ACT News

National Archives to put nation's founding document, Constitution Act, on show

Australia's strictly preserved founding documents will again go on display for selected days as the nation nears another birthday on January 1.

One of the two original versions of the Constitution Act passed by the British Parliament in 1900 and the grand assent of the landmark law signed by Queen Victoria will be on display from Boxing Day at the National Archives.

Visitor Experience Coordinator of the National Archives Talei Emberson will be opening the Archives Federation Gallery ...
Visitor Experience Coordinator of the National Archives Talei Emberson will be opening the Archives Federation Gallery for limited time.  Photo: Jay Cronan

Archives visitor experience co-ordinator Talei Emberson said people often marvelled at the aged documents.

"For the average person to see the Constitution, there's definitely a sense of awe, and seeing a queen's signature is quite awe inspiring," she said.

An original version of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, passed at Westminster in 1900, will be on display ...
An original version of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, passed at Westminster in 1900, will be on display at the National Archives on Boxing Day.  Photo: Jay Cronan

"The fact it's fading also gives them a sense of the time, she used iron gall ink, you can see she's used the ink with a nib."

Children often commented on the calligraphy on some of the royal documents, while older visitors were able to relate to the 1967 Aboriginal referendum records as something they had lived through, she said.

A total of seven items form the Federation Gallery collection, with the most recent an original version of the Australia Act from 1986 which ended the avenue for legal appeals to the Privy Council in London. A facsimile of Edmund Barton's 1891 copy of the draft constitution – complete with handwritten notes and drawings of leaders of the time – will be an additional item which will be able to be flicked through.

Ms Emberson said the original version of the Constitution was only given to Australia in 1990 after lobbying by then prime minister Bob Hawke.

A physical copy of Edmund Barton's 1891 draft Australian constitution with his own scribblings and hand-drawn pictures ...
A physical copy of Edmund Barton's 1891 draft Australian constitution with his own scribblings and hand-drawn pictures can be viewed as part of the Federation Gallery. The person depicted is unknown.  Photo: Jay Cronan

Restrictions on light exposure for the documents mean a "quite theatrical" process for guests to visit the Federation Gallery.

"The gallery is dark, the light is activated by movement, and it's a case of gathering around display cases that are covered with black conservation covers, and we then peel back the covers, and the viewings are timed and recorded so we stay within our exposure times allocated for the year," she said.

The Royal Commission of Assent signed by Queen Victoria on 9 July 1900 made Australia's constitution law. Her faded ...
The Royal Commission of Assent signed by Queen Victoria on 9 July 1900 made Australia's constitution law. Her faded signature at the top of the document has never been retouched and must be limited to light exposure.  

The Federation Gallery is open for about 30 days each year, including public holidays. In the next month the gallery is open from December 26 to 28 and on January 1 and 26.

Parents can register their children for a calligraphy class at the Archives on January 12.