Inside the world’s weirdest museums

This article was published by Urban Walkabout on October 4, 2016.

I love a good museum. I seek them out in every new place. And while a history museum makes me happy, there’s nothing like a museum that’s just a little bit weird.

Here’s a sample of the world’s strangest historical institutions.

The Buddha Darshan Robotic Museum, Nepal

A visit to Nepal ultimately leads to contact with the ancient religions that permeate the land. My friend Sophie and I visited the beautiful lakeside town of Pokhara, a favourite on the tourist route. We began with a jaunt across the lake to hike to the Shanti Stupa monument, where we took in the view of the rolling Himalayan foothills and soaked in the peace after which the pagoda is named. We trekked down the opposite side of the hill, bracing ourselves for the long walk back to town.

But our spiritual experiences for that day were far from over, for we were shown a sign. And that sign read: “50 per cent off the Robotic Buddha Museum”.

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What does the Australian republic movement mean for young Australians today?

This article was published by The Vocal on February 19, 2016.

When you travel, almost the first question you get asked is, “Where are you from?”

For Australians, producing a satisfactory answer can be a struggle because it is not necessarily based on the nationality of your passport. Australians’ diverse ethnic backgrounds don’t always match expectations; the outside understanding of national character is frequently at odds with the individual. What does it mean to be Australian?

A little more than a century ago, it no longer seemed logical for Australia to be ruled by a monarch on the opposite side of the globe. Sounds sensible enough. The thing is, at the time of Federation the King was still a hot favourite, so a constitutional monarchy was created. The British Crown remained the head of state, but Australia governed itself.

The Australians got to create their own laws: one of their favourite policies was the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act – colloquially known as the White Australia Policy, leaving little room to ponder just how racist a policy this was – which aimed to limit non-European migration, at times including non-British “white aliens”, for more than 60 years, while they paid for the British to move to Australia.

But the world caught up and the White Australia Policy was no longer tenable. The 1960s heralded the beginning of a golden age for Australia, when people of all the colours of the human rainbow settled in, with their wonderfully diverse foods and cultures and genes. But Australia’s struggles relating to identity, history and culture, however, are still front and centre today.

But let’s go back to where it all began

About 230 years ago, the British invaded the land they would later name Australia. Going against their own policy of only taking terra nullius (unoccupied territory), the Brits killed a bunch of the black folk they found-but-didn’t-find-coz-there-were-no-people, rounded up and interred/enslaved those they didn’t kill, took their children and went about their business of creating a penal colony for the poor folk from their own lands they couldn’t fit in their over-stuffed jails full of other poor people. For many happy years the white folk, with the British Crown as their head honcho, did as they pleased with their giant colony.

In the space of a century or so, Australia went from being a colony to being self-governing. The transition didn’t require a violent revolution – something of a rarity. But the move to independence was not absolute. In 2016, it makes bugger-all sense for Australia to remain an outpost of a washed-up empire. So where to now?


The Australian head of state is still to this day the British crown. It might seem weird that a democratic country has an unelected head of state – even stranger, one who attains the position by bloodline.

This, according to the Australian Monarchist League (championed by none other than RWNJ Alan Jones) safeguards Australian democracy. “[T]o remove the Crown from our Constitution will be to eliminate the main safeguard against absolute control by politicians,” the league argues. A president elected either directly or via parliament would necessarily have to be involved in politics – which is bad, you understand. “Our present system may not be perfect, but it is far superior to a political republic, which is what we would become,” the monarchists believe.

Equally, the league says Britain’s influence on Australia’s political structures means it is “a beacon of democracy in the world. Becoming a republic would negate much of this.” They say the Queen offers her protection to all, making no distinctions between her peoples, before making a point that is at the heart of the debate: “Republicans want Australia to be completely independent of the UK but this has definitively been the case since 1986. The UK has no involvement with Australian government at all”.

So, if the crown doesn’t have any power in Australia, why become a republic?

It’s high time Australia removed itself from the bosom of its old colonial masters and created a new identity for itself. The Australian Republic Movement say they’re not against the Queen, but her position is preventing Australia maturing from its teens to adulthood.

Despite Australia’s multiculturalism, its image is that of a bastion of the British. “The Queen represents British values, British spirit and represents the United Kingdom to the world,” the movement argues.

“We need someone who can do for Australia what the Queen does for the UK… [W]ho we are as a nation is important for our long-term unity and health as a community, as well as sending a strong message about our pride as a people and our standing in the world.”

The post-referendum years

You might remember way back in 1999, talk of a referendum around this issue. The referendum failed because the political model put forward was unpopular – despite this, more than 45 per cent voted in favour of it. The question was not “should Australia become a republic?”, but whether people wanted to replace the Queen as head of state with a President appointed by the parliament.

