautiful necklace it is too—when you take away the historical value, that is one marvellous piece of accessory, won’t you say?
It made me stop and think about how much has changed in the way we fight for our convictions. Of course, we should stand up for what we believe in, but when our fight costs innocent people their peace, patience, or worse, life, then what good does our conviction do?
The necklace is on display at the Canberra Museum and Gallery. If you’re in the area, stop by and pay a visit—it sure is worth looking at.
Dear stranger, I knew not much of you except that your eyes glowed at the prospect of new horizons that your curiosity piqued and your spirit lightened up when your fingers were at play on the vastness of a canvas I knew not much of you except that you dreamt big that you craved experiences which will change your art forever that you remained in patience and eagerness-pulsing heart for the one big opportunity of great exposure of your talent I saw expectation in your eyes for all the world’s appreciation and the applause you deserve
Dear stranger, I knew not much of you yes I’d planed to change that but alas, you moved on in a flash I know now—death is dismissive