C o m m o n w e a l t h
A s s o c i a t i o n o f
M u s e u m s
CAM Bulletin Number 7 - Nov. 2001
The New National Museum of Australia
Our colleagues in New Zealand and Australia have seen the advent of new national museums in the last few years. National museums are significant symbols in the cultural identity of any country and the CAM Bulletin is happy to feature several pieces on them in the next few issues
It has taken 100 years of people talking about a national museum, 20 years of people wanting to build it, and now just four short years to create the whole enterprise. The new National Museum of Australia opened on 11 March 2001, on time, on budget, and with all the exhibitions, commercial operations and public programs ready to go.
In December 1996, Prime Minister John Howard committed the Commonwealth Government to build the Museum in time for the celebration of our Centenary of Federation. To create a complete, fully operational new national cultural organization in that short time is in itself a remarkable achievement.
But what exactly has been created? Australia finally has a social history museum dedicated to telling the story of Australia and Australians. There is now a place to explore and debate the key issues, events and people that have shaped and influenced our nation. The Museum's permanent exhibitions comprise five linked galleries, each unique in approach and subject matter. First Australians tells the story of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples beginning more than 40,000 years ago and continuing through to the present. Horizons explores the peopling of Australia since European colonization in 1788. Tangled Destinies covers the complex relationships between land and people, while Nation investigates some of the formal and popular icons of the nation over the past century. The Eternity gallery focuses on 50 individuals whose personal experiences illustrate a particular emotional theme such as fear, chance and passion. To complement the permanent exhibitions, the Museum has mounted two major temporary exhibitions, Gold and Civilization and Australia's Lost Kingdoms, with a third exhibition, To Mars and Beyond, due to open in December 2001. Planning is well underway for future exhibitions in 2002 and 2003.
The Museum is committed to being a dynamic, experiential museum. We do this by telling the stories of ordinary and extraordinary Australians, people both living and historic, all of them brought to life with an unprecedented amount of multimedia and interactive support. This approach does not diminish scholarship or neglect the special role of the real object. It shows rather that the Museum and the countless artists and producers, academics and advisers who contributed to the process is a leader in applying twenty first century technology to tell important stories in an engaging way. We have fulfilled Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Blainey's advice to the Pigott Committee of Inquiry in 1975, which recommended the Museum's establishment, that the new Museum should be both challenging and entertaining.
One of the biggest tasks for the new Museum, as for all ambitious storytellers, is to deal with the big questions. Who has the right to tell the national story? What is proper to include in that story, and what is better excluded? Opinions are sometimes sharply divided, especially at this time in Australia when the facts and even the terminology of national history are the subject of such debate. As it should be in a questioning young nation, history itself is debatable. This thesis informs Howard Raggatt's colourful and inclusive architecture and the exhibitions inside. Both elements caused critical debate in the media as the Museum opened to the instant tag of 'controversial'.
The Museum is rightly at the centre of this historical debate, but it is also a place where that debate can occur in forums and programs broadcast from our studio and through our public programs and performances. These outreach activities have defined us from day one as a living museum embracing debate about contemporary Australian culture. The early success of our education programs in particular shows that schools around Australia recognize the worth of our approach.
The schools programs aim to:
- create exciting learning opportunities at the Acton site through a number of curriculum relevant, distinctive and student centred programs;
- produce stimulating, inquiry learning curriculum materials through a variety of mediums, including the Museum's website, to ensure that the Museum reaches all Australian primary and secondary schools;
- devise a program of professional development for teachers, potentially throughout Australia, to ensure that they are able to maximise the distinctive learning opportunities provided by the Museum;
- utilise the Museum's technology based facilities, in particular the broadcast studio, for both programming at the Museum and for outreach purposes;
- develop some programs in partnership with other museums and cultural institutions for example with Museum Melbourne, ScreenSound and the Australian Geological Survey Organisation in the case of the Gold and Civilisation temporary exhibition.
Our public programs:
- encourage self directed exploration of the museum and provide opportunities to interact with exhibition content, visiting personalities, writers, storytellers and performers from many different backgrounds and cultures;
- enable families and children to contribute their own stories to the interpretation of Australia's past, present and future. The experiences provide opportunities for families to do things together and to learn from each other as well as from the surrounding exhibits and staff.
The public have valued our programs. Over 600,000 people have visited the Museum in our first seven months of operation, which should place us well ahead of our expected visitor numbers by achieving one million in the first full year. The 5000 of those visitors we surveyed also revealed how much people are enjoying the experience. The majority stay for more than three hours and more than 90 per cent say they are satisfied or very satisfied with their visit. The Museum's strikingly different architecture and exhibition design, so controversial in the media, are what they rate most highly.
Finally, these are some of the words visitors have used to describe their impressions of the Museum and its programs:
- a fresh approach to displays
- the Museum makes me proud to be Australian
- surpassed expectations
- wonderful building - driving towards it, you think it's just beautiful
- better than world class
- the architechture and location are just fabulous
- the staff are really friendly.
National Museum of Australia
Readers wishing to find out more about this exciting new museum can visit the website at www.nma.gov.au
National Museum of Australia
GPO Box 1901