The concept of an Australian republic is now neither a radical idea, nor a political one – it carries bipartisan support. Every Premier and Chief Minister in Australia, bar one, has signed a petition calling for a republic. Many of the most high-profile federal politicians, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who was a founding member of the Australian Republic Movement, and Opposition leader Bill Shorten, are right into full independence.

The old argument that Australia will suffer economically or politically from removing the British crown as the head of state is erroneous. The Queen herself seems aware Australia will fly the nest one day and doesn’t appear vengeful – not that she has any control over the United Kingdom’s parliament or military.

And the republic movement advocates remaining in the Commonwealth of Nations, an intergovernmental organisation members join voluntarily, much like the United Nations. Ceasing to be a Commonwealth realm (a country with the monarch as head) won’t preclude Australia from the Commonwealth of Nations – India, for example, became fully independent in 1950 but retains economic and political ties via its membership.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

The “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” argument is just lazy. This argument only takes into account political structures, and relegates the issue to the too hard basket instead of making changes that are as inevitable as death and taxes. Claiming the system works and shouldn’t be messed with overlooks the wider social implications of retaining the British monarch. The institution responsible for the decimation of the First Australians’ societies, and the corresponding values that led to decades of a White Australia, remains the nominal head of state.

And sure, old Queen Betty has a few fans, and seems nice enough, with her co-ordinated suits and hats, and her corgis. They say any republic debate should wait until she dies, out of respect. That could swing things in the republic’s favour, as the next in line to the throne, Prince Charles, seems less popular with the punters. But this isn’t a popularity contest. This is a much-needed conversation about the future of an ever-diversifying country and its 24-odd million citizens.

“I will lend my voice to the republican movement in this country. It is time, I think, to at least revisit the question so that we can stand both free and fully independent among the community of nations” – David Morrison, Australian of the Year 2016

What worked in 1901 at the time of Federation doesn’t work now, obviously. It’s kind of like those religious texts that were written millennia ago and include social norms that have long disappeared. The system as it stands creates an us-and-them dichotomy: The whites rule the roost and everyone else gets to stay at their beneficence.

This extends to a community that is often over-looked in the republic debate: Indigenous Australians. In a moving speech on whether racism is destroying the Australian dream, journalist Stan Grant said racism was “there at the birth of the nation. It is there in terra nullius. An empty land. A land for the taking. Sixty thousand years of occupation… None of it mattered because our rights were extinguished because we were not here according to British law.”

Imagine what a new political model could do for the reconciliation process. Indigenous Australians would no longer have to live under the tokenistic hand of the people who trashed their communities, cultures and languages. An intended referendum on Indigenous constitutional recognition has split the community, with some opposing it on grounds it takes the focus off a treaty establishing rights and recognition of Indigenous sovereignty. Others, such as Reconciliation Australia, believe references to race must be removed from the document for the benefit of the Indigenous community.

But a republic, while unable to change current ethnic ratios or rewrite history, could present a chance to more fully incorporate Indigenous people into Australia’s political and social structures – some suggest by mandating an Indigenous head of state. Jakelin Troy, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research director at University of Sydney, supports recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and a treaty prior to, or as part of, the move to becoming a republic. “[A republic is] an opportunity to finally recognise and enshrine our sovereign rights, by developing a 21st-century treaty that gives the original Australians a political and legal platform that includes us in its leadership in perpetuity,” Prof Troy said. “Let’s draw on this energy and together lift Australia to a position of world leadership in human rights.”

Anita Heiss, Wiradjuri woman and author of ‘Am I Black Enough For You?’, praised Stan Grant’s speech for its ability to rally people. “Words can be powerful,” Dr Heiss said. “They can make us change the way we think. They can help us understand and feel empathy, but what are words without actions? I think the real power will come now, post Stan’s speech in a call to action to all those tweeting and Facebooking to actually do something!”

Important historical changes don’t occur when people sit on their hands and say “uff I dunno, that seems like a lot of work”. It’s time to create a nation that puts First Australians, and those who followed, on an equal footing. It’s time to again consider the chance to form a truly independent national identity.

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How social media is redefining our narrow representation of beauty

This article was published by The Vocal on November 18, 2015.

Do you have brown eyes? Wild, curly dark hair? A wide nose, brown skin or small eyes? Do you feel there’s something about you that makes you different? Do you live in the West but look like you come from somewhere else? Then you may never have seen someone with similar features advertise beauty products, adorn the cover of magazines, flaunt the latest couture, or be the object of desire for hormonal teens across the land.

