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Published October 8th 2016
Be surprised at the Museum of Australian Democracy
Old Parliament House is Canberra's first home of politics, located in the Parliamentary Triangle. It originally opened in 1927 and was the centre of political debate until it closed its doors in 1988. When the "new" Parliament House opened in the same year, the "old" building sat quietly until 2009 when it was redesigned to house the Museum of Australian Democracy. You can now walk around the many exhibitions inside the building and learn about the Australia's political past, present and it asks questions about the future. The curators have displayed each area in an innovative and interactive way, creating modern and fresh exhibits that make you want to move onto the next room and discover more. The following are five fascinating highlights that I personally enjoy about Old Parliament House - which ones are your favourites?
Old Parliament House, the Museum of Australian Democracy
1/ The Prime Ministers Office The Prime Ministers Office has seen three of Australia's Prime Ministers occupy this room - Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke. The room is frozen in time from the Bob Hawke era, prior to the move to the new Parliament House in May 1988. On the way through to the office, visitors can walk past the work stations that were used by his supporting office staff and secretaries. Stop and listen to the radio which announces Australian news from that time and reminisce about the retro Coke cans and typewriters left on the tables. If you remember when Bob Hawke was Prime Minister, it is an interesting look behind the scenes at what everyday life was like for those who worked in the Prime Ministers Office. See here for more details.
As you walk around the hallways and rooms of Old Parliament House, there are offices to poke your head into that appear to have been left untouched since 1988. Many of the larger offices and areas have been turned into exhibition spaces, so you can wander around and marvel at gifts given to Australia by other countries, see photographic exhibitions by previous Prime Ministers, learn about the Magna Carta, see TV footage from the Queens visits to Australia and see both sides of the argument for current issues in Australia. These exhibitions change regularly, so every time you visit there is something new to discover. See here for a list of the current exhibitions, as well as here for more details on the permanent collections.
Interactive exhibits questioning our present and future
3/ Fun for Kids It is a pleasant surprise for families to see how many fun and colourful activities there are for kids in all areas of the building. There is a Dress Ups area where kids can try on sailors hats, tiaras, gowns and suits and parade in front of the many mirrors. There is also the hugely popular Play Up area for under 5's, which is a dedicated play area for drawing, making building blocks with cushions, creative play and a bean bag reading zone. It is called Play Up - A Right to Shelter and adults can read on the walls the history of children's rights in Australia and see photos of shelters, taken by kids from all around the world. See here for more details about the Play Up area.
For older kids, there is a Behind the Lines exhibition with board games and the Zine Lounge to make your own handmade, self-published magazine. Also at certain dates throughout the year and school holidays, Old Parliament House has family activities for all ages, such as the popular Great Easter Egg Trail. See the Families tab of their website for more details.
4/ Public Tours The free, 45 minute public tours held each day are an engaging and intriguing insight into the stories that make up this fascinating building. Learn about the historic building itself and the inner workings of Parliament, that perhaps you didn't know before. Take a moment to visualise what it would have been like in the various chambers, especially when Australia was at war and other life changing periods in our history. Although there is a lot to learn and experience walking around on your own, a public tour is an entertaining way to hear the stories of our country's past, with a touch of drama and humour. A definite highlight of the whole museum experience.
5/ Senate and House of Representatives Visitors are allowed to walk into the old Senate and House of Representatives rooms to sit on the leather chairs and imagine what it would have been like when this room was full of iconic characters from our political past. The Senate is characterised in red furnishings and the House of Representatives in green, following history and tradition from England. Pick up the old brick sized phones that they used in the 1980's and see the typewriters that were used to take the minutes. There is a certain "hush" about these rooms, as visitors seem to tiptoe in and out, aware of the importance that these rooms once held.
As well as these fascinating reasons to visit Old Parliament House (or the Museum of Australian Democracy), there are also many more attractions to discover. Stay and linger at Hoi Polloi restaurant, where you can sit outside in their courtyard and take in the view of the iconic building. Also take a stroll through the gardens on either side of Old Parliament House, to view the National Rose Gardens and formal gardens, often used for wedding ceremonies. At the front of the museum is the Terrace Café, with inside seating as well as its tables outside in the sun with views up to the Australian War Memorial. It is the ideal place to rest the feet and recharge the batteries, before continuing to explore the historic building once again.
Enjoy your walk through Old Parliament House, absorbing the history that is felt in every room and hallway. All 61 years of political turmoil and debate reverberates through its walls. If the walls could talk they would tell a colourful story.
Another great place to add to my to do list to visit in Canberra Sue, although in the spirit of good natured interstate rivalry I note that between 1901 and 1927 the Australian Parliament met in the Victorian Parliament House in Melbourne and therefore I think Melbourne can rightfully lay claim to being Australia's first home of politics. :-)