Satisfying the museum-nerd in me

Trip Start Sep 15, 2012
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Trip End Aug 20, 2013


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Flag of Australia  , Australian Capital Territory,
Thursday, May 2, 2013

What do you want in Canberra?

This was the question asked by pretty much everyone whom I had told about my plan to visit Australia's capital named Canberra. I knew that the city has nothing much to offer than a huge selection of museums and some insight into the crazy politics of Australia. Well, being kind of a museum nerd and eager to learn (more) about Australia, its indigenous people, the Eruopean settlement and the nation's development, the presence of the National Museum of Australia in Canberra was reason enough for me to go there.


A purpose built capital "city"

"Canberra? Never heard of it!" This is what most foreigners (including me) say when they first get to Australia. One would think that either Sydney or Melbourne would be the capital of Australia, but this question is actually the reason why it is Canberra. Back in the days of colonization Australia was not one country but instead six independently managed colonies. These six colonies then became states in one federation and later independent from Britain. Sydney as the state capital of "New South Wales" and Melbourne as the state capital of "Victoria" were both eager to become the capital of the Commonwealth of Australia (the official name of the country). Sydney would argue that they've been the first British settlement in all of Australia, but Melbourne would counter by saying that they are the biggest, most developed and most vivid city in all of Australia (which at the time was definitely true). So to avoid a fight and disappointment of one city, the decision was made to build a new capital city somewhere between Melbourne and Sydney. It was even stated that the capital had to be a certain distance away from Sydney :-).

After some months of searching for a good place the government chose the mountaineous region about 300 km southwest of Sydney. The name Canberra was derived from a local tribe's language meaning "Meeting place" and the city was fully planned and erected with lots of green spaces and wide avenues. Actually the city has been designed in such big proportions that it seems way to big for the people living there. By 6pm many streets in the centre of Canberra were literally deserted. Well, government doesn't work that late I guess ;).

To make Canberra more attractive they not only built the most important federal government institutions there, but also several national museums (history, art, science etc) and created the Australian National University. So nowadays there are not only a lot of politicans but also a large number of students stuck in this place somewhere between Sydney and Melbourne. Walking through the city I had the feeling there was nothing else to do than go to the museums or work and study. An ideal place for the politicians and super-ambitious students ;-).


A great autumn day in Canberra


Coming from Melbourne my plan was to actually go to Canberra first and then to Sydney. However, there was no accomodation available in the only!!! hostel in the city until a few days later, so I had to go to Sydney first and then take a four and a half hour bus ride to Canberra and then go back again to Sydney the next day. Well it was actually worth it, although it was really stupid to drive through Canberra on my way from Melbourne to Sydney and then to return. Oh well, what was I gonna do without a bed in Canberra? There is no nightlife to keep anyone busy in Canberra... ;-)

Due to its mountaineous position, Canberra's climate is cooler than that of Sydney and Melbourne, although it is still much warmer than Germany in autumn. It was about 10C at night and 18C during the day with plenty of sunshine. The trees (of which there are lots in Canberra) were interestingly colored and dropping their leaves (yes it is autumn in the Southern Hemisphere). Unfortunately as I learned all these trees with colored leaves are plants introduced to Australia from Europe. The native vegetation of Australia is ever-green. Well, nonetheless it made for a pretty view and a spectacular sunset over Canberra.


Great museums with great insight into Australia's history

For my one and a half day stop in Canberra I had lots of things planned. First I went to the National Museum of Australia and then the National Art Gallery. On the second day I visited the Australian War Memorial and the Australian Parliament. To my delight entrance to all museums was free of charge.

The National Museum gave me a good overview about Australia's indigenous people (the Aboriginees and the Torres Strait People near Papa New Guinea), who have lived on this land for at least 40.000 years. It also gave me lots of insight into the European settlement of the country starting only in the late 18th century, and the country's and society's development since then and the sad fight between the native inhabitants and the greedy colonists. For me it was especially interesting to learn about the indigenous people, their very happy way of life and their utmost respect for the land and local flora and fauna, and yes also their sad story of surpression by the colonial settlers. I am  sure that this knowledge of Australia's people and past will help me to better understand some things I will encounter on my big eight week trip throughout Australia.

The National Art Gallery was also very interesting. I only focused on the Aboriginal Art section, but this was very impressive. Lots of indigenous dots-painting on tree barks with a lot of stories about the "Dreaming", the process by which, to the Aboriginees' belief, ancestors have created this land.

In the evening there was absolutely nothing to do in Canberra, making it a perfect night for booking flights etc for my further trip.

Next day I went to the Australian War Memorial. This huge memorial complex and museum was established to commemorate the fallen Australian and foreign soldiers in the many wars in the past century. Joining a free guided tour through the site, I learnt that this memorial was not only intended for the Australian soldiers but for war victims in general. Despite its name the museum was not euphemizing war, although it also did not (at least not to me) portray that many explicit statements against future wars. Well, the exhibitions were very interesting, including for example German and Japanese war planes and equipment from the first and second World War. A rather sad exhibit for me, as a German from Berlin, was a British bomber used in several air-raids over Berlin. However, all in all I felt the museum was very informative and did show the sickness of war for all sides, Australian's friends and foes.

My last stop before taking the bus back to Sydney was the Australian Parliament. Constructed in a straigt line to and with a clear view on the distant Australian War Memorial, this site is the location of both the Australian Senate and House of Representatives. There was again a free guided tour offered, however, I was only able to listen to half of the tour before I had to leave to catch my bus. Nonetheless, I learned quite a bit about the Australian political system, which to no surprise is very similar to that of Britain. The equipment used and the government rooms are pretty much all built like those in London. There is also an original "replica" of the Magna Carta on display in the parliament. In addition to all the government spaces, the visitor is allowed to access the roof of the parliament. From there I had a great view over Canberra, the spacious and fairly empty capital city of Australia.


Next stop: Back to Sydney


I am now going back to Sydney for a day and a half before flying back to Melbourne, where my big trip will start on May 6th. My summary of the short trip to Australia's capital: It was worthwhile going there for the museums, although a day and a half or two days are surely enough :-).
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