Canberra, Australian Capital Territory

One thing that I've noticed is that there doesn't seem to be much of an awareness (at least among other Americans) that Canberra is the capital of Australia. Most people seem to think that Sydney is the capital city, or maybe Melbourne if they're somewhat more familiar with the country. But no, it's actually Canberra that holds the national parliament and all of the other major government buildings, located in a separate region known as the Australian Capital Territory. Canberra is a planned city that exists largely because Sydney and Melbourne both couldn't agree to let the other city become the capital, created out of nothing in the early decades of the 20th century. It is probably most similar to Brazil's capital of Brasilia in that respect, another artificially-created city laid out ahead of time through urban planning. Unlike the dull and functionalist layout of Brasilia, however, Canberra benefits from a beautiful design that works within the natural geography of the area and creates elegant sightlines connecting the major buildings together. This was a natural stopping point on a trip from Sydney to Melbourne, and we would spend two days exploring the attractions in the national capital.

It took a little bit longer than we were expecting to make the drive from Katoomba in the Blue Mountains down to Canberra, about four hours in total. The fastest route involved driving back into the western suburbs of Sydney and then heading south on a combination of the M31 and M23 highways. This was another good example of the gigantic size of Australia as a country; although we covered hundreds of miles on this morning drive, Sydney and Canberra are located practically next to one another on any map of the full continent. The weather was refusing to cooperate again as we experienced another dreary day outside, with intermittent rain falling along with windy conditions and cold temperatures. We were both wearing our warmest coats and I was regretting not packing gloves with me. The most notable part of the drive came from a rest stop that was selling hot mini donuts, which came in a little package like the kind used for fries at a fast food restaurant. These donuts made for a great snack while awaiting a more formal lunch in Canberra.

We reached Canberra slightly after noon and drove to the south side of the central lake, parking in a neighborhood near the main parliament building. After getting a quick lunch we walked around to the Old Parliament House, the white-colored building pictured above. The Old Parliament House was the first meeting place for the Australian Parliament in Canberra; it was in use from 1927 to 1988 when the current and much larger Parliament House was constructed. This structure was never intended to be permanent and it remained in use much longer than it probably should have been thanks to lengthy delays in selecting the site for the current parliament. We would end up being shocked at the tiny size of Old Parliament House and amazed that a continent-spanning country could have been run from such a humble place for long decades on end. There was an aboriginal protest taking place in the National Rose Garden out in front of the building, a common sight in Canberra; the red-and-black flag with the golden sun in the middle is the aboriginal flag, which was widely displayed across the city.

It was very easy to make our way inside the Old Parliament Building, with no lines present and no fees required. The staff was incredibly nice and asked if we wanted to take part in a tour, which we had to decline because we only had about an hour before we needed to head over to the New Parliament Building to catch a tour there. Instead we guided ourselves around the small building, first stopping here in the old House of Representatives. This was a somewhat cramped room with cushioned benches for the Australian MPs instead of individual chairs. That was something I'd never seen before in a parliament chamber, and I've visited a fair number of them. We were also able to see the ceremonial mace and the Speaker's Chair at the center of the room. There was a small tour already taking place in the room when we arrived, and the tour guide explained the unusual significance of that speaker's chair. It was based on a copy of the Speaker's Chair used in the House of Commons in Britain and presented to Australia in 1926, only for the Australian chair to be copied itself and sent back to London after the original was destroyed by bombing in World War II. Obviously the setup here was designed to replicate the British Parliament at Westminster, albeit on a much smaller scale.

These pictures were correspondingly from the Australian Senate, the upper house of the Australian Parliament comparable to the British House of Lords, or perhaps more accurately to Canada's own Senate. One of the things that we consistently noted on this trip was that all of the various Australian parliaments, national or at the state level, all seemed to share the same color scheme: green for the lower house and red for the upper house, again mimicking the British Parliament at Westminster. The Senate room was the same size as the House of Representatives despite having half as many MPs, and we learned here that by Australian law there must be twice as many representatives as senators. This didn't make a whole lot of sense, especially given that the "lower" house is the one that holds most of the power in the British parliamentary model, but that's apparently how the system was designed.

