Unfortunately this magnificent attraction underwent something of an identity crisis and for whatever reason has re-badged itself as the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House with an emphasis on the museum part. This identity crisis, I believe, stems from the move of the National Portrait section to its new permanent home at the newly built National Portrait Gallery in 2008.
Below I will refer to the The Museum of Australian Democracy component which, frankly, in its current form I consider to be a waste of space.
Old Parliament House – as that – is a must see attraction and certainly one of my favourite buildings in the city.
Australia became a united federation in 1901 and on doing so a capital city was required. Rivalry then (as now) between Melbourne and Sydney meant that neither of these two main cities would be accepted as a capital. A number of alternative sites were considered and what was, without meaning to insult the original inhabitants and settlers, little more than an isolated sheep paddock was chosen and named Canberra.
The first Parliament of The Commonwealth of Australia met in Melbourne until a Parliament House (now Old Parliament House) was constructed in Canberra 1927. This building was only ever intended to be a temporary (Provisional) Parliament building pending construction of a permanent building by the lakeshore – as envisioned in the Walter Burley Griffin blueprint for Canberra. The lakeside idea was subsequently dropped in favour of a hill (Capital Hill) behind Old Parliament House – a story in itself which I cover in my review of New Parliament House. Temporary, in fact, lasted until 1988 during which time the number of people working in this building increased to around 4000. It is hard to imagine how 4000 people (originally built to house 300) could have worked here as you walk around this rabbit warren of a building today.
The two-thirds of the building not given over to the Museum of Australian Democracy is pretty much as it would have been the day Parliament moved up the hill. Both Houses of Parliament, the Prime Minister’s suite (depicted below), Cabinet room, opposition leaders, speakers and numerous other offices and meeting rooms within the building are fully open to the public.
A few items like the Prime Minister’s desk are roped off to protect them. Certainly nothing palatial about these offices – many of which are barely functional and most of which would certainly not meet current day occupational health and safety standards. Contrast this building with New Parliament House.
You will come across a few smaller, high quality, exhibitions including one on Australian Prime Ministers as you make your way around the building. Kings Hall, the rather grander entrance hall has an excellent display of paintings of Australian Prime Ministers together with a beautiful bronze statue of King George V who was monarch when the building was opened. King George V, then as Duke of York, represented his father, King Edward VII, at the opening of the first Commonwealth Parliament on 9 May 1901 in Melbourne.
Downstairs you will find an exhibition of political cartoons which is now updated annually – Behind the Lines. This section, while clearly sanitised, is still very entertaining though will be more appreciated by visitors with a sound knowledge of current Australian politics.
Fancy yourself as speaker for the day? If so when in the vicinity of the Speakers office keep your eye out for a large “speakers chair” and gown and wig. Put the gown and wig on and have a seat. Also when in the Prime Minister’s office look for the peep hole (which was actually used by staff to look in to see if the Prime Minister was available/ready to take guests, etc).
The building itself, designed by John Smith Murdoch is a classical almost art deco style, a style which I am generally not a fan but I make an exception for this building and its quite stunning white façade.
Free 45 minute guided tours are offered at regular intervals. I encourage you to join one of these tours and listen to the stories of the goings on in this building over its 60 years of existence. Very high quality guides.
Back to the Museum of Australian Democracy bit.
I feel the powers that be felt landed with some empty space when the Portrait Gallery moved out in 2008 (mind you it didn’t do an overnight runner) and felt compelled to fill it with something but really had nothing to fill it with.
The resultant display aimed at tracing and displaying the story of democracy in Australia, laudable though that is, is limited to copies of documents, boards of text and pictures, interactive touch screen displays and the like. It just didn’t tell me anything or draw me into wanting to spend time in this area. A 20 page booklet for the visitor to take home would do just as good a job.
This is of course my view and given that you will be (or should be!) in the building anyway, by all means give this area five minutes – and if you end up spending an hour there well clearly our views differ and that is fine.
Old Parliament House hosts three eateries, The Ginger Room (high end) and two more modest offerings. All are recommended.
For reasons which I suspect I know, there is a nominal $2 entrance fee (children $1) to Old Parliament House. Interestingly this is the only Federal Government attraction in Canberra, which has an entrance fee.
Opening Hours– 9am – 5pm Daily Except Christmas Day
Address: 18 King George Terrace, Parkes
Phone: 02 6270 8222