Ballarat Bound #2: The Museum of Democracy at Eureka

Victoria’s newest museum, M.A.D.E , The Museum of Democracy at Eureka opened in May this year.  The building looks a bit like a grown-up version of Julia’s schoolrooms throughout the country, with the timbering on the back expanse referencing the stockade that was erected roughly on the site in 1854.



As all of the kerfuffle over the National Museum in Canberra during the Howard years demonstrated, museums are rarely neutral institutions and this is particularly true of this museum.  You can see a number of worthy priorities at stake here: a desire to ‘teach the young ones their civics’; a desire to take advantage of one of the colourful episodes in Victorian history as something that kids might get excited about; a bit of local pride and tourism opportunities for Ballarat as a region.

The Eureka Rebellion of 1854 was a revolt of gold-miners against the expense of the mining licence they were required to hold in order to pan for gold and its administration by the Gold Commissioner and his troopers.  Civil disobedience had been rumbling along for a while, and culminated in the creation of the Ballarat Reform League and a shoot-out at a hastily erected ‘stockade’ (probably a generous term) on 3rd December 1854.

One of the claims for the Eureka Rebellion- and one that is pursued through the displays in this museum- is that the Eureka Rebellion marked the birth of Australian democracy.  This is a rather tenuous and parochial claim, and one that you’d rarely find enunciated in other museums celebrating democracy in other states.  It’s a view that largely overlooks the contribution of Chartism in UK and other international political undercurrents,  and struggles to explain why South Australia had manhood suffrage before Victoria did.  Direct links between the Eureka rebels and the Federal Parliament and its policies some 50 years later are also fairly slight.  However, not to put too much weight on this particular thrust of the display, the museum does also explore the concepts of democracy, power and participation more widely.

The exhibition space is laid out with the Eureka Story in the centre, with alcoves around the room other sections discussing differing aspects of power through words, influence, numbers and symbols.  The Eureka Story display had a good chronological narrative and was, rather surprisingly, very heavily primary document-based.  The displays were operated using all the display syntax of the i-phone: swiping, pinching to reduce and magnify etc- something that people would not have known how to do three years ago (and possibly will be surpassed in future years).  That said, it’s not a particularly option-laden display: your choice involves choosing which particular topic to explore on a given screen and then just clicking ‘next’ on the transcription of the primary document attached to it.  It was frustrating and troubling that already, after less than a month, some of the touch displays required several pressings.    Only two or three people can gather around each display tablet at a time, and only one person can ‘drive’ it. I don’t know if I would have felt comfortable poring over the primary documents in the way I did, had there been a queue of people behind me.  There’s always the tendency to keep pressing buttons (or in this case, icons) quickly just as a way of seeing what comes next, and I think that under the pressure of crowds waiting for you to move on and let them control it instead of you, you’d feel a strong pressure not to linger.

The displays on the outer walls were rather less touch-screen based.  There was an interesting video with a woman talking about feeling powerless in a Muslim country, followed by a video of a refugee;  there was an  activity where your face was scanned for digital recognition and you were either granted or denied the right to vote based on age or gender (not colour, interestingly enough given the salience of colour as a criterion for the right to vote, historically).  It was rather funny: I was trying to look as happy and beautiful as possible (!) and was assessed as a 45-55 year old MAN in a ‘neutral’ mood.  There was a display about songs, which had a rather primitive stop/start mechanism based on standing on footsteps on the floor.  The one song was played,  no matter which set of footsteps you stood on- perhaps there would have been too many competing sounds in a small area otherwise.  I don’t think that it was well enough explained why those songs, in particular, were chosen.  There was a good video-based display about the power of persuasion, with an interactive quiz at the end, and an excellent auditory presentation of famous political speeches highlighting the rhetorical devices used by the speaker.

Then, of course, there’s the Eureka Flag itself, on permanent loan from the Art Gallery of Ballarat, where it has been on display for a number of years.  It’s in a darkened room behind glass, and it’s quite a reverential experience.  A video outside the display explains the conservation techniques that have been used on the flag, and the complexity of its shift from the gallery to this new museum.

Like all  new public buildings of its ilk constructed today, the gift shop, cafe and auditorium dominate most of the usable space.

All in all, it’s a very multi-media laden display and I wasn’t at all surprised to see that the director of the museum is a digital-content expert rather than a historian.  In fact, any mention of curators or historical consultants seems to be missing entirely. Perhaps that’s why, too, the transcriber of a particular government document seemed to be completely unaware of the bureaucratic convention of writing the gist of the government reply on a diagonal angle across the back of a document.  This led to a rather garbled and nonsensical transcription, and one that should not have appeared in a display of the quality and expense of this museum.  Still, given the huge conceptual difficulties of displaying and even enthusing visitors (and especially young people) about democracy,  this museum is a very twenty-first century approach.

I’ll be interested to see how this museum fares under a conservative government, if that’s what we’re heading for.  I’d be willing to bet that Christopher Pyne, who has already reprised the cry against ‘black arm band history’ will be hightailing it to Ballarat very quickly, calling for an enquiry into this exhibition that celebrates protest so overtly.  It’s definitely worth a visit.

2 responses to “Ballarat Bound #2: The Museum of Democracy at Eureka

  1. Pingback: Ballarat bound #1: The Art Gallery of Ballarat | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  2. Pingback: ‘The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka’ by Clare Wright | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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