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Circa

Colour photograph showing five people sitting at the right of a darkened room, looking at three rows of screens on the left. The nine screens show images of various colourful architectural details. Narrow slits of light are visible on the roof of the theatre.
Inside the Circa theatre. Photo: George Serras.

The Circa theatre

Now showing in Canberra

Circa is a 16-minute audiovisual experience taking visitors on a journey through Australia's past and introducing them to the National Museum's collections.

The show features 200 objects from the National Historical Collection, many of which are on display in the Museum's exhibition galleries. Images of these significant historical objects are combined with archival photographs and films to evoke everyday life and notable events in the nation's past. 

Scenes of Australia's distinct and varied landscapes connect the past to our present. An original musical score weaves all these elements into a unique story of Australia from the continent's prehistory to the close of the 20th century.

Different threads of experience

The Circa theatre uses multiscreen technologies in a three-dimensional circular space to explore the trajectory and nature of Australian history.

Images of objects are layered across many screens, joining a web of changing images of people and places that create historical context. The story moves quickly, and it's probably impossible to decipher all the connections on any one visit.

Interior view of a darkened movie theatre showing rear view of several people seated in front of a wide, narrow screen at eye level and nine rectangular screens, arranged in two rows, above. The screens show images including a silhouetted kangaroo, an emu head and the skeleton of a large mammal.
The Circa theatre's multiple screens present images of Australian fauna, past and present. Photo: George Serras.

Circa presents a chronological history of Australia but it also explores how the nation's past cannot be understood as any simple, single narrative. It proposes that Australia's history is composed of multiple, intersecting, threads of experience, just as Australia has encompassed many different kinds of people, living in diverse places and engaging with each other through varying ideas about how to live their lives.

Circa suggests that we can begin to understand our past through evidence such as objects, images and landscapes; but also that these artefacts tell many different histories depending on how we look at them.

Australian history in four quadrants

Circa is a rotating theatre, divided into quadrants. Visitors sit on a central turntable which moves through the four distinct areas, each exploring a different period in Australian history.

Quadrant one

The story begins with the shaping of the Australian continent and its landscapes, the evolution of a distinctive biota and the development of Indigenous societies. The events of millions of years are condensed into a few minutes, with images of objects and landscapes from across Australia suggesting how the country in which we live today was shaped by and remains connected to the processes of deep time history.

Quadrant one features the forces of nature that have shaped Australia over millennia, exploring how the continent's environments, landscapes and species have changed over time.

A shell, the fossilised remains of the ancient nautilus, appears together with footage of sea plants, animals and crashing waves that evokes how the ocean has changed Australia's coastline and the species that inhabit it.

A cream coloured curved shell with a central spiral and raised nodules.
Paper nautilus shell from Tasmania. Photo: Dean McNicoll.

Nautilus are invertebrate gastropods with an evolutionary history that dates back to the time when Australia's current coastline and Great Barrier Reef were formed. Fossilised remains of ancient nautilus are found throughout Australia, including inland areas that were once seabed or coastline.

Near the end of this quadrant, Indigenous storyteller Phillip Brown Yubbagurri tells ancient stories about the formation of the land and its people, told to him by community elders in south-east Queensland. Phillip recorded the Rainbow Serpent and Bunyip stories for Circa. Aboriginal communities throughout eastern, central and northern Australia tell similar stories with local features and variations.

Quadrant two

Quadrant two begins with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life on the continent, highlighting the continuation of cultural practice across generations through song, dance, storytelling, tools and paintings.

The story then moves to the arrival of European explorers and then the influx of settlers, tracing the expansion of the pastoral industry and the complex and often violent relationships between European and Indigenous peoples that resulted. Also featured are the discovery and mining of gold and other minerals, the development of commercial enterprises and agriculture, and the swift change in technologies through to the end of the 19th century.

A piece of glass showing a photograph of two men standing outside a bark slab hut.
Glass plate from surveyor and photographer Richard Daintree.

Among the objects featured here are photographic images of the goldfields captured by pioneering geological surveyor and avid photographer Richard Daintree.

The Queensland government displayed Daintree plates at the 1871 Exhibition of Art and Industry in London, hoping they would encourage immigration to and investment in the colony.

Moving footage and sound and voice recordings were not available until the end of this period, so the visitor is immersed in archival material including paintings, maps and photographs, oral histories, and extracts from diaries, newspaper articles and other documents read by actors.

Quadrant three

Quadrant three continues the narrative from the 1890s through the first half of the 19th century. This period coincides with the emergence of moving pictures and recorded sound – a new way of preserving and connecting with the past. The opening sequences include early moving footage, showing the bustle of Collins Street, a visit to the Melbourne Cup, and a trip on a city tram.

The scenes that follow gather in pace and complexity, moving through labour marches, sporting events, telegraph and telephone services, and road and railway construction to the beginnings of the First World War.

Pale blue four-door car with silver grille and bumper.
The Prototype No. 1 Holden sedan, 1946. Photo: Lannon Harley.

Post-war prosperity and optimism are replaced by anxiety as the 1930s Great Depression takes hold, until the narrative lifts again with the exploits of Phar Lap and Australia's male and female cricket teams.

Troop movements during the Second World War are followed by migration, suburban growth and large-scale industry projects such as Australia's first locally manufactured car, the Holden

Quadrant four

Australian history from the 1950s to the present, moving quickly through a series of themes significant in postwar Australia is explored in the fourth quadrant.

Head and torso of a doll wearing a painted blue dress.
'Betty' a large-scale model Kewpie doll from the 2000 Olympics closing ceremony. Photo: Dragi Markovic.

Opening with the introduction of television to Australian culture, television news and broadcast material are used to emphasise the increasing primacy of this visual record and communication format during the 20th century. Vision of the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games transitions into the development of a consumer culture located in suburban homes, and moving out on recreational journeys to beaches and central Australia.

Queen Elizabeth II's visit to Australia is followed by the 1967 referendum campaign, the first steps on the moon in 1969, and protests for peace, Australian troops and the arrival of refugee boats during the Vietnam War.

Changing technologies are followed by protests on the Franklin River, mining operations in the Pilbara, the emergence of the Papunya Tula art movement, Sydney's Mardi Gras and the 2000 Olympic Games.

Telling the story of Australia through Circa (Unit of work cover)

Classroom resource 

Telling the story of Australia through Circa

This unit of work looks at creating an object-based narrative of Australian history in the classroom. Developed for years 6–9 it covers the Australian history and historical skills curriculum areas.