Most of the rest of the Old Parliament House was given over to offices and meeting rooms that had been in use by the major political parties when this place was the active parliament building. The offices for the opposition had been converted into a small museum that mostly focused on the state visit by Queen Elizabeth in 1954. This was the first time that a reigning British monarch had ever visited Australia and the turnout was enormous, with an estimated 75% of Australians seeing the royal family at some point on the tour. The queen's dedication to visiting her subjects was little short of incredible, as she covered 40,000 kilometers and gave more than 150 speeches over two months of grueling travel around Australia. (This royal tour was fictionally portrayed on the television show "The Crown" for those who may have seen it.) I had a bit of a personal interest in this subject because my very good friend from grad school, Chas Reed, did his dissertation on the topic of royal tours by the British monarchy, albeit in a slightly earlier period involving Queen Victoria's children. I picked up a lot of knowledge about the royal tours as a result and that made this a particularly interesting exhibit.

At the other end of the Old Parliament House were the government's offices, including the office of the Prime Minister and the room where the Cabinet met. These were all frozen in time as they had looked when the government moved to the New Parliament House in 1988, and it was amusing to see all of the 1980s office technology preserved in stasis, lots of analog telephones and fax machines and typewriters. The informational signs stated that the last prime minister to serve in this building was Bob Hawke, and all of the pictures involved him and his staff in some form. There were less than a dozen total rooms in the suite of government offices, and it was again kind of stunning just how small everything was in the Old Parliament House. The building was designed to hold about 2000 people in total and we read that there were almost 20,000 people working there in some capacity by the time that it closed down. Old Parliament House in its entirety was smaller than a single floor in the government building where I work at present; I have no idea how the entire country of Australia was run from this place as late as 1988.

Since Canberra is a planned city, the major government buildings are all situated on sight lines connecting them together with one another. The simplest of these connections links together the Old Parliament House with the New Parliament House, with the more recent building situated slightly further up the same hill from the older building. It only took a few minutes to walk up the hill towards the newer building, and from that vantage point we could look downhill at the white-colored Old Parliament House, followed in the distance across the lake by the Australian War Memorial and Ainslie Hill beyond it. Or at least we would have been able to see that far if the weather didn't continue to remain foggy and raining outside. I'm omitting the picture of the two of us in front of the New Parliament House because we both were soaked from the rain. Weather aside, the new parliament building had a highly unusual appearance, built into the side of the hill and therefore presenting a low profile. The idea was to maintain the natural appearance of the landscape rather than tearing it apart, something that both of us appreciated in the architecture. The place is designed to look like a pair of boomerangs, and no, I'm not joking about that. The Australian Parliament really does resemble an object made famous by the movie Crocodile Dundee.

The New Parliament House wasn't very crowded on the day that we visited, a Friday afternoon in the middle of winter. There were a few other tourist groups but we had no trouble signing up for the next visitor tour to take us around the building. The entrance foyer where we waited for the tour to begin was a thoroughly beautiful room in its own right, with columns of green marble holding up the ceiling and creating the feeling of being in one of Australia's forests. Supposedly there's a tiny fossil trapped in one of the floorstones here but I couldn't tell if that was true or just an unusual pattern in the rocks. Connected to the entrance was the Great Hall, the huge empty room shown above in the last picture. This room is used for various state functions whenever there's a need for a large open space. There was an enormous tapestry taking up the whole back wall of the Great Wall, designed to look like a forest as conceived by painter Arthur Boyd. It measures an astonishing 20 x 9 meters (65 x 30 feet) and is one of the largest tapestries ever created.

These pictures are from the interior of the parliament building, the connecting area between the two wings directly below the central flagpole. There was a skylight here in the middle of the structure where we could look up and see that, yes, it was still raining outside. Some of the walls held commemorative paintings of Australia's previous prime ministers, and one of them very clearly stood out from the rest. That was the painting of Julia Gillard, Australia's first and to this point only woman to serve as prime minister, who had her portrait captured in a notably distinct style from the long succession of her more traditional male predecessors. There was no question that it made a bold statement hanging here in the Parliament House. Elsewhere, we could see out the windows to some of the many outdoor gardens, which are often used by MPs for press conferences when the weather is more cooperative. There was also a small archival area with different famous documents, such as a copy of the Magna Carta (not an originally unfortunately) and this formal apology to Australians who were brought to the continent against their will. Even if such a gesture was a case of "too little, too late" it was still a kind gesture to make.

The tour continued onwards to the House of Representatives, the Australian version of the British House of Commons. This current version of the House of Representatives was far larger and more modern than the one we had seen in the Old Parliament House, with the Australian MPs having much more comfortable-looking seating in a circle ringing the central bench. The color scheme was again green here, but with varying shades that ranged from a dark color down at the speaking floor up to a pale green near the top of the seating galleries. It looked a little bit like one of those charts of paint samples from a home repair store where customers compare a whole bunch of different shadings to get the exact color they want. In any case, this was a beautiful and unique setup for a parliament chamber, very much modern and forward-thinking while also retaining a sense of scale and grandeur. I certainly wouldn't get this place confused with anywhere else; it was unique amongst the many legislative chambers that I've visited.

