Canberra – heritage hole or cultural oasis?

The origin of the name ‘Canberra’, the capital of Australia, is disputed. Is it from the Indigenous name for the hollow between a woman’s breasts, the hollow being likened to the floodplain between Mount Ainslie and Black Mountain. Or is it, according to a more  European version, from the Australian ‘cranberry’? Two competing versions, two competing histories.

“It will be a great capital in fifty years,” says Rick, my airbnb host, as he drives me down modern highways with bush on either side.

“It’s like a massive Hyde Park but with freeways and gum trees instead of sycamores, ” I reply.

American architect, Walter Burley Griffin, influenced by the garden city movement and helped by his landscape designer wife, won the design for the new capital in 1912 although the city was not built until decades later. ‘I believe in architecture that is the logical outgrowth of the environment in which the building in mind is to be located,’ said Griffin (New York Times, Sunday, June 2, 1912). But for me this city, although light and spacious, feels bereft, detached from its landscape and imposed upon it.

“The main arterial highways are called after all the major cities,” Rick explains. “Brisbane, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney, whichever direction they face. But they had to change the one for Wellington when New Zealand decided not to join us.”

Rick, who spent his childhood in one of the Pacific Islands, is a mine of information about the city that has become his home. He shows me the best restaurants, Thai and Italian, in the 1920s Art Deco arcade, one of the few older buildings in the town. He points out the vibrantly coloured, lakeside National Museum, built in 2001 and both the new and old seats of government.

New Parliament House
Aboriginal Tent Embassy outside the old Parliament House

We pass the Aboriginal democracy tent outside the old parliament building, prompting us to discuss the history of Aboriginal struggles.

“The Museum of Democracy inside may be worth a look too, “ says Rick. “Listen out for the recordings of Gough Whitlam, the creator of modern Australia. Before that it was red neck country.”

Back at his flat on the third floor of a modern building we sip tea on leather Chesterfields, surrounded by art works – dot paintings of aerial landscapes by Aboriginal artists sandwiched between more European style, contemporary paintings. In my temporary bedroom is a full-scale image of a young man, almost naked, overlooked by a Madonna whose halo sends out streaks of lightning to every nerve ending of the man’s body. I don’t ask my host, who is vacating his flat for the week, about the painting. Perhaps by the end of my stay I will find out its meaning.

Christina Lee, who is attending the same conference  on Critical Heritage Discourse, arrives 3 hours later from Perth, bouncing with energy.

“I’m talking about a disappeared mining community,” she says. “And you?”
“On child migration to East London.”

“I’m a child migrant from Singapore,” she says. “Perth, because of its location on the West coast, has attracted many Singaporeans.”

The 3-day conference is packed. Talks about heritage in Montreal, Myanmar and Mumbai. Speakers from Texas, Trinidad and Tokyo. World experts about Rubbish Theory (that is  theory about rubbish) and Future Studies in Finland. The latter bemuses me. Perhaps it is a language issue.

I search out the talks that interest me most. A moving talk about children in care, the ‘Forgotten Australians’ but also the ‘Stolen Generations’, children taken from Aboriginal families. ‘People and narratives rather than objects and collections should be prioritised,’ says the blurb. I empathise. I pick out Chinese market gardening in 19th century Australia and the settlement of more recent Sudanese. I can’t get to Memento Mori, about loss related to the Christchurch earthquake, but listen to a fascinating talk about the banner, ‘Roll up, Roll Up No Chinese’ made for the Lambing Flat riots against Chinese miners in the 19th century in New South Wales. The riots contributed to anti-Chinese immigration and the White Australia policy.

On the last day there is an inspiring talk about how the Bunjilaka Gallery of First Peoples in Melbourne, appeals to both the senses and emotions. It is just one of many that reference Indigenous culture.

Can2Version 2
National Museum of Australia

I have just one day with Leonie, a fellow PhD student, to follow up Rick’s suggestions. We set off for the National Museum. The website promises that it is, ‘ a jigsaw puzzle’ that ‘ reflects the many intertwined stories that make up Australia’s history.’ I’m usually good at jigsaws but this one almost defeats me. Why do architects, Libeskind being a prime example, create such stunning but unnavigable buildings?

National Museum of Australia

In the First People’s Gallery there are interactive invitations to dance under the stars, examples of beautiful craftwork and video clips of successful Aboriginal people.   But it leaves me with a sense of discomfort. It feels too ‘ethnographic’, not connected to examples elsewhere in the Museum about land and other rights. It is only later that I hear that Howard, the then Prime Minister, intervened after the opening of the First People’s Gallery, appointing new advisors to ‘correct’ what he saw as ‘black arm band history’.

“It was the famous history wars,” explains my source later. “In retaliation we called it, ‘white blindfold history’.”

Voyages Gallery, National Museum of Australia

The Voyages Gallery is at very top of this jigsaw building. It is so dark that I almost leave. But then I am drawn into the stories. There is Cook’s voyage, of course, but also one of a convict who was a Chartist, a political troublemaker in England who made a success of his life in the New World.  There is an intriguing story of the Lynch family who brought out church hand bells in the 19th century and toured concerts, not just across Australia, but as far away as India. There is a whole trousseau of a woman whose fiancé never returned from World War 1.

Voyages gallery, National Museum of Australia

There are photographs of a white Russian girl who migrated from China and became Miss Australia,

Voyages Gallery, National Museum of Australia
Voyages Gallery, National Museum of Australia

restaurant fittings from a popular restaurant run by a Greek family and a copy of the Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer who migrated to England. cangermsineIMG_9864 - Version 2

It’s all fascinating material but there is no context here, unlike the Museum of Migration in Adelaide, about who could or could not come to Australia and little reference of the impact of such travels on, or by, the Indigenous population. The one reference is the relatively recent tours of Indigenous art to Europe and China.

Museum of Democracy, Old Parliament Building

I have just an hour left to visit the Museum of Democracy. What fascinates me most is not the line up of all the prime minsters but the sound recordings. As I wander through rooms packed full of old fashioned typewriters, filing cabinets, telephone switchboards and newspapers I listen to Whitlam’s speech from when he was dismissed from office by the Queen’s representative.

“Well may we say ‘God save the Queen’, because nothing will save the Governor-General!”

Rick buys me breakfast and drives me to the airport for my flight to Melbourne – above and beyond the duty of any host.

“I love airbnb,” he says. “It’s like travelling the world vicariously.”

As we pass through the suburbs I say how impressed I was with Whitlam’s speeches.

“He had a great turn of phrase. Shortly before he died he was asked what he would say to God. ‘I would treat him as an equal’ he replied.”
We both laugh. I have found an ally in this garden city that has yet to fulfil the dreams of its designer. Fifty years seems a long time to wait.

I never did ask Rick about the meaning of the man with streaks of halo reaching his nerve endings and who watched over me as I slept.

2 thoughts on “Canberra – heritage hole or cultural oasis?

  1. Excellent, atmospheric piece…I prefer the hollow between a woman’s breast theory btw. Far more sensuous than a plain old cranberry.


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