Who or what is the cause of this narrow representation of beauty? And what is being done to put all types of faces and bodies in the spotlight?

Culture-tinted glasses

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder but eyes see what culture socialises, psychology of race and ethnicity lecturer Mikhail Lyubansky says.

Beyond individual assessments of beauty, he says, are “cultural messages about what is and is not attractive”. Lyubansky was writing in response to the controversial evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa’s article ‘Why are black women less physically attractive than other women?’. Kanazawa drew on a study that rated the physical attractiveness of subjects, concluding the data proved black women were considered the least desirable of all the races. Lyubansky criticised Kanazawa for failing to consider the backgrounds of respondents.

“Standards of beauty, like most other beliefs, are socialised and change not only from place to place but also over time,” he said. “In both the United States and England, (where Kanazawa lives and works), standards of beauty are essentially ‘White’ standards, because whites comprise the majority of the population and have disproportional [sic] control over both media and fashion.”

Those who control the media, then, have greater cultural control over the versions of beauty we see.

Enter social media

Criticised by many – most recently Instagram starlet Essena O’Neill – for presenting a distorted view of reality, others are using social media as a way of changing the messages of what is beautiful. Far from being a tool that promotes one version of beauty, social media provides alternate versions which, to the surprise of the mainstream, are proving wildly popular.

In September, four girls living in North America created a hashtag that trended across the world.

“Growing up I never saw a woman who looked like me on TV, and because of that I felt like I wasn’t beautiful,” Palestinian-American Sara Mahmoud, 17, said.

“I felt that my looks weren’t normal and weren’t okay because all the girls on TV would be pretty, blonde, thin girls with blue eyes. Middle Easterns and North Africans don’t get enough representation in American pop culture and American media.” Co-creator Maryam Alhajebi said the tag helped display and appreciate different versions of beauty around the world. “It showed us that it’s okay to not all look the same, it’s okay for us to be different,” she said. “We need to come together as one to break stereotypes.”

Not fair, but still beautiful

Skin colour prejudices don’t just exist in the West. About six years ago Indian group Women of Worth launched Dark is Beautiful, to campaign “against the toxic belief that a person’s worth is measured by the fairness of their skin”. Several prominent Bollywood actors have joined them, including Nandita Das, who spearheaded the group’s 2013 ‘Stay Unfair, Stay Beautiful’ campaign.

In a recent blog post, The Times of India senior journalist Shuma Raha praised the success of the campaign. “We need more public interest movements like that,” she said. Raha railed against the pan-Indian preference for fairness as “our ancient and atavistic intolerance towards dark skin, an intolerance that’s spawned a [$635 million] skin-lightening cream industry”.

Raha says the skin-whitening product industry kicked off in 1975 with Hindustan Lever’s Fair and Lovely cream, and has been breeding brands and fans ever since. “Notice,” says Raha, “the racism implicit in the nomenclature too — these are skin ‘whitening’ creams, promising to turn us brown skins into the superior white variety.” Women, especially, are susceptible to the pressure of cultural beauty ideals. “In India, they have to deal with a double whammy – they must not only be beautiful, they must also be fair,” Raha said. “Indeed, society conditions us to believe that the one is impossible without the other.”

“I would say that regardless of what the media says, you define your beauty. There’s a whole community out here on social media ready to help you embrace said beauty.” – Sara Mahmoud

The new normal The social media community was discussed in the recent Women in the World panel Selfie: The High Cost of Low Confidence. Renowned psychoanalyst Susie Orbach argued social media was having a negative impact on girls’ self-esteem because it had “democratised beauty”. In the pursuit of ‘likes’, girls’ self-portraits had become carbon copies, Orbach said, because looking the same as everyone else was a requirement to belong in society. But fellow panellist and selfie academic Terri Senft argued social media gave people control over their images and how they were portrayed. Senft said girls understood that when it came to social media, “body image” was “about 88 per cent ‘image’”.


Chantelle “Winnie” Brown-Young’s modelling career began when she was ‘discovered’ on social media after featuring in a news story on YouTube. Winnie has the rare skin condition vitiligo, which causes pigments to lose colour. Last year she was chosen to compete in America’s Next Top Model and is now “redefining the global definition of beauty”. Women in the World mediator Laverne Antrobus asked Winnie how looking different was being discussed in the modelling industry. “I think it’s kind of new, to be honest, so I don’t know if it’s quite a discussion yet, or it’s history being made,” Winnie said. “I think it’s probably something that will be spoken about in the future, but it’s something that is new.”