Over on the other side of the Parliament House was the chamber for the upper house, the Australian Senate. The basic design here was very similar, only with half as many seats for the senators and with red instead of green for the primary color. We noticed the same gradation of colors in the Senate as it ran through different shades of red, and supposedly this was intended to evoke the different colors of the Australian Outback, just as the greens in the House of Representatives corresponded to different types of plants. Our tour guide made a big deal in stating that the Australian Senate is "one of the most powerful upper houses in the world", which isn't really true at all. I mean, maybe in the British legislative tradition where the lower house holds most of the power, but certainly not in the rest of the wider world. The Australian Senate does differ from the British House of Lords in the sense that it can actually reject legislation passed by the House of Representatives, however it still falls short of equal status since very few bills originate in the Senate and the larger numbers in the House can outvote the Senate rather easily in the event of a rare joint sitting. The Australian Senate also has equal representation from each state (6 senators from each), which means that Tasmania and New South Wales have the same number of senators, creating a body that's even less democratically representative than the US Senate. All in all, it's kind of a strange hybrid parliamentary system, somewhere between the British and American traditions.

After the tour finished, we took the elevator up to the roof of the New Parliament House to check out the views from up there. On a normal day these would have been spectacular, looking out over the Old Parliament House and across Lake Burley Griffin to the Australian War Memorial. Unfortunate the poor weather conditions continued make for a miserable day outside, with a mixture of heavy rain, cold temperatures, and obscuring fog. We couldn't see too far in the distance and the wind was whipping around something fierce up on the rooftop. The two of us look somewhere between resigned and miserable in the selfie that we took together up on the roof. We didn't spend much time here before heading back inside to warm up and dry out as best we could. Later on, we spotted a little bit of a sunset as we left the Parliament House and it was clear enough for once to see the War Memorial off in the far distance. That didn't last though as the rain poured down on us again before we could make the 10 minute walk back to our rental car. The weather was just not very nice on this day. (If you're curious what the New Parliament House looks like from above on a sunny day, here's a very different image from Wikipedia.)

We stayed for our two nights in Canberra at the Avenue Hotel. In contrast to the historic bed and breakfast where we'd stayed the previous evening in the Blue Mountains, this hotel was highly modern in its design, everything looking brand-new and up to date. The hotel room was unusually spacious and Liz delighted in how comfortable the bed proved to be. We were also located in a nice spot along the main road in downtown Canberra, Northbourne Avenue, and within walking distance of many shops and restaurants, if not the government buildings. I get the feeling that Canberra isn't a particularly popular destination for tourists and doesn't see too many international visitors, at least compared to cities like Sydney and Melbourne and Brisbane. The Australian capital was a tiny backwater until relatively recently, with rapid population growth finally turning it into a major city in the last decades of the 20th century. There's more than enough here to make a stop worthwhile between all of the public monuments and museums though, and Canberra is slowly rising in prominence as a tourist destination.

For our second day in Canberra, we planned to visit a number of the museums in the city starting with the Australian War Memorial. This is the national memorial dedicated to Australia's military veterans, and specifically those who have died in past wars. It was first conceived in the 1920s to commemorate the Anzacs in World War I and has since been expanded to include the service members from Australia's subsequent conflicts. The War Memorial holds a prominent place in the architectural design of Canberra, sitting at the northern end of the sight line that connects to the Old and New Parliament Houses across the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. We drove to the sight of the domed structure on this Saturday morning and noted the various military vehicles on display outside its doors. We had a clear view looking down the wide expanse of Anzac Parade towards the parliament buildings, with the two of them seemingly stacked one atop the other. The weather outside was partly cloudy but cold, setting the mood for our time inside the memorial.

The center of the War Memorial holds the domed chamber known as the Hall of Memory, the oldest part of the building and the first to be completed in 1941. The entrance to this room is preceded by a narrow courtyard with a memorial pool surrounding an eternal flame, with two rows of arched columns flanking the pool on either side. These contain a series of bronze plaques naming more than 100,000 Australian servicemen and servicewomen killed in past conflicts or on peacekeeping operations. One of the two walls is entirely covered with the names of the 66,000 Australians who died in World War I while the other side holds the dead from World War II and more recent conflicts.

