Visit to Canberra: a symphony in five monuments (day 1)

Maggie and I recently spent a few days in the region of Canberra, the capital of Australia. The next couple of posts will cover our visits to five national monuments, followed by some of the excellent food we ate in and around Canberra.

(I have used the word ‘symphony’ as a descriptor for this set of experiences. We do like to orchestrate our travels and, in a real way, the journey from monument to monument felt like a series of components of an integrated whole. Besides, it gave me the opportunity to apply the monument/movement pun!)

Australian War Memorial

The first item on our program was a visit to the nation’s principal war memorial, which also includes museum exhibits relating to all wars in which Australia has been involved, ie since 1901.

The memorial buildings are in a typically Australian setting – a variety of trees and shrubs in a semi-arid environment. From the front steps there is a striking view, across the artificial Lake Burley Griffin, to Parliament House. (You can admire that vista here, as well as a more detailed description of the site.)

10-war-mem   11-war-mem

The entrance to the memorial is watched over by two stone lions, which originally formed part of the Menin Gate, in Ypres. (I recently wrote about our visit to Ypres.) The lions were donated to Australia by the Mayor of Ypres in 1936, as a gesture of friendship.


The museum section also includes a copy of Menin Gate at Midnight by Australian artist Will Longstaff. He painted the work after attending the unveiling of the Gate, in July 1927. The foreground is dotted with steel-helmeted ‘spririts’, emerging from cornfields. You can find out more about this remarkable painting here.


We then explored the museum exhibits associated with the First World War battlefields we had visited in Flanders and the Somme, including the astonishing collection of original Victoria Crosses awarded to Australian soldiers for gallantry. (The VC is the highest national award in each of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.)

As we made our way out of the museum section, we came across As of today, a remarkable sculptural monument to the 41 Australian soldiers who died while on duty in Afghanistan. This was especially poignant for Maggie – a close friend of her son is one of the 41 and her son was with him at the time. We attended his funeral, a deeply sorrowful event.


From the museum, we moved to the memorial courtyard, which leads to the Hall of Memory, an imposing chapel in which the body of an unknown soldier was interred in 1993. The soldier had served on the Western Front and his name would be recorded on one of the sites we visited in September.


19-war-mem      20-war-mem


The then Prime Minister, Paul Keating, made a powerful speech at the internment ceremony. You can find it here. The first I knew of this event, was when we visited the main Australian WW1 memorial outside Villers-Bretonneux; Keating’s words resonated very strongly with me.

From the chapel, we left the memorial via one of the two cloisters on the side of the courtyard. The walls of the cloisters contain the name of every Australian service man or woman who has been killed in war since 1901. The panels include provision for poppies to be attached next to a name, something we did for the friend of Maggie’s son.


High Court of Australia

Our next visit was to the High Court, so it is probably time for me to insert some historical basics for the vast majority of my small band of followers that has never lived in Australia.

Until 1901, Australia was six separate colonies, which had been established from 1788 onwards through the presence of a mix of British troops, free settlers and convicts. On the first day of 1901, Australia became a single, unified nation and each of the former colonies became a state within the new federal system. The act of constitution which established Australia, and a national government and parliament, provided for the creation of a High Court, independent of government, with each new member being appointed by the government in a manner not unlike the US Supreme Court, for example.

The High Court has two main purposes: to resolve disputes about interpretation of the constitution, usually triggered by new legislation; and as the highest appeal court, determining matters that have arisen in a lesser state or federal court. The court comprises seven members or ‘justices’, one of whom is the Chief Justice, the most eminent judicial position in the country.

So, what did we see and learn by visiting the premises of the court?

Firstly, that the building is imposing. An in-house guide explained that this was an intention of the design brief, ie it should reflect the power and status of the court. He also pointed out that it was located off to the side of the central visual and planning axis of Canberra, which runs from the Australian War Memorial to Parliament House; this was to reflect the fact that the court is not subservient to the legislature. Interesting!


Inside the building, the walls and staircases are adorned with works of art that are also monumental, each one specifically commissioned. In Court No 1, which is used only for cases regarding the Australian Constitution, a large tapestry carries the symbolic badges of the six states and the crest of the Commonwealth.

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Two paintings in the foyer of the court used for matters of appeal, depict the court’s inaugural sitting in a Melbourne courtroom in 1903, and its centenary, in Canberra.

29-court   30-court

One artwork which I found particularly interesting and satisfying was Today now we all got to go by same laws, produced by Rosella Namok, an Australian aboriginal woman born in Queensland in 1979. I highly recommend that your read her description/explanation of the painting here; (you will also find that I missed two panels on the RH side when I took the photo).


The next post will introduce you to the three national monuments that we visited on our second day in Canberra.

Until then, cheers!
Rick Grounds


About rmgtravelsandfood

Maggie and I were both born in the early 1950s and we live in Melbourne, Australia. This blog is mainly devoted to our shared passions for travel and fine dining at home. Recently, I added Australian politics to the scope of the blog, inspired by the election of a Labor Government at a national level. Rick Grounds
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