The result is an increasingly diverse array of looks

Swedish designer Iman Aldebe is using fashion as her method of countering prejudices against non-mainstream beauty. Aldebe, born to Jordanian parents, is pushing both Islamic and Western boundaries with her range of designer turbans and modest couture. While Lyubansky says cultural definitions of beauty change over time, Aldebe isn’t prepared for society to catch up. “I could not wait for another 100 years until things changed in Sweden,” she said. “I realised very early on that it would take a long time to solve problems and come up with solutions via political means … I felt that via fashion we can solve many issues and become more accepted in society.” And Aldebe is succeeding: her one-off turbans are proving popular with non-Muslims and conventionalising head coverings.

Rather than being a force for evil, the “democratisation of beauty” is offering the spotlight to those traditionally overlooked. Madeline Stuart has become the face of a cosmetics company, walked the catwalk at New York Fashion Week – and is considered the first professional adult model with Down’s Syndrome. She has half a million Facebook followers from across the world. The 18-year-old is “changing society’s perceptions of beauty – one photo shoot at a time”. Madeline’s mum says her daughter’s success is not just about modelling. “[T]his is about changing the world, this is about creating inclusion, stopping discrimination and breaking down those walls of confinement”.

In the world of social media, the walls that hide the non-conventional are circumventable. Diversity is on display. The democratic nature of social media means when a hashtag trends or a community becomes active enough, the mainstream takes notice. Cultural fashions and preferences aren’t stagnant, but they can take time to change. But social media offers people the opportunity to, quite literally, be the change they want to see.

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Volunteering: You’re doing it wrong

This article was published by The Vocal on August 18, 2015.

It is often said that adversity brings out the best and the worst in people. That rarely rings true more than when disaster strikes.

After catastrophic earthquakes killed almost 9000 people in Nepal in April and May this year, and left thousands more living in tents as monsoon season approached, organisations and individuals from across the world mobilised to offer support. This scenario plays out time and again, proving that, while humans can sometimes be pretty sucky, they more often than not react to their fellow humans’ suffering with compassion.

So. Let’s take the Nepal earthquakes as an example. You see there’s massive damage and loss of life in what is already an economically-challenged country. You’ve got a couple of weeks’ leave up your sleeve, or you’re on break from uni, and you feel compelled to do something to help.

But how best to do so, you wonder?

First of all, if you’re planning on volunteering, as opposed to taking a non-government organisation job that comes with a wage that puts you somewhere near the 1% while you live in a developing country, then congratulations! You’re already on the right path – feel free to tick the box that says you are someone who is motivated by genuine compassion, rather than a pay cheque.

But not everyone gets it right. Here in Nepal, there are plenty of ‘volunteers’ getting around who probably only have a few snaps of the damaged Durbar Square and have been no further out of Kathmandu. These people assume a few different guises.

There’s the lost soul who is looking for a raison d’etre, but who most often finds their existential rationale in the pub: these people are often ultimately well-meaning, but they just can’t get it together enough to actually do something. This person closely resembles the strung-out wanderer, who has been bouncing from developing country to natural disaster for decades: they give a hand here and there, but mostly they’re looking for ways to live on a shoestring while eating lots of shrooms. And there’s the vocal do-gooder who walks around the city (which is notably nowhere near the disaster zone) in a t-shirt proclaiming they are a VOLUNTEER, but who is just after bragging rights for when they get back home: these people will usually have a picture of themselves and a cute little brown kid as their profile picture.

Sadly, volunteering is fraught with potential potholes. Shady characters know that people’s good natures are easy to take advantage of. But, there are a few simple things you can do in order to avoid falling into one of the above categories of faux-volunteer, and to avoid being used for evil instead of good.

1. Do your research

It’s a sad, sad fact that there are some seriously shitty human beings out there. Orphanages are a favourite for volunteers in Nepal. All those sweet little nanys (the Nepali word that applies to anyone below thigh-height) who just need someone to care for them. But beware!

Aforementioned shitty human beings have been known to kidnap children and force them to live in squalid conditions to arouse the sympathy of well-meaning visitors and volunteers, who donate cash that goes directly into the pockets of the shitheads operating the ‘orphanages’. But don’t despair! There are some truly wonderful organisations, like Umbrella, who really are working to make people’s lives better, and these groups will always need justice fighters on their sides. Team up with the right mob, and you really will be able to make a difference.

Equally, if you’re paying to volunteer, get your detective on and find out as much as you can about who you’re paying, why, and where the money goes. If children are involved, be especially cautious!

