Sunday, 5 May 2013

Democracy: MADE in Ballarat

Ballarat has always been an unusual Australian regional city, in that its attractions are not largely based on its natural environment.

In fact the city's major drawcards are all historical, based on the central role the city played in the mid-19th century Victorian goldrush, one of the most glittering ever seen.

From the early 1850s Ballarat was a tumultuous hub of activity, with miners from around the world trying their luck on the diggings and being overseen by a stretched and sometimes corrupt police force.

From this period derives Sovereign Hill, an excellent historical village on the site of an original gold mine.

Ballarat's other great attraction connected with that era, the Eureka Centre, closed a few years ago for redevelopment.

Its building sat on the site of the Eureka Stockade, a makeshift fortification which in 1854 became a battleground between soldiers, and miners who had vowed to defy the authorities. As tension mounted, they pushed for representation in Parliament and the ending of the hated gold mining licence.

The short but bloody battle was lost by the miners, but they went on to win the war. With no jury willing to convict the insurrection's arrested members, the government was forced to back down.

Within a short space of time the rebels had secured sweeping democratic reforms in a new constitution. Their bloodied leader, Peter Lalor, went on to become a Member of Parliament and served for many years.

It's a great story and a crucial part of Australia's democratic evolution, hence the creation of a brand new museum which opened today. It's the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka, MADE for short.

Frankly, I was impressed. I entered just after its doors were open for the first time to encounter the above piece of art - the "Democracy Machine" which links the museum's logo to words such as PROTEST and REBEL.

That in itself was a good sign. There's long been a view from conservative quarters that the Eureka Stockade rebellion was something to be embarrassed about and hushed up, while more radical groups tried to claim the event for themselves. This ambivalence led to some awkward fence-sitting - I seem to remember a lot of "make up your own mind" commentary in the old Eureka Centre.

Not so here, it seemed - demonstration, protest and dissent were gaining recognition as legitimate tools in a democratic society (tools that the powers-that-be have tried hard to confiscate in recent years).

The main exhibition was wrapped in layers within a circular central hall. The inner tables, bearing horizontal touch screens, were devoted to the Eureka Stockade rebellion, along with progressive changes in Australia through the 20th century (women gaining the right to vote in 1902, for example, decades ahead of their sisters in the UK and USA).

Around the outside of the hall above head height was a backlit montage of pivotal events in the evolution of democracy across the world, up to and including the Arab Spring.

Around the walls below that were various sections devoted to aspects of protest, influence and change. This Incendiary Library was a screen with a rotating selection of books which had either wielded great influence or had been banned at some point. No idea, however, why Huckleberry Finn had been banned for the reasons noted here:

A section devoted to the power of words played audio sections of famous speeches, with the words animated to demonstrate their power as they tumbled onto the screen in unison with the sound:

This next marvellous section examined the power of numbers. It included an alcove in which music and images could only be unleashed by the audience standing together in front of screens depicting mass protest scenes from around the world:

Finally, after all the exhibits had been pored over and interacted with, I entered the special dimly lit chamber devoted to the display of the Eureka Flag. This was the original banner stitched for the miners' revolt which had flown above the stockade on this site in 1854, miraculously retained by the family of the trooper who cut it down after the battle:

Now here it was, back on the patch of ground where it had served as an inspiration to rebels almost 160 years ago. A piece of history, and a thing of beauty.

The free opening celebrations continue at MADE, Eureka Street, Ballarat on Sunday 5 May 2013. From Monday 6 May the museum will open daily from 10am-5pm. Full details at the MADE website.

Disclosure time... On this trip I was hosted by Ballarat Regional Tourism.