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Jennifer Wilson, National Museum of Australia, 12 May 2010

SANDY FORBES: Dear gorgeous people, welcome to the Museum to yet another of our fantastic curators talks. My name is Sandy Forbes. I’m on the committee of the Friends of the National Museum of Australia. I’m here to introduce Jennifer Wilson, who is a long-time curator at the National Museum and is working now in the gallery development team. Before that she worked at the Australian Stockmen’s Hall of Fame and the Qantas Founders Museum in Longreach. She came here in 2005 and she’s worked in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program, the Circa refurbishment, Australian Journeys, the new Landmarks gallery and the replica of Taylor’s glider celebrating the centenary of aviation hanging in the Main Hall. Did I hear you on the ABC talking about that recently? I did indeed.

We are so lucky in Canberra in that we have all the national institutions. There’s a little crossover and we all meet each other at various things and events that go on at the Library, the Gallery, the War Memorial et cetera. Today we are going to hear about Old Parliament House, which of course is now the Museum of Australian Democracy, part of it. Jennifer is talking about the Commonwealth Parliament opened with pomp and ceremony and I guess circumstance in May 1927. We have quite a lot of collection items in the National Museum of Australia that have to do with what we now call Provisional Parliament House or Canberrans call Old Parliament House. Some of that material, having to do with the building, will be in the new Landmarks gallery.

May 2010, which is the ninety-third anniversary of the official opening seems to us and to Jennifer to be an appropriate time to look at the history of Old Parliament House or Provisional Parliament House and the new exhibition Landmarks. So over to you, Jen.

JENNIFER WILSON: It is indeed the eighty-third anniversary of Parliament House. It is an interesting moment in Canberra’s history and in the history of the Commonwealth. Let’s get started. On Thursday, 17 March 1927, two months before the official opening of Parliament House on 9 May, the Canberra Times published this article on the front page in anticipation of the coming event [image shown]. You will note down the bottom it says, ‘Parliament House to which all roads will lead in May.’ The article’s proclamation of Australia’s new centre was timely.

Now known as Old Parliament House, the Provisional Parliament House for the Commonwealth of Australia from 1927 until 1988 is a recognisable symbol of the formation and development of Canberra as the nation’s capital. A new and permanent Parliament House was opened in 1988. Provisional Parliament House was reopened in 1992 as a museum and exhibition space for the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of Australia. In 2006, Old Parliament House was included on the National Heritage List, and in 2009 was re-established as the Museum of Australian Democracy in Old Parliament House.

An exhibit about Provisional Parliament House will appear as part of the new Landmarks gallery, within the theme Land of Opportunity. The exhibit will explore the ways in which politicians represented Australians in Provisional Parliament House and the ways that the people of Australia have looked to parliament in Canberra to ensure the creation of a just society.

What I would like to do today is to speak about one of the four stories appearing in the Provisional Parliament House exhibit, a story which focuses on the building and its symbolism. By looking closely at several objects in the National Historical Collection, we can see how elements of the building’s design, construction and promotion were aimed at making parliament a focus for Australia’s nationalistic expression and its ambition.

When forming the Commonwealth of Australia, Sydney and Melbourne competed for the title of the nation’s capital. I will not present a complete history of Federation today – there is not time for that – I will just say that the longstanding disagreements between Sydney and Melbourne meant that in the Commonwealth Constitution the following statement was presented:

The seat of Government of the Commonwealth shall be determined by the Parliament, and shall be within territory which shall have been granted to or acquired by the Commonwealth, and shall be vested in and belong to the Commonwealth, and shall be in the State of New South Wales, and be distant not less than one hundred miles from Sydney.

Despite this resolution, or perhaps because of it, debate about the formation and particularly the site of a federal capital continued. A number of towns in New South Wales were shortlisted, and members of parliament toured the proposed sites over a number of years. Votes held in state and federal parliaments during 1908 favoured the Yass-Canberra site. On 1 January 1911, the Federal Capital Territory came into being with New South Wales ceding 2360 square kilometres of land, including the seaport of Jervis Bay. It was renamed the Australian Capital Territory in 1938.

An international federal capital city design competition was launched in April 1911, and American Walter Burley Griffin’s entry was announced as the winner on 23 May 1911. The decision was not unanimous. King O’Malley, Minister for Home Affairs, chose to appoint a board that would prepare a plan for the city based on incorporating various elements from a number of submitted designs rather than just one. Walter Burley Griffin travelled to Australia in 1913 to explain his design in person and to have it reinstated as the single federal capital plan. After those discussions, Griffin was appointed Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction, and he and his wife Marion moved to Australia in 1914 to begin work.

