Canberra: Our Nation’s Capital

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Easter offered us a four-day public holiday. We took the opportunity to drive down to Canberra for a couple of days.I could not wait to get to Canberra, after reading Bill Bryson’s colorfully unflattering glimpse at the city.He described is as a shockingly boring place where he wandered the tree-lined suburban streets for hours and could not locate a place to eat, aside from his hotel bar.My favorite episode involved him stopping some local teens to ask if there was anywhere that he might get dinner – Thai . . . Japanese . . . . . .Italian .. .? The youth looked confused and offered that there was a Pizza Hut on the corner. I just could not believe that the nation’s capital could actually be that dull.

Our mission was not actually to drive four hours to prove Mr. Bryson wrong, though. The National Gallery of Australia is hosting an exhibit of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces from the Musee d’Orsay, which have reportedly never been outside of Paris before. It was, in advertising parlance, a “must-see.”

Upon arriving in town, we did immediately take note of the Stepford quality of the city. I got a clear picture of Bill Bryson wandering these streets, which are both deserted and vaguely sinister in their inoffensive uniformity.

Because most everything of interest in Canberra is named either National… or …of Australia, we accidentally first steered ourselves to the National Museum of Australia, rather than the National Gallery of Australia. It was a fortunate mistake because we decided to peruse, since we were there, anyway. The outside features modern, stylish architecture and a large concrete “island” that is a mini-Australia where kids jumped from Victoria to Tasmania with ease. The museum which, like most attractions in Canberra is free, is extremely well curated and features a range of information about Australia, from the early settler’s impressions of marsupials (it was a hundred years or more before any European believed the Aboriginal assertion that the platypus laid eggs), to an exhibit on the vast and damaging spread of non-native species like wild rabbits, to a reproduction Torres Strait Islander sea-faring canoe, and a working recording booth that replicates the one at the Aboriginal radio station in Broome (we recorded a weather report and feel certain they’ll call us to be on air talent soon).

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From the National Museum of Australia, we found our way to our intended destination and went straight for the Musee d’Orsay exhibit, since the rumors or multi-hour long lines for entry had become legend. In actuality, we waited approximately five minutes. Still, the crowds inside were uncomfortably dense, the kind that prevented me from really spending much time with “Water Lillies,” “Starry Night,” or even the piece by my personal favorite, the under-appreciated Odilon Redon. To give the exhibit its fair due, it is a truly remarkable collection, and I was most interested in lesser known pieces like the small renderings that show the progression Seurat took towards A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte, and the large, somber The Poor Fisherman by Puvis, which showed a social conscience not typically in evidence in this era. I would just have preferred visiting with these works in crowds less that 6 or 8 bodies deep. Ah, the humanity!

The rest of the museum was closed by the time that we finished, so it was now time to put Canberra to the test. On my partner’s beloved i-phone, we Googled “live music Canberra,” “theatre Canberra,” and several variations on the theme. Canberra, sadly, lived up to its sordid reputation. (Truthfully, Canberra does host a couple of theatres, but our timing in relation to show schedules was off). A quick drive around town (it doesn’t take long to get anywhere) led us to what seemed to be the downtown hotspot, which was shiny, retail-filled and painfully empty, except for a couple of bars. If you’ve ever been to downtown St. Petersburg, Florida, you know the scene. The movie theatre in the barren mall was playing a mix of second-run (to me, anyway) American films and some European fare. We couldn’t justify spending $16/each on a movie we knew nothing about, so opted to just eat dinner at a local pub, Gus’s, which was atmospheric enough and delicious.And thus, we concluded Saturday night in Canberra.

Day Two was packed full of art and politics. We started at the lovely Old Parliament House (it served as Australian Parliament until 1988), which is now the Museum of Australian Democracy.

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We found ourselves rather enamored with this place, and spent quite a long time exploring. We took advantage of the guided tour of the old House and Senate. We then participated in a mock Cabinet session in the real Cabinet conference room. We were placed in WWII and given background information for our decision as to whether Australia should keep troops in Burma to support the Allied forces or bring them home to defend against a possible Pacific strike by the Japanese at home. It was a real-life Catch 22, and I definitely felt some pressure, even on the mock stage, to make the right decision. (I voted to keep the troops in Burma, but the real-life Prime Minister went against Churchill and Roosevelt to bring them home, one of the first acts of Australian sovereignty, and not appreciated by the British). Another interactive exhibit in the museum featured a lot of historical issues in democracy and asked visitors to vote on such topics as “Should Australia Have a Bill of Rights?” and “Should Australia Become a Republic?” My American mindset screams “YES” to both, but I found that at least half or more respondants to these unscientific polls felt differently.

