The National Museum of Australia (pictured above, photo: australia.com), located on the picturesque shores of Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin, is one of Australia’s most fascinating and significant museums. It boasts a vast collection of more than 200,000 objects related to Australian history and is a must see for anyone visiting the capital.
While the National Museum of Australia officially opened in March 2001, plans for a national museum had been in motion since the passing of the National Museum of Australia Act of 1980. This began the process of collecting, researching, curating and conserving objects of national significance. The construction of the museum took four years and was completed as a centenary project, marking 100 years since Australia’s federation. The museum, designed by architect Howard Raggatt, showcases an asymmetrical design featuring colourful displays and sculptures which distinguishes it from other museums and cultural institutions in Canberra and around the world. The layout of the museum is also unique, featuring interconnected buildings which house different exhibitions and displays. The building is surrounded by stunning views of the capital as well as the Garden of Australian Dreams, which features native flora, as well as sculptures and symbols significant to the Australian story.
On entering the museum, visitors are welcomed into a grand entrance hall known as the Gandel Atrium, featuring floor to ceiling windows which boast views over Lake Burley Griffin. The atrium displays collection highlights from Australia’s history –including a Muttaburrasaurus skeleton, a Pink Propert Trailaway caravan, and a 1950s Holden – some of which have been on near constant display since 2001. The Museum’s information desk is also located in the Atrium, alongside a cafe offering light meals, and a gift shop with an interesting array of Australian themed souvenirs, art and books. Friendly and helpful staff were happy to answer questions and could be found at the main entrance and information desk, but were scarce within the galleries themselves.
Like many cultural institutions, the National Museum of Australia showcases special exhibitions and permanent galleries. It houses two main permanent galleries, both located in different buildings across the site. The First Australians Gallery consists of an upper and a lower gallery, featuring displays on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history with some objects dating back thousands of years. The gallery showcases the experiences of First Nation peoples, displaying objects of cultural significance which tell stories of diversity, spirituality and tradition. Opposite the First Australians Gallery is the Landmarks Gallery which showcases objects from European settlement to the modern day. The Landmarks Gallery takes visitors on a tour of Australia’s past, featuring British settlers, agricultural development, mining, industrialisation, democracy and federation as foundations of modern Australia.
The National Museum currently also features two special exhibitions. Talking Blak to History in the First Australians Galleries, featuring a range of objects with a cultural and political past, explores the aftermath of colonisation and its impact on Indigenous Australians. Another exhibition highlights the work of Trevor Kennedy, an Australian art and history enthusiast and journalist. Featuring art, jewellery, ceramics, crafts and furniture, this exhibition allows visitors to uncover stories of Australia’s history. Later in the year, the National Museum will open a special exhibition focused on Ancient Greek history, featuring more than 150 pieces from the collection of the British Museum relating to sports, politics, music and more.
There is also plenty to see outside the museum. The Paddle Steamer Enterprise, built in the Victorian town of Echuca in 1878, is moored outside the galleries on Lake Burley Griffin. Constructed from river red gum trees, the Enterprise served as a cargo boat, fishing vessel, floating store, houseboat and showboat. It is one of the oldest working paddle steamer vessels in the world and is the largest functioning object on display at the National Museum of Australia.
A visit to the National Museum of Australia is the perfect way to spend a relaxing day in Canberra. The facilities are excellent, and the galleries showcase fascinating relics of Australian history, taking visitors on an exciting journey into the past. For those wanting to dive deeper into gallery displays, the National Museum has developed a free app – available on smart devices – that allows visitors to take part in a self-guided audio tour. Make sure you grab a map to find your way around, as the layout can be a little confusing. If you’re looking for something a little more personal, you can also take a paid guided tour or host talk.
The National Museum of Australia is located on Lawson Crescent, Acton Peninsula, Canberra and is open seven days a week from 9 am to 5 pm. General admission is free; however, some special exhibitions may require tickets which can normally be obtained from the information desk. There is ample on-site, accessible parking which costs $3.30 an hour during the week, with free parking available on weekends.
Building The National Museum of Australia (book produced by the NMA)
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Meghan holds a degree in history and has a passion for learning about the past. She is currently working as a researcher and writer in one of Canberra’s premier cultural institutions.