Although the entry was submitted with Walter’s name alone, it was clearly a collaborative exercise between Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony Griffin. The Griffins’ plan exhibited sensitivity to the site’s natural features, especially its land forms and natural water course. They incorporated those features into the design, creating a land axis, which aligned the summits of the four local mountains or hills, and a water axis, which crossed the land axis at right angles following the natural course of the river. These symbolic design elements treated Canberra’s natural features as sacred monuments in a site that did not exhibit the cultural artefacts and man-made monuments of other established world capital cities.

The heart of the Griffins’ design was the Parliamentary Triangle. It was placed at the intersection of the Griffins’ central land axes and contained an assembly of government and administration buildings with a grand building for popular receptions and ceremonial events at the apex of the triangle on Capital Hill. The plan was to establish the working mechanisms and sentimental head of government together in the Parliamentary Triangle. Griffin’s vision was ultimately not realised, with Capital Hill selected as the site for a permanent Parliament House in 1974 – and this for Griffin was an emphasis on parliament that did not meet his democratic vision, though by 1974, of course, many diversions from Griffin’s original plan could be seen.

The City of Canberra was proclaimed on 12 March 1913 by Lady Gertrude Denman, wife of the Governor-General, in a ceremony on Capital Hill. At the same ceremony Lord Denman, Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, Minister for Home Affairs King O’Malley and Attorney-General William ‘Billy’ Hughes laid the foundation stones of Canberra. Progress on the building of the nation’s capital was slow, among other things being interrupted by the First World War. For many years social and political commentators joked that Canberra was nothing more than a collection of foundation stones.

The Griffins had provided a notional architecture scheme with their original entry and later plans. That scheme made reference to the long history of architecture, incorporating Egyptian, Syrian, Babylonian, Indian and American [meant to say ‘Mexican’] influences. Today’s historians believe that for the Griffins ‘Canberra’s landscape symbolised the local while their architectural style was global.’ In preparing a national competition for the design of Parliament House, Griffin provided the following statement:

The Australian Commonwealth, with no historically-evolved suitable architectural style, but with unique scope in its unlimited open continent for national growth, with this virgin city under unified control, and possessed of modern building science, >appliances and materials, is in a position to exact unity in plan and homogeneity in expression and harmony with the whole natural environment beyond any ordinary opportunity. Since the city is to evolve gradually, the desired unity cannot be assured by personality, nor can it under popular government be established by authoritative degree of any arbitrary type. Hence it is desired that the standard of design be the expression of actual functions through practical organic planning; through the direct adaption of the inherent characteristics of the material used, avoiding intrusion of irrelevant features, however time-honoured, on the one hand, or individual on the other, and through recognition of the particular [meant ‘peculiar’] site conditions.

The competition for a Parliament House design was eventually abandoned due to the onset of the First World War and ongoing disagreements. In fact, due to a long series of disagreements between the planning authority and Walter Burley Griffin, his position as Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction was abolished in 1919. The Griffins stayed in Australia working at Castlecrag in Sydney, another story that will appear in the Landmarks gallery.

Owing to the continued planning debates and lack of appropriate funds, it was decided that a provisional building would be constructed to house parliament in Canberra for a period of at least 50 years. It was a controversial decision, and certainly not popular with Australia’s architects who demanded compensation for the time and money spent in submitting designs for the permanent building competition and who recommended that a provisional building would not present the best value for money in providing for the necessities of parliament.

John Smith Murdoch, government architect, was chosen to design the provisional building. Murdoch was by this time responsible for many of the buildings present in the nation’s capital. In 2009, the National Museum accepted a collection of drawing instruments including pens, compasses and rulers, housed in a leather-covered case. On the front of the case is a silver plaque engraved with the following:

Presented to John S Murdoch, Architect by a few friends on the occasion of his leaving Elgin for Inverness. 18 November 1881.