There's a tradition of placing poppies next to the names of the individuals that families and friends wish to honor, and over the years the War Memorial has accumulated thousands upon thousands of the small plastic red flowers. This is not specifically an Australian tradition, as I've seen more general usage of poppies to commemorate the fallen from World War I, but it's a beautiful act of generosity and giving thanks to those who made the ultimate sacrifice nonetheless. The presence of so many poppies created a visually striking series of images, and they were everywhere throughout this part of the memorial.

These pictures were taken from inside the domed Hall of Memory at the far end of the reflecting pool. This structure houses a small chapel along with Australia's version of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The walls have been decorated with murals and stained glass depiction of Australian servicemen (and notably also Australian servicewomen). The Hall of Memory seemed to have an Art Deco aesthetic to its design, highly inspirational and uplifting in terms of its portrayal of human figures, which was also reflected in the stylized rendition on the dome's underside overhead. There's a tradition here of reading the story of one individual commemorated on the walls at the close of each day, in what is known as the Last Post Ceremony. Although we weren't able to stick around long enough to see it, the Last Post Ceremony is a lovely concept with no shortage of worthy candidates to honor (at the pace of one per day it would take almost 300 years to recognize all of the current names on the walls, much less any others added in the intervening time). The Hall of Memory was a vivid demonstration of how central the memory of the Anzacs has been to the formation of Australian national identity.

Most of the Australian War Memorial was taken up with museum space, and the largest section was dedicated to the experience of Australians in World War I. While this first global conflict typically gets short shrift in the United States as compared to World War II, the Great War was clearly the more important of the two world wars from the Australian perspective, the first time that their country emerged onto the world stage and forged its own identity. The museum displayed plenty of artifacts from the Anzacs, everything from their recruitment to their military equipment to their leisure activities. For military history buffs like myself, there were excellent tactical maps of the battlefield at Gallipoli and meticulous dioramas depicting what soldiers in combat would have been experiencing. This was a place where I could have spent all day.

At the end of the World War I section of the museum was a small transitionary area that commemorated every individual to win the Victoria Cross, the highest honor that can be awarded in the British (and now Australian) military forces. A very large proportion of these VCs were awarded posthumously for exceptional courage and heroism under enemy attack. The path through the museum then continued into the section that covered Australia's experience during World War II, starting with a series on the aircraft that fought in the Pacific theatre and then moving on to a more general discussion of the war. A notable part of the museum discussed the Japanese threat to Australia itself; while the Japanese never made any series plans to invade the continent, Australians didn't know that at the time and were greatly worried about the possibility of occupation by enemy forces. And it's not as though Australia was being spared from attack, as the city of Darwin was almost completely destroyed by bombing, Japanese ships were trying to gain control of the Coral Sea, and Sydney Harbor was attacked by Japanese submarines at one point in 1942. There was a genuine threat to the country that the United States never faced directly, outside of Pearl Harbor anyway.

Finally, these were some scenes from the remaining World War II section of the museum, which eventually led into the excellent gift store. There were several exhibits here discussing the role that Australia's women and aboriginal peoples played in the war effort which unsurprisingly went unrecognized at the time. There was also a section on the hundreds of thousands of American servicemen who were stationed in Australia during the war, and the culture shock that resulted from their contact with Australians. This was particularly noteworthy for me because one of my grandparents spent about a year in Australia in 1942 and 1943 stationed in northern Queensland to help defend against a potential Japanese attack. The museum also recognized the Australian prisoners of war who died in the Japanese "death marches" and the victims of the Holocaust in Europe. There was very little on the Holocaust here but that made sense to me: this was a museum specifically about Australia's military history, not a general history of World War II, and Australia had no connection to the European theatre at all. They had more than enough on their hands at the time dealing with Japan. Overall, we spent more than three hours at the War Memorial, more time than we'd been anticipating. I have to thank Liz for indulging my interests here and not strangling me for using up so much of our limited time.

We headed next to the other side of the lake for a visit to the National Gallery of Australia. With a collection of more than 150,000 works of art, the National Gallery is one of the largest museums in Australia despite its relatively recent construction in the 1970s. I normally try to get an establishing shot of each museum to capture its architecture from the outside, but there was very little to capture in the case of the National Gallery, as it was constructed in a blocky square using the Brutalist design tradition. In other words, a totally faceless slab of concrete that could have contained anything - rather disappointing for an art museum.

