The Museum of Australian Democracy’s director, Daryl Karp, has described violent protests and an alleged arson attack on the building by self-described sovereign citizen anti-vaccination protesters as “un-Australian” and a challenge to our open, peaceful democracy.
Preliminary estimates place the damage bill at close to $4 million.
A statement from MoAD describes the damage as extensive due to the thick, acrid smoke that permeated King’s Hall and, to a lesser degree, the Chambers. Most rooms on the main floor are tarnished by soot and will need to be individually hand cleaned, repaired and repainted. The water damage from the fire hoses and sprinkler systems near the entry and on the lower floor is also substantial.
While most collection objects are unaffected, the Museum is optimistic that almost everything can be restored, including the doors and entryway and the original 1927 rubber flooring in the lower gallery.
“However, the front entrance to Old Parliament House, an iconic image of Canberra and the site of countless historical events, will never be the same”, the statement says.
Ms Karp says that MoAD staff were puzzled and concerned about why they were the focus of violent protest activities for several weeks until the camp was forcibly moved on by police at the end of last week. Yesterday, several protesters appeared in court amid scenes of considerable disruption.
“We were trying to work out what they wanted, what the purpose was of the Museum being the focus of the protest?” Ms Karp told Region Media.
She said Museum staff were “very uncomfortable” about the level of confrontation taking place.
MoAD staff had initially engaged with the protesters, but after the protest became aggressive, police gave the Museum guidance on protecting the Museum and managing the risks for staff and visitors.
“The initial response was disbelief. A mix of disbelief, anger and absolute despair that this extraordinary heritage building was the brunt of such aggressive behaviour,” Ms Karp said.
“For me, the big challenge is that Australia has an amazingly open, peaceful democracy, so what does this mean for us moving forward?
“We were watching their Facebook live coverage, calling people to join them in Canberra and take over Old Parliament House. It felt very un-Australian, one of those things you don’t expect to happen in Australia and in our capital city. Certainly not at a museum.”
The protest group has aligned Aboriginal rights issues with anti-vaccination sentiments, but Tent Embassy protesters, who have valid permits to be on the site, and local traditional owners have both distanced themselves from the protests.
United Ngunnawal Elders Council chair Roslyn Brown says that while the protesters approached traditional owners when they arrived in Canberra, no further contact was made.
“We were very concerned about what was happening and are so pleased that it’s over. Violence and destruction isn’t the answer,” she said.
“Ngunnawal people respect the right to democratic peaceful protest and will always support it, but violence and destruction don’t fit in with our culture protocols. We support the tent embassy because it holds a mirror up to the world about Aboriginal Australia.
“I can’t understand their thinking about vaccination and the risks for Aboriginal communities. I bet they take a Panadol! We strongly encourage everyone to get vaccinated.”
Daryl Karp said that the Museum is “the building where the Yirrkala bark petitions were tabled, where Neville Bonner entered as the first Aboriginal man to be elected as a Federal parliamentarian, where the 1967 referendum was legislated”.
The Museum’s current temporary exhibition is about Mr Bonner’s life and achievements.
“There is an indigenous perspective in every single exhibition at MoAD. Our approach has always been through dialogue. If there are substantial differences of opinion then we use dialogue to move people forward. That’s what the building has represented throughout its history.
“Those who perpetrate these destructive acts don’t speak to our democratic values as Australians.”