We have the case here today for you to look at, and I do encourage you to do so because it is a very beautiful collection. The case contains 15 individual items, which are stored in a moulded tray, lined with blue velvet or velour, and a recessed storage compartment in the lid. The lid lining is stamped with ‘W H Harling, Mathematical Instrument Manufacturer, London’ and the company’s crest. Many of the instruments were made by WH Harling, as indicated by the stamp. However, some of the instruments were made by J and WE Archbutt, Stanley and Elliott Brothers, suggesting that the case originally contained instruments from a variety of manufacturers or indeed that Murdoch had replaced items over time. Several instruments, including the protractor, are marked with Murdoch’s name or initials. Murdoch carried this set of drawing instruments with him to Australia where they were later retained by family contacts.

John Smith Murdoch was born in Scotland in 1863. Murdoch trained as an architect with Matthews and Mackenzie, a practice which had offices in Aberdeen and Inverness. The inscription on the lid of the drawing instruments case indicates that Murdoch worked for a time at Inverness.

Murdoch migrated to Australia in 1885 and shortly after was employed by the Queensland Department of Mines and Public Works. In 1901 he was appointed Queensland District Architect and was responsible for designing many of the state’s government and public buildings.

In 1904, Murdoch joined the newly-formed Commonwealth Department of Home Affairs, rising to the position of Chief Architect in the Department of Works and Railways in 1919, making him the first Commonwealth government architect. During his career, Murdoch designed more than 120 buildings and public spaces in Australia including the General Post Office and Forrest Place in Perth, the Spencer Street Post Office and the High Court of Australia (now the Federal Court) in Melbourne, and Anzac Square in Brisbane. He was also a member of the review panel for the national capital design competition won by the Griffins.

Murdoch contributed to the establishment of Canberra by designing and constructing a number of significant buildings, including the Powerhouse at Kingston, the Hotel Canberra (now the Hyatt Canberra), Hotel Kurrajong, East and West Blocks, and Gorman House. Murdoch also adjudicated design competitions for the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and the Australian National War Memorial in France. Murdoch retired in 1929, still an active member of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects. He died a bachelor in Brighton, Melbourne in 1945.

In 1923 Murdoch was given the task of designing a temporary parliament house until a suitable design and sufficient funds could be found for a permanent building. As the architectural coordinator for all aspects of the building, Murdoch completed drawings for the structure, the exterior and interior fittings, and most furnishings. While initial suggestions for a temporary building had included cheaper and ultimately disposable products, such as weatherboard and corrugated iron, to make the building a suitable home for the nation’s parliament for at least 50 years, Murdoch designed a solid brick structure.

Murdoch’s stripped classical design for Provisional Parliament House reflected his training in Glasgow, his earlier work in Australia, and visits to parliamentary buildings in London, Berlin, Paris, Vienna and Washington. While both functional and economical, the symmetrical structure was symbolic of Australia’s democratic parliament and was sympathetic to Canberra’s natural and built environments. The building is not bursting with nationalistic ornamentation as might have been expected of Australia’s first purpose-built federal parliament building. The Australian coat of arms which appears on the front of the building and as carved wood, etched glass and bronze mouldings on some interior furnishings and the front door are fairly subtle inclusions. Instead, the nationalistic statement can be seen in Murdoch’s unified approach to the design of the building itself.

The two chambers of the house became the main focus of the building, as their shape and construction influenced the structure around them. In appearance they are modelled on the houses of Westminster, but in name they are based on the House of Representatives and the Senate of the American system. This symmetrical plan offered a reference to the form and structure of the Australian parliament itself. In 1924, Governor-General Forster presented a summary of what he saw as the cultural elements of Murdoch’s design, stating:

This building which is now being commenced may be regarded as a symbol of national unity. Let us earnestly hope that its conception, and in the establishment of the Commonwealth Parliament therein, the highest aspirations of the founders of the Federal Constitution may be realised; and that the legislators whose labours will be carried on within these walls will ever maintain the high tradition of noble and disinterested public service which has been a feature of this great Commonwealth and of the greater Commonwealth of the British Empire to which we are proud to belong.

While Walter Burley Griffin had acknowledged no Australian style of architecture as a point of reference for a federal parliament building, Murdoch did turn to national styles of architecture for his design. Notably, Murdoch did not consider any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander culture in his design but looked to colonial Georgian and Regency architecture. The low horizontal forms of that style were present in many of the pastoral homes around Australia and in public buildings throughout the capital cities.

