The importance of the Museum of Australian Democracy: Reflections from Dr Stephanie Smith on Recent Events
By: Dr Stephanie Smith, Learning Manager, Museum of Australian Democracy
Walking down the corridors of the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House always evokes a sense of pride and opportunity. With the 100th birthday of the building’s opening fast approaching, there are so many political and social stories the building has to tell from its time as our provisional parliament.
Even upon returning to the building after a period of absence with each breath the smell of warm wooden finishes and leather upholstery are ever present. Working in a building which in itself is an object, a symbol of democracy, our decision-making process and many historic moments is something special. A significant place visited by many young people from across the country as they connect and explore the significant role they have in our democracy.
Dr Stephanie Smith opening the front doors to welcome school groups Image: MoAD
In the days before the fire, whilst working from home, I would drive the half hour from my house to Old Parliament House just to check the building was ok. I’ve always been incredibly proud of the work I do, and the greater Learning Team does to support teachers and young people. In this moment of concern over the behaviour of protests, I realised this building becomes a part of you. On the day of the fire, I drove past for my regular check in only to witness the many fire trucks occupying the carpark. The billowing smoke and blackened, burnt out entrance was all I could see. As I kept driving past, my heart broke. What had begun as a peaceful protest, a democratic right of all Australians, had ended in a deliberate fire being lit and causing extensive damage. Peaceful protest has long been a method of communicating issues to the those in power alongside voting, petitions, letter writing, wearing badges and t-shirts. All valid, civil means of communicating frustrations with government.
Following the event, I shared across social media a video clip of me beaming as I opened the front doors to welcome visitors to Old Parliament House. A moment now so special as I believed the doors had been completely lost to the fire. In the initial clean-up of the portico and entrance a photograph was shared of our Heritage Team hard at work sifting through the debris and there standing strong were the front doors. My heart skipped a beat, they were still there. Worse for wear, a little charred and the outer layer gone but still standing. There was hope. The doors are currently in Sydney with conservation experts being restored.
The blackened jarrah and charred bronze of the front doors of Old Parliament House. Image: Alex Ellinghausen
Since this time, our purpose as a Learning team has become even clearer. Whilst the building has remained closed to the public since the fire in late December for significant restoration from water and smoke damage, we have remained open to school groups. The Learning team has continued to deliver onsite programs, digital excursions and create online resources. It’s not just about continuing to engage and inquire with students onsite about how they can contribute to creating a better world but extending this to all students across the country. We are working to empower young people to be informed citizens who have a voice and understand the many ways to actively participate in our democracy. The significant work we are doing will help build future generations who look to support those around them, care about community and work to create a better world for all.
School groups return to onsite. Image: Timothy Pidkins