Mining Canberra’s history

A floor map of the National Capital Exhibition in Canberra.

The National Capital Exhibition, worth a visit, but worthy of expansion.

As well as being home to many of the institutions that preserve and re-tell Australia’s history, Canberra has a pretty interesting story of its own to tell, but uncovering it has been a frustrating and, ultimately rather unsatisfying experience so far.

Consider the canvas for our capital’s tale – a city built from scratch for a nation only recently united; a worldwide competition for city designs won by an American who, despite his origins, submitted the design most in keeping with Canberra’s geology; a man-made lake, monuments, national buildings, embassies and two parliament buildings…

To any storyteller, such a story seems ready made for a wonderful showcase exhibition, but the reality is that anyone interested in the origins of Canberra itself has to go hunting in much the same way that early surveyors went prospecting for possible locations for the nation’s capital.

An early photograph of Canberra when it was still grazing land.

The field that became Canberra.

The best, and most informative collection is the National Capital Exhibition. Housed in a wonderful lakeside building offering spectacular views of Lake Burley Griffin, the Captain Cook Memorial Jet and Parliamentary Triangle, this display makes a fair attempt at describing the pre-development Canberra, its rivals for the honour of being named capital city, and the competition to design a city that would be worthy of the title.

There are a few short films, lots of informative displays and, most impressive of all, a huge, scale-model of Canberra which, with the benefit of a light show and recorded commentary, becomes an interactive lesson in city planning and why Canberra is laid out the way it is.

There are even pictures of the designs that were just pipped by the city we know today, giving a fascinating glimpse of what might have been – Versailles on the Murrumbidgee, anyone?

A photo of the design for Canberra that finished in second place.

What might have been.

But there’s much that is missing too. For example, it’s a well known fact that in Burley-Griffin’s original plans, Canberra was to have a suburban rail network, connecting the inter-city rail station with Civic and the suburbs – an artist’s impression of how Canberra might look had its architect’s plans been fully realised would be a welcome addition to the exhibition.

Meanwhile, the central floor area of the National Capital Exhibition is given over to a Lego play area for kids, and a whole wing of the building appears largely unused. Fascinated but also a little frustrated, we headed off to our next stop, Canberra Museum and Gallery.

Lego versions of key Canberra buildings.

A Lego version Parliament House provides inspiration for kids in the Lego play zone.

It’s fair to say that CMAG, as it is known, is more gallery than museum. Its exhibits range from the truly historic – there are some wonderful artefacts and family stories from Canberra’s very early days – to the surreal and, frankly, ill-fitting. The exhibition wings seemed rather arbitrary, with one showcasing modern art, another celebrating women’s role in peace and freedom campaigns, while a third showcased the history of pornography in the capital.

The main entrance to Canberra Museum and Gallery.

Canberra Museum and Gallery is less museum and more gallery.

I’m sure they each had their target audiences, but it made me wonder whether there shouldn’t be a better alignment of these exhibitions, with the ‘history of Canberra’ elements all being put in one place (perhaps at the National Capital Exhibition), and the art and exhibitions stuff sited elsewhere (perhaps at CMAG, but without the ‘M’)?

A display plaque at CMAG.

CMAG wants to re-tell Canberra’s stories, but falls a little short, in truth.

And there’s a third element at play here, too. As I have written previously, the Telstra Tower, on Black Mountain, has another exhibition of its own – a short film describing why and how it was built, a small collection of historic telephones, and views over the whole of Canberra that make a scale model out of the real thing.

The entrance to the 'Women's Power to Stop War' exhibition at CMAG.

One of the recent exhibitions at CMAG.


Perhaps, here, all three smaller collections could come together, giving new life to a spectacular but neglected building, offering real life, three-dimensional views of Burley-Griffin’s legacy and showing how things could have been, might have been, and yet may be (if some element of future planning were also incorporated – for example, the plans for light rail in Canberra).

An exterior view of Telstra Tower.

Perhaps this could house a more integrated collection explaining Canberra’s history and give the building a new purpose at the same time?

These are minor gripes borne of slight frustration and, perhaps belying my growing identification with our new home town. Canberra is a fabulous place with a wonderful story, it just doesn’t seem very good at telling it yet.

6 thoughts on “Mining Canberra’s history

  1. The National Library has a temporary exhibit a year or so ago in which they rolled out the paintings entered into the design competition. It was a pity it was temporary – it was very popular. Keep an eye on the temporary exhibits at the library – they are normally very worthwhile!


    • Sounds like that was before we arrived but that’s s great tip, thanks. Although it adds to my feeling that somehow, all of this stuff should be pulled together in one place so that the whole Canberra story can be told clearly and coherently.


  2. It’s interesting that you note this. Since we moved to Canberra from Adelaide we’ve noticed and learnt much more about Canberra’s history and its conception that we ever did growing up as South Australians. It’s hard to tell if this is just our fascination with ‘the new’ or a true difference in the nature of the places themselves. I often wonder if Canberrans, old and new, are generally more interested, and proud of their home than others around Australia.


    • You’re probably better placed than me to answer that one, but as a new migrant, I find it helps me to feel part of a place the more I understand it. I can also answer all those tricky questions posed by long-distance visitors. I imagine I’d feel the same in Adelaide or Perth or Brisbane, but perhaps because of the ‘planned’ nature of Canberra, I feel this stuff should be altogether more accessible that in those other places.


  3. I found the book ‘Canberra’ by Paul Daley a very interesting and enjoyable read. It tells the (hi)story of Canberra in an easy to read and very entertaining way. Highly recommended.

    Another one I just started reading is Canberra Red edited David Headon and Andrew MacKenzie. This is a compilation of stories from different writers who have a connection to Canberra.


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