The National Gallery is known in particular for its collection of aboriginal art, which it's generally viewed to have more of than any other art museum in the world. One of the features pieces is named "Aboriginal Memory" and consists of 200 painted tree trunks commemorating all of the indigenous people who died between 1788 and 1988 as Australia was colonized by Europeans. There was a walking path through this sculpture or it could be viewed from above to get a better sense of the scope of the work. This accompanied many galleries of paintings from aboriginal artists, individuals from across Australia that adhered to many different artistic traditions. There are close to a thousand different aboriginal groups across the length of the continent, and it would be simplisitic and wrong to assume that all of them share a particular art style.

This is a small sampling of the aboriginal art on display in the museum. In addition to Australia itself, the museum also contained artwork from the indigenous inhabitants of the Torres Straight Islands and Polynesia. Some of this artwork was abstract or geometric in nature, while others were bitterly satirical and called attention to the economically depressed circumstances of most native peoples in Australia. These were unique collections unlike what visitors would be able to find elsewhere, and we appreciated the opportunity to experience these native perspectives on Australia.

The collections of aboriginal art are a permanent part of the National Gallery that will always be there for visitors to see. At the time of our visit, the big attraction at the National Gallery was a temporary exhibit featuring the artwork of Claude Monet, one of the world's most famous painters. Monet was part of the Impressionism movement that gained popularity in the mid to late 19th century, and this exhibit was a rare traveling showcase of Monet's works taken to an Australian audience. We had to pay an additional fee to see this exhibit and then stand in line for about 20 minutes to gain entry; this was the one part of the museum that was packed with people, although admittedly this was also the weekend when lots of people were free to visit.

We both enjoyed having the chance to see a number of the Monet works on display here, and the exhibit included my favorite Monet painting, his rendition of a train in the snow ("Le Train dans la Neige"). I've always loved the way that the burry whites of the cloudy sky mix together with the whites of the snowy ground in this painting, as the ghostly impression of a train arrives at the station. It's the quintessential Impressionist painting for me. The big fuss over this exhibit was likely due to the fact that it included Monet's most famous painting: Impression, Sunrise ("Impression, Soleil Levant") from 1872. Everyone has probably seen this image at some point before, but the fascinating part of this exhibit was finding out a lot more of the background about how the painting was created. Art historians painstakingly recreated the time of day when Monet created this work and determined the exact spot in the port city of Le Havre where he was standing when he captured this perspective. I don't love this painting as it's a bit too far on the abstract side for my tastes but it was still fun to see it in person. We both did our best to strike a contemplative pose for these pictures as we gazed at the paintings on display.

Located near the National Gallery was the National Library of Australia, which we also hopped over to check out for an hour or so. As the name suggests, this building houses the national library collections for Australia and includes at least one copy of everything published in the country. Although only established in 1961, the National Library contained more than 6.5 million individual works at the time of writing. We found that this building was mostly intended for use by researchers, although there was an excellent cafe where we picked up something small to eat. The one section intended for visitors was the Treasures Gallery, a small museum space containing various artifacts of special interest held by the library's collections. These included some of the original manuscript notes from Captain Cook's exploration of Australia and the First Fleet of colonizers, all the way up through the modern period with fliers for political campaigns and major cricketing competitions. I found the most interesting objects on display to be the two official Olympic torches used for the two times that Australia has hosted the games, in Melbourne in 1956 and in Sydney in 2000. The contrast between the design of the two torches was fascinating in its own right.

We wrapped up the day by driving to the nature park at the top of Black Mountain. This is the home of the Telstra Tower, a telecommunications tower that also doubles as a tourist attraction overlooking the city. Rising 195 metres / 640 feet above the mountain summit, the Telstra Tower is a landmark in Canberra and offers panoramic views of the city and its surrounding countryside. I had been hoping that we could go up to the top to experience some of the views looking out over Canberra, but we ultimately decided to pass on the opportunity, in part because the sky was turning ominous and this didn't seem like a great time to be heading up to the top of a metal tower. Here's a panoramic image of what the view looks like from the top courtesy of Wikipedia.

With the sun setting in the west at this point, we headed back to our hotel and went to get dinner. We enjoyed some excellent Indian food at a restaurant named Blu Ginger, located in a shopping district within walking distance of our hotel. We had to make an early night of it at that point because we were getting up very early the next morning for the long drive to Melbourne, thus bringing our time in Canberra to a close. We enjoyed our two days in Australia's capital city, getting to see everything that we wanted other than the National Museum with its quirky exhibits and focus on natural history. If we'd been able to visit one more place in the city, that would have been it. Canberra mostly gets ignored by American tourists when they think of Australia, but we'd encourage travelers to visit here to experience the parliament buildings, the museums, and especially the war memorial. It's worth the time to make the drive and see the national capital city.