What is known as a stripped classical style allowed Murdoch to combine his elements of classical simplicity, spatial unity and proportion within a system of hierarchical order and with allowances for new technologies and modern convenience – at least in theory. Designed and built as part of the garden movement, Murdoch included courtyards, lobbies, verandahs, terraces and skylights which would offer light and ventilation as a satisfactory response to Canberra’s climate. These features provided the members of parliament with spaces for discussion and contemplation, and advantageous views of the region’s rolling plains and bushland. The building’s white finish made the most of Australia’s bright sunlight while offering nothing pretentious in the form of external embellishments. It was designed to house the requirements of parliament during the 1920s, though numerous changes were made as parliament expanded in the following decades. The open and airy design did not withstand the increased number of bodies in the building as conditions became cramped and overcrowded.

At the moment of opening in 1927, we could see numerous examples of nationalistic sentiment in the fabric of the building itself – again, a clear expression of Murdoch’s unified vision for the building. Timber was imported from each state, except South Australia which did not have native timbers of commercial quality suitable for use in the building. From Queensland there was silky oak, cedar, blackbean, maple and walnut; from New South Wales, blackwood, tallowwood, hoop pine and coachwood; from Victoria, mountain ash; and of course jarrah from Western Australia.

More than 2000 tonnes of cement and five million bricks were used, four million from the Yarralumla brickworks and one million imported from Bowral to meet demand. From 1923, a tramway linked the Yarralumla brickworks to Provisional Parliament House, the Hotel Canberra and Civic to supply those busy construction sites. The metal window frames were manufactured by a Sydney engineering firm. A Melbourne firm installed the various pieces of kitchen equipment. The Adelaide company A Pengenelly and Co., one of the largest and longest surviving furniture manufacturers in Australia, made the majority of the office furniture and fittings. Grace Bros of Sydney and Myer of Melbourne installed the floor coverings and carpets.

This timber panel [image shown], which is on screen and will be one of the objects in the exhibition, provides a unique view of the interior panelling of Parliament House. Of course, when visiting Parliament House all we see is the finished panelling, but this presentation piece provides some idea of how that finished work was created and some of the labour involved. On the edges of the panel there is evidence of ‘tool’ marks, mainly saw teeth lines and the fabrication processes, including timber putty fills as a finishing task prior to final sanding and surface coast application. The back view shows us three pieces of blackwood which were used to make the central cross and the butt joints and rebate or channels which were used to strengthen the panel. This analysis gives us a sense of the work involved in the construction of Provisional Parliament House.

By late 1925, over 1000 men were working on building projects across Canberra. They lived in temporary accommodation, mostly tents, shanties or shacks, in several locations close to their respective construction projects – mainly at that time in Kingston, Acton, Duntroon and Yarralumla – until more permanent hostel-type accommodation could be constructed.

One of the workers on the Parliament House construction site was George Henry Taylor. When his parents died, Taylor had to support his two sisters, so he travelled to work in Canberra in 1927 as a joiner on the interior of Parliament House. He was aged 21 at this time and paid five pounds a week, being employed by the Kingston Joinery. Following his work in Canberra, Taylor travelled throughout Australia working on various projects, before starting to study hand railing, which was in his words the highest form of joinery. He studied at RMIT [university] and later became a teacher there.

The National Museum holds a collection of tools used by Taylor during his career, a selection of which he used during his work in Parliament House. His work there was primarily door and window construction and general finishing work. Several of the tools were also purchased by Taylor in Canberra for the job.

The pocket chisel, which we have in our display case here today, is marked with Taylor’s name, using the small name stamp to the left of the image [image shown]. Due to the large number of workers on site, they were required to name their tools to avoid loss or mix ups. Taylor used this chisel to make pockets in window frames for the pulleys of the building’s sash windows.

Construction of Provisional Parliament House commenced in August 1923 and was completed in 1927 at a cost of £644,000 – three times the original estimate. The building spanned four acres or 1.6 hectares with a total of 184 rooms.

As part of the preparations for the opening of Parliament House in 1927, the government launched an extensive tourism campaign. Even before it was officially opened, Parliament House had been central to Canberra’s tourism. In the book A Descriptive Guide to Canberra, the author Harry Grover focused on Parliament House as a highlight of a visit to Canberra. He described the building stating:

A superficial glance should satisfy unbelievers that its foundations are being soundly laid; and deeper down, below the masses of bricks and concrete, is the solid base of a national ideal.

Grover also described the building and its place in Canberra:

Several big white buildings loom up, and serried ranks of stripling vegetation along the roadside, cheer you on. The squatting white shapes look very isolated. Then suddenly, right before you, is – Parliament House. You know it well. Its picture has been published more often than Miss Australia’s. You find it lives up to its picture.

