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.
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?
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.
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.
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’)?
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.
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).
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.