Let there be light

Every year in March, Canberra goes up in lights.

Or so I hear—it’s my first time.

However judging by others’ nonchalance at the nation’s iconic buildings illuminating some of the world’s popular artwork, it’s nothing new.

Enlighten Canberra is a festival dedicated to illuminating many parts of the city for an entire week. Sponsored by Singapore Airlines and ActewAGL, the leading electricity provider for the Australian Capital Territory, the festival features a range of events proven to treat the entire family.

  • Kids' kaleidoscope - Enlighten Canberra
  • Illuminated figure - Enlighten Canberra
  • Giant snail - Enlighten Canberra

A major part of the festival is the night noodle markets, where about 20-30 food stalls showcase steaming soul soothers and bone-chilling beers in a backdrop of live music that ranges from rock and roll to pop to local jazz.

But food, music, and picnic blankets are the highlights of most festivals.

Enlighten is different.

For you see, last Friday, on the first day of the festival, major buildings in the country all lit up at exactly 8 pm.

It all started at Questacon, the science museum for kids and oldies alike. The chief minister of ACT made a speech, as you do for these things, and hit the big red button that officially kicked off the festival. At that moment, other buildings across the city—like the National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Australian Democracy (more familiar as the old parliament house), the National Gallery of Australia, the National Library of Australia, the Australian National Archives, and the current parliament House of Australia—all featured jaw dropping illustrations.

Australian Parliament House illuminated for Enlighten Canberra, 2020
Australian Parliament House

It wasn’t all. Throughout the evening, these buildings continued to shower their audience with picture-perfect moments that many a photographer has already drooled over. The hashtag has reached the point of over-usage, fuelled not only by professionals with long exposure digital SLRs, but also by self-educated, self-made, and self-centred teenage freaks and Instagram frequents.

Museum of Australian Democracy (Old Parliament House)

The show goes on for nine days, coming to a grand finale on Monday the 9th of March, on Canberra Day.

That day is the beginning of the rest of this celebratory month, where every day from 6 am, hot air balloons grace the skies, showing off to the rest of the world the impeccable clarity of the Canberran sky.

I can’t wait.

Oh, the reality

Illuminations on the Old Parliament House in Canberra - #EnlightenCanberra Festival
Old Parliament House, #EnlightenCanberra

Weeping together,
at parliament’s facade,
our roos and kiwis.

Collecting

Finders Keepers exhibition at the Old Parliament House in Canberra, Australia

Fraying photographs

desperate to keep intact

long gone memories


Photo: “What do you collect?” – An interactive segment of the Finders Keepers exhibition in the Old Parliament House, Canberra, Australia.

Nations of the world

Cartoon on display at the Old Parliament House in Canberra, Australia

Seeking unity

to show off a common goal

while divided still


Photo: An artwork by Costa A on display at the Old Parliament House in Canberra, Australia.

Parliament day

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.

  • Prime Minister's staff offices
  • Prime Minister's office
  • Cabinet
  • Vintage computer - office of the parliament speaker

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.

Neil Baker's telephone collection
From Neil Baker’s telephone collection

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.

Replica of the Crown Jewels
Replica of the Crown Jewels

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.

Writing on the wall - Press Gallery
Writing on the wall – Press Gallery

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.