 

We tore ourselves away from Australian Democracy and briefly explored the eye-catching Aboriginal tent embassy, which is directly across the street.

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An informational brochure explained that the land traditionally belongs to the Ngunnawal people. Protestors on this site fought for the government to recognize the land rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, beginning in 1972, when the first tent embassy was established (ironically, in the shadow of a large statue of King George V). The land was eventually recognized by the government, but it took over 20 years. As an aside, an important moment in Australian history occured in 2009 when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd formally apologized to the families of Aboriginal children taken from their homes to be raised by Europeans from 1930 to 1970. From what I’ve seen, this national apology seems to be a first step towards healing and understanding. It is a small step on an enormous path forward, but everywhere we went, we noticed growing recognition for the rights and inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as a vital part of Australian life and history. While it still seems to me like an uncomfortable fit, especially considering that they’ve been on this land approximately 39,800 or so years longer than Europeans have, but the dialogue has to begin somewhere.

Now, off of the political and onto … the political. Much like Washington, D.C., Canberra is built on a circle. If you look directly across the way from the Old Parliament and tent embassy, you’ll see the current Parliament.

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While the Old Parliament is an elegant classical style building, the new Parliament is a grand fortress; a screaming example of modern architecture, with harsh diagonals and cold, metallic detailing. My partner suggested that perhaps this building will be de rigueur in 30 years or so. I, conversely, wondered if this building would be dated, like an avocado and orange 1970s kitchen, in 30 years. On our guided tour, we did learn that much of the design was highly symbolic, that the building is functional on a massive scale (8,000+ people come to work here daily), and designed to operate for 200 years (how they decided on 200 years was not explained). It was fascinating to see the new House and Senate rooms, in comparison to their quaint predecessors, across the way. Most of the traditions, primarily borrowed from the Brits, remain intact, but on a larger (and rather more aesthetically pleasing) scale.

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After the tour, my partner struck up a conversation with our bruskly friendly and highly knowledgeable tour guide. We drifted to the subject of when Australia would become a Republic (which is put to a vote of the Australian people from time to time). Our guide’s view was that it was not likely until after the death of Queen Elizabeth. Many Australians feel a real attachment to this Queen – not the monarcy, itself, but to the current Queen. The loyalty, likely, does not extend to future generations. At least, that’s one tour guide’s opinion.

From Parliament, we rushed back to the National Gallery to take a tour of the highlights of the permanent display. We could not see much in the allotted one hour, but we quickly took in a range from modern European sculpture, to (more) French Impressionism, to Jackson Pollock (which we learned caused quite the controversy of the, “my 5 year old could paint that!” variety, when purchased), to Australian (European-Australian) landscape painters. The tour concluded with a modern Aboriginal piece, which our guide did not seem particularly well versed about. On the way out, we saw some contemporary Australian art and an interesting special exhibit of art by tribal elders, most of which melded the traditional aesthetic with a modern viewpoint.

Finally, we went to the Australian War Memorial. We skipped the many exhibits of artillery and military costume in favor of a few minutes in the solemn Hall of Memory, with a tomb of an unknown soldier and intricate art deco mosaics and stained glass, commemorating service men and women. Outside, two walls with the names of the fallen are stuffed with poppy flowers, and overlook a reflection pool. We arrived not long before end of day, so we witnessed the closing ceremonies – a single bugler playing a closing salute, followed by the seemingly ghost-like closing of the doors to the Hall.

We had now arrived at 5p.m., the magic time when nearly all of Canberra seems to close its doors. We could not have seen more museums, monuments, or halls, even if we’d wanted to. Truthfully, we were fairly exhausted after so much mental intake. Disinclined to seek out more of Canberra’s glittering night life, we cooked dinner for ourselves and, I am not ashamed to tell you, we did what it seems like many in Canberra might do – went to sleep at 8 o’clock. Bill Bryson was right about Canberra at night. A couple of Canberra days, however, were full and rich.