There are buildings in Australia that are inspirational. Obviously, the Sydney Opera House, MONA Gallery in Hobart, the post office in Perth, Melbourne’s historic district and a raft of others but, I would boldly suggest, none of them will retain your interest longer than the adventurous and highly imaginative National Museum of Australia in Canberra. The colloquialism “out there” seems to befit this indescribable structure. Its aim was to be a monument to the centenary of federation in 2000. 20 years on and a revamp and refurbishment later it’s one of the must-sees of Canberra.
Architects Ashton Raggatt McDougall and Robert Peck von Hartel Trethowan created 6600 square metres of exhibition space on the 11 hectare site. Traditional it’s not. Post-modern is about as close as you can get to some sort of artistic label. It’s as different as their names suggest and they won from 76 entries.
Could it be a co-incidence that someone with an easy name like Sue Dove was the one who spent nine months on site making sure it all went together and reflected the history of Australia.
As you are parking your car you cannot fail to notice the Uluru Line; a strange sculpture that emanates from the roof of the main building and rises like a roller coaster loop before your eyes over the Garden of Australian Dreams and heads towards that huge lump of rock in the middle of Australia some thousands of kilometres away. After the loop it slowly rises until it reaches a concrete sculpture that, to me, resembles a wave. Frankly, I don’t understand the whole thing but their confrontational power transcends understanding and has you reaching for your camera.
Colours are prolific. Geometric shapes are as varied as they are extreme. It sits proudly on the Acton Peninsula, once where Canberra Hospital was before the museum’s arrival.
“An organic melee” is one description that has been used. Frankly, I love it, even though I don’t fully understand it. In part it’s claimed to be a visual pun. However, the joke’s on you. Paul Keating, ex-Australian prime minister, was not a fan either, calling it a “lemon” and saying it should have been built on an industrial estate.
As a social history museum its goal was to reflect land, nation and people. Its architectural use of metaphor is all encompassing and, might I boldly suggest, for the majority of folks, their meaning will be beyond comprehension. Certainly, the huge braille, though visible, will fit that bill. Especially since it’s so high that blind people can’t feel it anyway.
For me, it’s more like a Disneyland of architectural expression. References to Le Corbusier, Jorn Utzon, Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, Sarrinen’s JFK Airport and others leave the casual observer mystified. Its incoherent appearance doesn’t make it any less attractive though; no, that’s why it’s so good! Because you can’t wander around unaffected, it’s as much an experience as the exhibits inside, not quite sure of where the building is taking you next.
Controversy is not something they shy away from. Whether they were on halogenic substances at any time is not recorded.
As for the exhibits, it’s a comprehensive range from aboriginal artefacts to Sunshine Harvesters to a Holden towing a caravan and so much more in between. The building only holds 5% of the collection and it reflects things that are unique to Australia and might interest international visitors as well. An understanding of culture is what it’s trying to achieve.
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, a separate but linked building, has yet another distinct exterior, reflecting the harshness of the land and incorporating some exceptional quality art inside.
When normality returns, the museum can expect upwards of ¾ million visitors each year, more than half as many as the number one attraction, the War Memorial. I just hope they remember to bring their cameras!