2. Go micro

Not all large NGOs or charities are soulless, corporate entities that do little more than provide jobs to privileged foreigners who make a living ‘helping’. But they can be. Often their overheads are high (owing to the exorbitant wages said privileged foreigners are paid) and their output low – many Nepalis are fully aware that a limited amount of aid money actually made it to the Haitian people after their devastating earthquake, and they’re worried the same thing will happen in their country.

The aid industry is a murky one, so if you’re not sure about one of the big NGOs, why not look for a grassroots or local organisation? It’s still important to do background research, but their intentions are often clearer – they won’t be driving brand-new jeeps, for example, or staying in five-star hotels.

The aid industry is a murky one, so if you’re not sure about one of the big NGOs, why not look for a grassroots or local organisation?

3. Go your own way

I met an Irishman called Patrick who took four weeks’ leave from his job teaching deaf children to see what he could do in post-quake Nepal. He knew another Irishman who had set up a small NGO teaching kids English, so Patrick decided to see if he wanted a hand. On spotting a school next to his guesthouse, Patrick wandered in out of curiosity to see what the Nepali teaching style was. Next thing he knew, he was lined up to ‘freelance’ at schools across Nepal, and with this he was very pleased.

A volunteer doctor told a friend (who I coerced into visiting me in Nepal) that she met a photojournalist who decided he could best help by highlighting all the parts of the country that were open for business and as stunningly beautiful as ever. Taxi drivers, hotel owners, food and beverage purveyors and retailers who rely on tourism – a large part of Nepal’s economy – are lamenting their lack of business, as visitors are yet to return. “We want people to come, there has been no one here since the earthquake,” a Kathmandu hotelier, Keshab, said.

The ‘turn up and see what needs doing’ route can be problematic – an influx of volunteers immediately following a disaster puts a strain on limited resources and can cause unnecessary pressure on relief co-ordinators. Many people issued pleas to volunteers to hold off arriving until the worst of the aftermath was dealt with. But even now, many Nepalis are without homes or proper shelters three months after the earthquakes.

The ‘turn up and see what needs doing’ route can be problematic

There are plenty of people just doing what they can to help out – clearing rubble, or organising deliveries of corrugated iron to villages to build shelters. When the drama of a natural disaster wears off and its repercussions slip from the front pages, it’s easy to forget people will continue to need help into the future. In Nepal, at least, there is still plenty of work to be done. The trick is simply in finding the best way to help out.

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The Prophet effect

This article was published by Going Down Swinging on August 10, 2015.

I picked up my first copy of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet in Beirut in June last year, but I was too busy having a good time roaming about the country to read it – despite visiting Gibran’s village of birth, Becharre.

I felt The Prophet was one of those books that deserved my due attention, and I wasn’t in a frame of mind to give it.

Baha’i philosophy holds that, throughout the course of humanity, Messengers of God will reveal spiritual truths when the time is right for us to receive their wisdom. These progressive revelations will come to us, the Baha’i say, when we’ve forsaken previous teachings and need to be returned to the right path.

The time for Khalil Gibran to write his masterpiece was as World War One came to an end. Thanks to the imperial powers’ prolonged conflict, suffering was widespread. In Gibran’s homeland Lebanon, under the hand of the Ottomans, an estimated one third to one half of the population starved to death or succumbed to disease.

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All grown up

This article was published by Going Down Swinging on July 22, 2015.

Somewhere between our mid-teens and 20 is the age most people start thinking about what kind of adult they want to be. For a lot of us, that means coming up with a list of red lines we are determined we will not cross.

And then life happens.

In the 1920s, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget came up with cognitive and moral development theories. He found that by about the ages of 15 or 20 we move from adolescence into adulthood. Essentially, Piaget says this is the time in life when we stop viewing things in concrete terms, and develop the ability to adjust our beliefs according to our experiences. Many of our rules for adulthood make sense in theory, fewer hold up in practice, and others are just downright unachieveable. The difficulty is understanding what our teenage selves had right about navigating the murky waters of life, and what was just sweet naivety. How do we know what to let go under the steamroller of adulthood, and what should we cling to?

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Finding the will

This article was originally published by Going Down Swinging, and republished by PRISM international on May 7, 2015.

Willpower. We need it in so many aspects of our lives, and yet it can be so hard to come by. We need it to focus on something super hard, to stop ourselves doing something we shouldn’t, and sometimes we just need it to get out of bed in the morning.

To give willpower some context, it’s vital for carrying out the act of writing (amiright, writers?), while for some it’s also necessary for resisting that tenth glass of wine. If we fail that last test, we need self-control to stop messaging the ex-lover we wish were dead but secretly love, or that boss we think deserves a piece of our mind, or that racist jerk on Twitter who won’t shut up.

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