Democracy DNA: An exploration into Australian democracy and the people who built it

  • Written byAleyn Silva
  • DateThu, 31 Mar 2022

Have you ever wondered what our democracy is made of?  

Just like the DNA of living organisms, our democracy is composed of numerous building blocks. So, what’s in our democracy’s DNA? To answer this question, I visited MoAD’s new exhibition, Democracy DNA: the People, the Prime Ministers and The World. 

I take a deep breath before being submerged in more than one hundred years of history. 

I am greeted by the classical architecture of the old Parliamentary Library. Majestic monolithic white pillars soar upwards to meet ornate clerestory windows. The original bookshelves, once home to scores of information, still stand tall. It seems fitting that these same bookshelves would host the stories of the future. Walking around the grand old Parliamentary Library reminds me that not only does the exhibit space explore history, it is history. 

Previously, the space has played host to other exhibitions exploring and examining Australia’s democracy. Continuing to host these exhibitions contributes to the enduring historical narrative of this space.  

Democracy DNA redefines prior ideas of what comprises democracy by including the crucial contributions made by ordinary Australian citizens. Faith Bandler’s activism against racial discrimination and the music created by musician Jimmy Little permanently changed the DNA of Australia’s democracy. Another notable inclusion is Lesley Hall, a disability activist, famous for storming the 1981 Miss Australia beauty pageant. MoAD’s inclusion of Hall in this tapestry of Australian democracy is a step forward towards representation of individuals with disability in museum spaces, whose voices are often excluded from history. 

Vivid portraits of Australia’s 30 past prime ministers by illustrator Nigel Buchanan silently observe me as I wander through the exhibition. My suspicions that I am being watched are confirmed: I notice Bob Hawke’s eyes, in animated form, following me across the room. Touchscreen panels providing information on each prime minister are built into the bookshelves, a seamless transition between the old and new. 

Democracy DNA tells its story of democracy through multiple mediums: written descriptions, interactive activities, political cartoons, and animations. Though the most memorable elements of the exhibition are the historical objects. Key people and events in the story of Australian democracy are represented through physical items: Neville Bonner’s RM Williams boots, an anti WWI conscription pamphlet, an ‘I love Medicare’ badge. 

The exhibition also contextualises the former prime ministers within significant global and domestic shifts. Walking between alcoves feels like entering and leaving a time machine, flitting between different global and domestic events. I even find a working stereoscope! 

As I travel through decades of history, I watch the world evolving with technological innovations.  

I witness the advent of colour photography and space travel. The nuclear bomb comes into existence, changing the consequences of war forever. The timeline of global events provides a physical reminder of how Australia’s domestic affairs take place not in a vacuum, but in the context of a rapidly changing world. Some global events, war and terror, serve as a jarring reminder of the necessity of democracy. 

Closer to the end of the exhibition are the alcoves that encompass my lifespan. Photographs of war carnage sit next to leaders smiling hopefully at summit talks. Sitting in the alcove representing 2007-2020, I remember living through some of the events portrayed in the walls around me. Sitting here, engulfed by history, I'm reminded of how small I am, yet how important my voice is in this great big world. 

The final alcove of Democracy DNA includes a visualization of the near future. I am presented with an artistic imagining of what Australia’s future Prime Ministers may look like. The artist has rendered them as individuals from multiple diverse backgrounds and ages. Representation in our country’s highest position of power is crucial. We need our governance systems to reflect our multi-cultural society. In this small alcove, Democracy DNA hints towards a future in which spaces where diverse individuals who were previously excluded, are openly invited to lead the conversation. 

By demonstrating how our democracy reflects us all as Australians, the exhibition encourages us to participate in civic society by demonstrating leadership to younger generations, and engaging actively in local politics by voting with purpose or writing to MPs. Democracy DNA is a reminder that democracy is a part of Australia’s DNA, just as we are a part of democracy's DNA.

Democracy DNA: the People, the Prime Ministers and the World

Find out more about the Disability and Culturally Diverse Internship Program led by Accessible Arts in partnership with Diversity Arts Australia.