Hands on Democracy

Topic: Culture Subtopic: General

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Regan Forrest

Published on August 13, 2009

  • Description and goals

    Hands on Democracy is a new permanent exhibition targeted at children and families, located within sections of Old Parliament House (OPH) in Canberra. As the seat of the Australian Federal Parliament from 1927-1988, OPH is one of Australia’s most important historic buildings and a major attraction in the Nation’s Capital.

    The main goals of Hands on Democracy are as follows:
    • To provide an interactive, participatory, family-friendly space for children aged 4-12 in family and school groups
    • To offer relevant hands-on experiences (in the context of a historic building which is predominantly ‘hands off’)
    • To look at democracy from the point of view of free expression of ideas, civic engagement and grass-roots movements, rather than the parliamentary process (especially given that the target audience is too young to vote!)
    • To offer open-ended experiences where the process of engagement is more important than any preordained outcome (ie. exhibits should encourage things such as interpersonal interaction, negotiation, debate, exchange of ideas, etc, rather than ‘deliver’ a specific ‘message’)

    The exhibition comprises a total of approximately 200 square metres (2000 sqft).

    Key exhibits include:
    • Introduction: entrance corridor lined with magnetic poetry, plus famous (as well as satirical!) quotations about democracy
    • Voices: real-life examples of how children have taken action and made a difference about issues they care about
    • Storytelling: an area for children’s artworks and stories, including a screen-based exhibit for showing children’s performances. The artworks and performances developed for the opening were based on the Australian Aboriginal story of Tiddalik the Frog, and were developed in collaboration with an indigenous storyteller
    • Democracity: an area where groups can plan their ideal community, looking at the balance and interplay between urban, industrial and natural spaces
    • Democracy ‘sculpture’: a space for visitors to leave behind a thought or an idea, as well as a way of showing the cumulative impacts of small individual actions. Visitors take a leaf, write a message to it, and tie it to one of the trees in the space. So the visitors can track the development of the trees over time, a camera overlooking the space periodically takes shots which visitors can scroll though using a spin browser
    • Make It Take It: an area separated from the main exhibition, which can be used for drawing and making activities, which can be closed off from the rest
    • PlayActBe: spaces for dressing up and role play, related to key historical periods in the development of Australian democracy

  • Development process and challenges

    Development of the Hands on Democracy exhibition took place in the context of a complete rebranding of Old Parliament House to the Museum of Australian Democracy. Developed with funds from the Federal Government, the Museum intends to covers the past, present and future of Australian democracy, including perspectives from diverse facets of modern Australian society.

    The firm I work for, Exhibition Studios, was appointed in September 2008 to plan, design and build the Hands on Democracy exhibition after a tendering process. The ES design team worked OPH to define and refine the exhibitions content and messages, and then develop creative ways to engage visitors with these themes. Both ES and OPH conducted testing of exhibit ideas with school groups at the formative stage.

    Most of the development challenges were physical: OPH is one of the country’s most important heritage buildings and the conservation of the building’s fabric is of paramount importance. Many of the exhibit spaces were in small rooms or through corridors which would necessarily remain mixed use. We had to be careful of avoiding bottlenecks, both in the physical space the exhibits occupied and in the dwell time of these spaces. Also, any fixing to the heritage fabric was not allowed, which meant that all structures needed to be either freestanding or attached to existing, non-heritage structures. (A particular challenge considering everything predating 1988, the last year OPH was a functioning Parliament building, counted as ‘heritage’!)

    It also took us a while to get our head into the content: this exhibition was more about ideas, evoking feelings and encouraging discussions rather than conveying any specific key ‘facts’. This required a bit of a shift in our thinking during the initial creative process, as we couldn’t start with a key ‘message’ in the same way we normally would when first starting to think about an exhibition.

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    This project demonstrated the importance of striking the correct balance between aesthetics and experience, taking into account the venue, the audience and the available budget. Sometimes it is appropriate to spend the additional money on making something both bulletproof and beautiful; other times a more modest solution is just as effective but at much lower cost. In some cases we got the balance right; in other areas we would probably take a different tack if we were to do it again. As a result, we’re looking at the value analysis processes we undertake during the design process with a view to improving the way we make those judgement calls.

    Also, we perhaps erred a little too far on the side of caution when it came to avoiding impact on the building fabric. For instance, we could have made more of the setting of the democracy sculpture if we’d hung some lightweight structures from the ceiling; small touches like this would have made a big difference to the feel of the space, without causing the Conservation Management people to lose too much sleep!

    There were also, of course, the usual teething problems and bedding in with technology. This is something that always seems to take much longer than anticipated . . .

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