Democracy's gold standard
I am in a darkened room as the incantations of Peter Lalor, leader of the Eureka Stockade, wash over me.
"Fellow diggers ... we swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties."
They fill the room both in the form of an actor's voice and as illuminated words rolling down my body.
Next, in a series of 12 speeches that changed the world, is the powerful rhetoric of Martin Luther King jnr's "I have a dream" speech. I can even do the Democracy Karaoke in the theatre, and give one of these speeches myself and have it sent as a memento to my email or phone.
Ballarat's new $11.1 million Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (M.A.D.E) is tackling democracy from the people's perspective. Which is most apt given it stands on the site of the Eureka Stockade (and the former Eureka Centre), where miners defended themselves against government troops enforcing pernicious mining licences at the scene of one of the biggest alluvial gold rushes on earth.
"M.A.D.E tells the Eureka story and places it in a global context," project director Katherine Armstrong says.
Among the 19 different nationalities at Eureka, most were aged between 16 and 27. "No taxation without representation" was the cry. Today, M.A.D.E shows how ordinary people can make a profound contribution to create the society we want to live in.
The museum may be small, even intimate, but it offers a terrific contribution to Australia's "fair go" story while providing an addition to Ballarat's multi-layered charms.
M.A.D.E not only presents a new reason to visit Ballarat, it breaks the historical/contemporary divide and inspires me to take a broader look at this plucky regional city.
I base myself at the beautifully restored Craig's Royal Hotel, which opened in 1853 as Ballarat's first licensed pub. The hotel was once a magnet for the rich, royal and famous visiting a city built on rivers of gold. And although I fit into none of the above categories, I was supremely comfortable in the Prince Albert suite.
I start at the Art Gallery of Ballarat (Australia's oldest regional gallery), which sports a treasure trove of diggings paintings by landscape master (and goldminer) Eugene von Guerard. Early-1870s streetscapes also show a bold new city rising out of the mud less than 20 years after gold was discovered.
Walking out into 21st-century Ballarat, many of the ornate 19th- century buildings are still here: the Mechanics Institute (1859), Colonial Bank of Australia (1860), post office (1862) and town hall (1870).
An eclectic sculpture collection is dotted along the tree-lined centre of 60-metre-wide Sturt Street, designed in 1851 to allow for the turning of bullock drays.
Across from Craig's is Her Majesty's Theatre (1875), Australia's oldest purpose-built theatre, constructed over a mine shaft.
Down by Ballarat's earliest stone building, the 1854 Anglican Church of Christ, I get a clear view, just like the soldiers at government camp, down the escarpment to the diggings, though now it's just a mass of suburbia.
Armed with a better grasp of the Ballarat story, I make my way to M.A.D.E, where a Cyclorama Timeline puts the Eureka Stockade in the context of 2500 years of democracy. Starting with the cradle of Western civilisation, Athens in 500BC, it travels to the present via milestones such as the French Revolution (1788) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Interactive touch tables use archaeological artefacts, letters, diaries and newspaper articles to explore the Eureka story from multiple viewpoints.
The only remaining copy of the Ballarat Reform League Charter, which set in motion the rebellion, is well worth a squiz, its language not dissimilar to that of the US Declaration of Independence.
The fascinating Library of Incendiary Books includes, for instance, the Koran, The Feminine Mystique and Silent Spring.
In another immersive portal I listen to protest songs such as Freedom Train, arranged by Jonathan Welsh, founder of the Choir of Hard Knocks.
There are fascinating statistics, such as the 30,000 Australian women who signed the monster petition for women's suffrage in 1891, and how-to videos offering grassroots activism tips from people such as former Greens senator Bob Brown.
My M.A.D.E experience is so visceral I'm completely fired up as I drive back into town around Bakery Hill, a huge replica Eureka flag at the roundabout almost, but not quite, obscuring the McDonald's sign. Here an estimated 10,000 people, almost half the population of Ballarat, gathered on November 29, 1854, to pledge their loyalty to the new Southern Cross flag.
Four days later, 30 miners and soldiers would die in the Eureka Stockade's 20-minute skirmish. Soon afterward, mining licences were abolished and replaced by one-pound-a-year miner's rights, which also gave voting rights.
The Ballarat gold rush yielded $10 billion worth of gold in today's figures. Drop by Cordell Kent's Mining Exchange Gold Shop and he'll tell you that it ain't over yet. In January, an anonymous prospector discovered a 5.5-kilogram nugget worth about $200,000.
Ballarat's gold legacy is certainly writ large, not only in its magnificent historic streetscapes but also its outspoken democratic traditions.
On his 1890s Ballarat visit, Mark Twain described Eureka as "a strike for liberty, a struggle for principle, a stand against injustice and oppression ... [and] a victory won by a lost battle". More than 150 years later, thanks to M.A.D.E, that story will resonate once again.
Susan Gough Henly travelled with assistance from Craig's Royal Hotel and Visit Ballarat.
1 Explore Ballarat's Botanical Gardens (pictured below). ballarat.com/botanicgardens.
2 Visit Sovereign Hill and the Gold Museum, and see the Blood on the Southern Cross sound and light show. sovereignhill.com.au.
3 Take a ghost tour of the city's underground buildings, alley ways and jail. eerietours.com.au.
4 Enjoy the native fauna of the Ballarat Wildlife Park. wildlifepark.com.au.
5 Check out Ballarat's vintage shops. visitballarat.com.au/things-to-do/shop.
Getting there Ballarat is 1½ hours' drive from Melbourne. It is accessible via rail from Southern Cross Station, $24.80 (NZ$27) round trip. vline.com.au/pdf/timetables/ballarat.pdf.
Touring there The Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka opens on May 4, Eureka and Stawell streets. 1800 287 113, made.org.
Staying there The High Victorian Gothic Craig's Royal Hotel has 41 rooms with antique furniture and marble bathrooms. Prices start at $280 including buffet breakfast. craigsroyal.com.au.
More information visitballarat.com.au.