The 1927 publication was a strange mix of praise and criticism. Grover outlined the features of Canberra, its transport, facilities and entertainment such as they were at the time, while also recognising the anti-Canberra sentiment which existed. Grover posed a series of questions almost as a bait to encourage people to visit and decide what they thought about Canberra for themselves. This is my favourite quote from the book. It’s worth a read if you get a chance some time:

Why? Why dump a city out in the never-never, as far away from anywhere as it is possible to get? Why lavish millions upon it? Why pick Canberra, where its chances of success are less assured than if Canberra were a seaboard city in some prosperous industrial or farming area? Such questions, and many others, drum at the senses when you survey Canberra for the first time. And if you are unacquainted with the history of the Constitution, and the later exhaustive efforts to settle upon a site for a Federal capital city, more or less in accord with the finely-edge susceptibilities of all the States, you will labour under your doubts till Doomsday.

Even to the present day, as we know, a certain stigma of ‘why’ remains attached to the national capital. In fact, Paul Keating’s recent comments sound a little like those made over 83 years ago by Grover. A variety of tourism campaigns since the 1920s attempted to draw visitors to Canberra, with many featuring old and new Parliament House.

Businesses also attempted to capitalise on the advertising opportunity. Tyres, mattresses, furniture, carpet and any other material used in, or associated with, the building presented themselves in newspaper advertisements along with images of Parliament House. This is one of my favourites [image shown]. In fact, few marketing opportunities were as perfect as the opening of Provisional Parliament House. Items like this invitation combine vision of the building, excitement around the Royal visit and the picturesque Canberra landscape [this ticks all the boxes].

A wide range of souvenirs was available. In the lead up to and following the event, souvenir collecting was encouraged. It has created a legacy retained by institutions like the National Museum. Special commemorative florins like this one were issued [item shown]. In fact, two million of these were made available to Australians through Commonwealth Bank branches, although the owner of this particular example made an extra effort to colour theirs and turn the florin into a brooch. There was great excitement around this particular souvenir, at least in the Canberra Times. Most of the country was able to collect their florins on Monday, 9 May, the opening of Parliament House but, as this article reports, Canberrans were able to collect theirs on Saturday due to the public holiday and no-one would want to miss out. Other pieces offered imagery that was more clearly nationalistic, and not as modest as Murdoch’s building design. Most souvenirs featured images of Provisional Parliament House, but sometimes the patriotic imagery stood on its own.

One of the main selling points for the event, beyond the building itself, was the royal couple. The faces of the Duke and Duchess of York appear on many souvenir items from their official opening of Provisional Parliament House and their subsequent tour across Australia. According to the itinerary, the Duke and Duchess of York would spend 12 days of their tour in New South Wales, seven days in Queensland, four days in Tasmania, 11 days in Victoria, six days in South Australia, three days in the Australian Capital Territory and six days in Western Australia. The remaining ten days of the tour were spent either travelling or used as recreation days by the couple – a little bit exhausting, I’d say.

The National Museum has a Crossley in its collection, one of the vehicles used to transport the royal couple on their tour. Unfortunately, this won’t be on exhibition – not in the immediate future anyway.

Thousands of Australians travelled to Canberra to celebrate the opening of the nation’s new Provisional Parliament House. The gathering of people in Canberra and the purchasing of souvenirs reflects an effort at that time to create a sense of national unity, something which had been integrated into the building itself. People disembarked from the train in nearby Queanbeyan and travelled by car and buggy to pitch their tents in the sparse dusty paddocks surrounding the building. Early on 9 May, invited guests gathered in the Senate chamber to hear His Royal Highness the Duke of York formally open the first Commonwealth Parliament in the national capital, although parliament didn’t actually move to Canberra until a few months later.

At the opening ceremony, Prime Minister Bruce talked about the symbolic and practical aspects of the Provisional Parliament House saying:

May those who enter this open door govern with justice, reason and equal favour to all … may they speak with the voice of those who sent them here – the voice of the people.

On 10 May, their Royal Highnesses attended a public reception on the steps of Parliament House. A procession of Australian individuals paraded before them. According to reports they were veteran pioneers of the district, children, elderly and young men and women, military officers, and an Indian family – a truly cosmopolitan gathering.

