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Circa theatre

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.

Circa was open at the National Museum of Australia from March 2001 to June 2017.

It was a 12-minute audiovisual experience taking visitors on a journey through Australia’s past and introducing them to the National Museum’s collections.

The show featured 200 objects from the National Historical Collection, many of which were on display in the Museum’s exhibition galleries. Images of these significant historical objects were 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 connected the past to our present. An original musical score weaved 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

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

Images of objects were layered across many screens, joining a web of changing images of people and places that created historical context.

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 presented images of Australian fauna, past and present. Photo: George Serras.

Circa presented a chronological history of Australia and explored how the nation's past cannot be understood as any simple, single narrative. It proposed that Australia's history was composed of multiple, intersecting, threads of experience, just as Australia encompasses many different kinds of people, living in diverse places and engaging with each other through varying ideas about how to live their lives.

Circa suggested 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 was a rotating theatre, divided into quadrants. Visitors sat on a central turntable which moved through the four distinct areas, each exploring a different period in Australian history.

Quadrant one

The story began 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 were 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 featured 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, appeared together with footage of sea plants, animals and crashing waves that evoked 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 told 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 began 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 moved 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 were 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 were 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 was 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 continued the narrative from the 1890s through the first half of the 20th 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 included 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 followed gathered 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 were replaced by anxiety as the 1930s Great Depression took hold, until the narrative lifted 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, was 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 were used to emphasise the increasing primacy of this visual record and communication format during the 20th century. Vision of the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games transitioned 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 was 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 were 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.