30 November 2021

Refresh at Museum of Australian Democracy transports visitors to time of first female Speaker

| James Coleman
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Office desk with papers and flowers

Reinterpretation exhibition of the Speaker of the House of Representative’s suite at the Museum of Australian Democracy. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

You can almost see the office workers chatting and hear the papers shuffling, typewriters clicking and Telecom phones ringing.

A refresh at the Old Parliament House will transport visitors to another world, thanks to an authentic representation of a period that paved the way for women to take leadership positions in Federal parliament.

The Museum of Australian Democracy (MoAD) has refreshed and re-opened the Speaker’s Suite at Old Parliament House, taking the décor and setup back to the period from 1986 to 1988 when it was occupied by Australia’s first female Speaker, Joan Child.

The prestigious corner suite was occupied by the Speaker of the House of Representatives and their staff and features a foyer, staff office connected to the Speaker’s Office, bathroom, dressing area, sitting room, kitchenette/cocktail bar, and a dining room.

MoAD’s previous ‘interpretation’ of the Speaker’s Suite has been in place since 2007, based on the mid-1970s to early-1980s when Sir Billy Snedden was Speaker.

Manager of Interpretation and Content Development Kate Armstrong says the museum was keen to reconsider, refresh and enrich the interpretation, and their attention turned to Joan Child as an interesting and inspiring case for the refresh.

The Speaker’s Suite is one of four corner suites at the House occupied by the highest-ranking politicians in times past. The others are for the Prime Minister, the President of the Senate, and the Leader of the Government in the Senate.

Kate heads a three-person team responsible for helping self-guided tourists understand the significant part Old Parliament House had to play in the formation of Australia from 1927 to 1988.

“The other interesting thing about Joan is that she came across both houses,” Kate says. “She was the last Speaker in this House before moving to New Parliament House as the first Speaker there.”

Not only did Kate’s team have a lot of photos to go on, but many of Joan’s staff and family members are also still alive.

“We had plenty of eyewitnesses who we could work with to truly get a feel for how it looked, how it functioned, and how it felt. For us, telling the story of Joan Child sort of started coming together as a good story that we could base on strong evidence.”

Bathroom sink

Even Joan Child’s bathroom is kitted out. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

Joan’s taste is reflected in the flowers, plants and landscape paintings displayed throughout the suite. An object of particular interest is a crystal bowl on display in the bookcase in the Speaker’s Office, which Kate says is the very one received by Joan in 1986 as a present from the equivalent of the Speaker in the Irish Parliament.

“We had a call a couple of years ago from an op shop in Cheltenham, mentioning that they had this bowl and wondering if we were interested in it.”

Unlike many politicians that work their way up from law degrees or staffing positions, Joan had humble roots working in factories, kitchens, retail, and aged care to keep her family of five fed and clothed.

When the youngest boy left school, she joined the entourage of future Deputy Prime Minister Jim Cairns. From there, it was onto the Australian Labor Party, where she was elected to the Melbourne seat of Henty in 1974, having narrowly failed to win it two years earlier. This made her the first female Labor member of the House.

However, in less than two years, she was defeated in the landslide Liberal victory in 1975. Her attempt to regain the seat in 1977 failed, but unperturbed, she got it back in 1980. She continued to hold Henty until her retirement in 1990.

“That takes a fair bit of spine, I think – to not only win a seat, but then lose it and try again,” Kate says.

Joan resigned from the role one year after moving into New Parliament House in 1989. She died in 2013 aged 91.

Because of the sheer amount of behind-the-scenes sourcing and setup for an interpretation like this, Kate says Joan’s office will likely stay in place for up to 10 years.

Snedden's Renovation dining room

The dining room is set up for a dinner party. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

“It’s not your typical exhibition, so visitors won’t have to worry about missing out.”

This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the election of Edith Cowan, the first woman to serve in an Australian parliament. Cowan was elected to the seat of West Perth in the WA Parliament in 1921.

Visit the Museum of Australian Democracy (MoAD) for more information.

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