On 9 May 1927 as Parliament House was opened, an Aboriginal man was observed amongst the crowds. He was thought to be the only Indigenous Australian present. His appearance caused some excitement and was noted by many of the newspapers. A photograph of the man appeared in the Argus of 11 May 1927 under the headline ‘Demanded his rights’ with the caption:

This is a member of the Gundagai tribe who, as a representative of the original Aboriginal owners of the land, was given a prominent place at the historic ceremony in Canberra yesterday. He carried in his right hand a small Australian ensign.

He reportedly received support from the crowd when a policeman asked him to leave, and he was given a suitable position and ‘a shower of small change’. While the newspaper reports suggested that there was some confusion amongst the crowd about what to make of this Aboriginal man’s presence, it seemed the majority of the crowd felt he, or at least a person of his race, should be at such an important national occasion.

Since the opening of Provisional Parliament House in 1927, the site has played a prominent role in determining the political rights of Australia’s Indigenous peoples. Over time, petitions and protests held by or on behalf of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were aimed directly at the Commonwealth government, though the affairs of those peoples remained the responsibility of the separate state and territory governments.

1927 was a relatively short year in federal politics. The relocation of parliament and its offices from Melbourne to Canberra meant that the House of Representatives sat for a total of 59 days and the Senate for 44 days. Only one petition was presented to the house that year. On 20 October, a petition was presented by the member of Angas, Walter Parsons [National Party, South Australia] which stated:

The Aboriginal races are dying out, and praying that a model Aboriginal State be established.

The petition was signed by 7113 residents of Australia, and supported with the reference of two full-blooded Aboriginals who would assist in the founding of the proposed state, listed as Reverend John Noble and David Unaipon. The member for Bass, Tasmania, Mr Jackson, had made a plea to the House in the previous weeks for the need to protect the Aboriginal tribes of Australia against disease and other effects of their contact with modern conditions. Debate was also held in the house on the issue of the apparent exploitation of northern Aboriginal labour force with low wages. The question of an Aboriginal state was defeated with 17 for and 32 against.

In 1957 and 1958, two petitions were presented to the House of Representatives by the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship and the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement for the amendment of section 51 and the repeal of section 127 of Australia’s Constitution, which required a national referendum. On 27 May 1967, over 90 per cent of the Australian electorate did vote ‘Yes’ on the Aboriginal question. It seemed a crucial moment for the achievement of full citizenship rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – the repeal of laws which deprived Indigenous Australians of civil liberties and put some power into the Commonwealth government’s hand. Fittingly, several years later Neville Bonner, the first Indigenous Australian to be elected to a Federal Parliament, sat in the Senate.

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy has become part of Canberra’s physical and political landscape. It has intermittently existed on the lawns of Old Parliament House since Australia Day 1972 and permanently since Australia Day 1992, and for a short time it was on Capital Hill at the site of the new Parliament House. In that time the Tent Embassy has become a symbol of the land rights campaign. On 7 February 1972, Senator Neville Bonner gave his opinion on the matter of the embassy saying:

We don’t need Black Power, White Power or any other kind of power. We can do things for ourselves without militant, violent or radical action. The government is acting on Aboriginal problems. It is a matter of doing things properly, with negotiation and discussion. The Aboriginal people have made tremendous progress over the years. We need to become responsible and then we will be given responsibility. Land rights will be won in Parliament, not on the lawns outside.

Neville Bonner is another story explored in the new exhibit, along with Dame Enid Lyons, the first female member of the House of Representatives, and Prime Minister Ben Chifley. But for those stories you’ll have to visit after April 2011 when the new Landmarks gallery opens. As a small teaser, we have two items from our Neville Bonner collection here today – his golfing glove and trophy – and two items from our Chifley collection – a 1946 election campaign badge and Chifley’s own wallet.

There were many significant moments in the life of Provisional Parliament House which make it a historic landmark in Canberra, perhaps more so today than it was in the 1920s. At the time of its construction, architect John Smith Murdoch had stated:

If the temporary building were the birthplace of the National Parliament, probably there would be a sentimental feeling attaching to it which would constitute an objection to its removal later.

Therefore, although it was a temporary structure and created with an attempt at modest simplicity so that it would not interrupt the view of the permanent building of the future, Provisional Parliament House was a place which had a vision for a unified Australia and adopted those visions and hopes into its external and internal fabric. Today, it is an integral part of the view, especially this one from Mount Ainslie [image shown] appreciated daily by locals and visitors, and the building has its own role in the Parliamentary Triangle. The building’s classical geometric form is still a sentimental favourite to generations of Australians, and it can now happily house Australia’s democratic history while the business of parliament happens up the hill. Thank you.

