Ten years of the Museum of Australian Democracy
When I began my internship at the Museum of Australian Democracy (MoAD), I wondered how I would be able to show people ‘democracy.’ Over the past few months interning and researching the 10 year history of the museum, I’ve discovered that ‘putting democracy in a display case’ actually looks very different to what I had imagined.
My research led me to discover how MoAD has educated and entertained people over the past 10 years and how each exhibition has its own unique way of celebrating the history and future of democracy.
Opening day, 9 May 2009
Old Parliament House, the site of much of Australia’s political and legislative life, officially became the home for MoAD on 9 May 2009. It opened with a fanfare of eager visitors and excited staff.
Former MoAD Director, Jenny Anderson, remembers arriving on opening day to see the front of the building ‘set up like a party’ for the ‘sea of people’ that later arrived.
Just before MoAD opened in 2009, senior staff member Michael Richards acquired the ‘foundational’ (i.e. very first) object in the museum’s collection: a rare Larry Pickering chess set.
Michael spent years tracking down the item before finally clinching the deal with an unusual phone call: a filmmaker, who happened to be climbing a tree in Cairns during the call, decided to sell the chess set in order to buy more filming equipment!
The first exhibitions open to the public
MoAD’s very first exhibitions explored the nation-changing conversations that had occurred in the building when it was still Parliament House (Corridors of Power), and the private lives of those close to politics (Mrs Prime Minister – Public Image, Private Lives). One exhibition even took a look at Australia’s democracy from an international perspective, exploring the broader history of democracy around the world (Australian Democracy – More than 2,000 Years in the Making).
But democracy is an active thing that involves people, so can you even show something like that in a museum? How can you put democracy in a case and display it for visitors?
The evolution of MoAD's exhibitions
One of the first places where MoAD addressed these questions was the former Cabinet Room. Cabinet-in-Confidence was an innovative program featuring interactive tools and elaborate projections. The immersive experience asked visitors seated at the old Cabinet Room table to play the part of ministers and make decisions on behalf of Australia. People were asked questions about topical issues, and encouraged to debate and cast their vote on what action should be taken. Playing politician empowered visitors, particularly school children, to see themselves as people whose opinions have always mattered in how the nation is shaped.
Marnti warajanga: a walk together featured 34 photographs of Indigenous people from the Pilbara region. The exhibition used text and audiovisual elements to share the important history of the people of the Pilbara and highlight how the stories of people from this region have helped shape policy, political agendas, and Australian democracy in general. In 2012, the exhibition travelled to five communities in the Pilbara, with the mission to show visitors how their stories were central to democracy.
A museum of ideas as well as objects
MoAD teaches visitors about democracy by immersing them in a variety of different experiences! Inviting everyone to contribute to outcomes and show them that their active participation is central to democratic processes being successful.
In 2013 and 2016 (and again in 2019!), MoAD has been a super booth for federal elections. Thousands of people queued up to cast their vote, share a democracy sausage and be a part of democracy in action. The museum facilitated a truly democratic experience unlike any other. The museum further opened up to visitors with its popular role in the Enlighten Festival.
Early every year, MoAD stays up late and invites visitors to come and watch vibrant and poignant projections light up OPH’s façade. Visitors are also invited indoors after hours to help build exhibitions; from building giant card castles to writing protest songs on vinyl records suspended from the King’s Hall ceiling. The playful, bright and engaging nature of Enlighten helps people get involved in asking the questions all democratic societies have.
Channelling the same participatory energy of being a super booth and the excitement of Enlighten, MoAD presented audiences with the unique opportunity to help make the exhibition. Power of One – Does Your Voice Count? asked questions of its audience, before, during and after the exhibition. The answers given were used to show visitors, through physical displays and interactive technology platforms, how their voices are unique, powerful tools.
When I began interning in February 2019, I thought that displays about democracy would have to focus on the past. My time researching the history of MoAD, as well as walking around the old hallways, into former office spaces and exhibitions, showed me that there are many ways to present the idea of democracy. It is about how people engage with the political systems around them, and with MoAD making that engagement so fun, enriching and exciting, it’s no wonder they’ve never tried to put democracy in a case.