SANDY FORBES: Thank you. It occurs to me that you may have more than questions; you may have comments – your own history as it relates to the building. Any questions, comments or historical anecdotes?

MAN IN AUDIENCE: Jennifer, while you have that slide from Mount Ainslie on the screen, it is obvious when you are up on Mount Ainslie that you get a good view of both the Old Parliament House and the New Parliament House. We do know that up until probably the 1970s, there were plans to build a new parliament house in front of the Old Parliament House somewhere in Commonwealth Place there. If that had happened, Old Parliament House would have become virtually invisible.

JENNIFER WILSON: It would have, yes.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: I think as it’s turned out, it has been satisfactory –

JENNIFER WILSON: I think the debate will continue forever about exactly what should have happened, what could have happened. It really would be interesting even to mock up some drawings about what that might have actually looked like, to play around a little bit. It would have been very interesting if that scenario had played out as to what would have actually been put on Capital Hill anyway.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: You mentioned the chisel over there owned by the man Mr Taylor and that it was bought in Canberra. I am wondering if it was, because I wouldn’t have thought there were shops in Canberra and maybe it came from Queanbeyan.

JENNIFER WILSON: The notes that we have from him when he made the donation back in 1986, I think, was that he purchased materials in Canberra but they were from a Queanbeyan builder. So certainly there’s a connection but he was in Canberra. He says that he purchased them in Canberra but he does note at least in one, but not for this one, that the builder he was talking to was from Queanbeyan. Certainly there would have been a connection.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Thanks for your presentation, Jennifer, it was fabulous. My name is Kate Armstrong and I actually work at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House so it was fabulous to hear this presentation and also to see some of the objects. I wasn’t aware that there was a design competition for the house. That’s just a part of my learning that I haven’t come across yet, but I think it sounds like a fabulous bureaucratic bunfight. I was just wondering if in the Landmarks gallery you were planning to show some of the designs that were proposed for the house.

JENNIFER WILSON: No, and I actually looked at them. It hasn’t been part of my research. I think they are in the National Archives but because the competition was entirely scrapped and there are quite a few nasty letters and articles which appear, especially just after the turning of the sod ceremony for Provisional Parliament House, where the architects of Australia are quite angry that basically their entries were ignored. Indeed, the Royal Institute of Architects in England actually encouraged their members to not enter the competition for a permanent parliament building, believing that the conditions of the competition were not appropriate. It would be interesting to see what the entries were like, especially by comparison to what happened in 1974 and the new competition being launched for the permanent building. It would be really interesting to see an exhibition at some stage which made a comparison between those two design competitions – so something for the future. No, we’re not actually looking at that in this particular exhibition.

ROSEMARY BELL: My name is Rosemary Bell. I’m a volunteer at Old Parliament House. I am a little bit confused about this discussion of the first competition so that must have been some time after 1913 and before the First World War.


ROSEMARY BELL: It’s when Burley Griffin came here. You quoted from something that he had said in relation to that –

JENNIFER WILSON: Which was essentially ignored.

ROSEMARY BELL: So that’s something before maybe 1914-15. But when Bruce came in 1922 or 1923, as the exhibition at the National Archives shows, he then took this up but at that stage there didn’t seem to be any suggestion of another competition.


ROSEMARY BELL: So when were the architects asking for compensation for their efforts?

JENNIFER WILSON: The main article appears the day after the turning of the sod ceremony in 1923, August 1923 when Provisional Parliament House gets started. There’s a stop-start process and continuing arguments. It’s quite exhaustive to trace the whole history of these arguments from the establishment of Canberra right through to the opening of Provisional Parliament House in 1927. The arguments are continuous about how incorrect it is to build a provisional parliament building, and of course there is no competition for that building. It’s just given to Murdoch to speed up the process basically, because they know that he can do the job and he submits a number of different designs until the final one is accepted and actually built. The whole idea of a competition is a very stop-start one. It depends on who is in power as to trying to get that going. It’s the same as for the establishment of Canberra itself; it’s a very stop-start thing. I don’t think the exact date of the competition – it is launched prior to the First World War but exactly what happens and in what order the submissions are received and applications close, I am not exactly sure on those dates. It’s a very strange and long process that of course doesn’t actually get resolved finally until 1974 and a new building is proposed.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Thanks for a very interesting talk today. I actually worked in Parliament House as a collector of public monies. In the corridors people were typing. In the small offices doors were left open because they were very hot and stuffy. There was a huge buzz about the whole place all the time because offices were just far too small for people. People sat on window sills, you know, it’s just amazing.

JENNIFER WILSON: Public health and safety nightmare actually.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: It was a total nightmare. Anyway, the question I wanted to ask was about the rose gardens, tennis courts and the croquet lawns. Were they designed by Murdoch as well?

JENNIFER WILSON: Certainly he laid some of the foundation work for that but it is something that is picked up later, another point of debate oddly enough like everything else. There is some laying of turf for the opening – you have to make it look good. It was extremely dry and dusty for the opening – no, sorry, it had rained for the opening. There was quite a bit of mud around and a little bit difficult to move, but certainly much of Canberra was quite sparse at that point. The gardens come in in the next two decades following. There are various submissions and plans and changes made for that. It’s another long series of different people being involved. Murdoch made his suggestions.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: In the poster I noticed – it must have been a drawing because they have two poplar trees in the internal courtyards, which of course wouldn’t have been there at the time but did eventuate. So that was obviously all part of the plan.

JENNIFER WILSON: That’s the 1950s poster by James Northfield so slightly later, but it’s a little bit prettier than what was on offer in 1927 and has become one of the most recognisable advertisements for Canberra. So slightly different. It’s fun to look at the way the grounds change and there are different views of suburbs in the background and various stages of vegetation growth. It’s fun to watch that progression over time and the various changes.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Thanks, Jennifer. I don’t know if you mentioned it in your talk – I didn’t remember it. If there was a change of government while the Old Parliament House was being built, who controlled the building? Was it a parliamentary committee or group or was it the department of works or was it the two of them?

JENNIFER WILSON: The controlling body – the name changes several times. Certainly [the Department of] Public Works and Railways, which is what it’s called for the majority of that time, that’s the body that controls most of that. Of course, ministers change and come and go. They’re controlling [the department] most of Canberra building at that time so overseeing more than just the building of Parliament House. It gets the speed along at a particular point in time, a bit of acceleration.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: When did Joint House Department come into being [inaudible]

JENNIFER WILSON: There you have it.

SANDY FORBES: I actually have a question and this probably comes from my being a new Australian. I’ve only been here 24 years but I was here for the completion of the new one. Was there a thought that they would actually knock it down? How did that political discussion go on?

JENNIFER WILSON: It was certainly discussed and certainly the registration of the building on the National Heritage List finally puts an end to that debate. As far as Murdoch was concerned, it was always going to stay there. There’s the basic understanding that it would be used as office space because there was always going to be more office space needed in Canberra, as there still is. The planning authority, having spent that much money on it, didn’t really think at the time of pulling it down. Again, it’s another one of those debates that has gone backwards and forwards over time. There are lots of debates about Griffin’s vision and making sure that the view from Mount Ainslie is one that’s maintained in the proper way. But, of course, as we said, there has been so many different versions of where the building should be and what it should look like that that’s just another one of those debates. There was a fair bit of public outcry and support. It’s that statement by Murdoch in which he is right on the money all the way back in the 1920s that it’s that sense of sentimentality that actually in the end saves it. In a way that’s probably why he said that. I think he had a bit of sentimentality for the building himself. It’s that idea of actually engaging with the place as an historical collection of material in itself relating to the history of Australian democracy which means that it’s going to be with us for a long time.

SANDY FORBES: Can you imagine the protest marches if there was any thought of that.

JENNIFER WILSON: I can see quite a few people chaining themselves to the building perhaps. It is certainly not an argument that exists any more. It’s one of those things that was around for sure, but thankfully it’s still with us.

SANDY FORBES: Do you remember the ABC coverage of the opening of New Parliament House and as they rolled the credits at the end they had John Williamson singing ‘All Australian boys like a shed’? I thought that was a wonderful sense of humour about our landmarks which I think is important to remember too.

JENNIFER WILSON: And indeed if Provisional Parliament House had been made of corrugated iron that would have been even more appropriate.

SANDY FORBES: That would have been going from the old shed to the new one.

JENNIFER WILSON: That’s right.

SANDY FORBES: It’s now incumbent upon me to thank you, Jen, for your wonderful run through the history and to thank you all for coming. [applause]

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Date published: 01 January 2018

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