The National Museum of Australia strikes a bold pose at the edge of the lake in Canberra, its massive orange arm arching high behind the building and looping off into the distance rather demanding your attention. Constructed over 11 hectares in a blaze of coloured shapes, the building itself has almost as many stories to tell as the exhibits it contains, and a guided tour as part of the Canberra Design Festival was the perfect way to discover some of its architectural secrets.
Completed in 2001, the building is perhaps not beautiful, but it is certainly remarkable—modern, brightly coloured, full of light, texture and unexpected angles. It’s not a traditional museum building, but this is not a traditional museum. The design for the museum was chosen from among 74 entries in an international competition in 1997. Designed by Howard Raggatt of Ashton Raggatt McDougall and Robert Peck von Hartel Trethowan, telling a story was always part of its function.
The building consists of a number of pieces of a puzzle, of differing shapes and materials, which fit together in an unfinished circle around the central garden. The entire building is modelled on the notion of multiple strands of a rope, tied together in a giant knot. This represents the various stories of our history, tangled and interwoven with many strands and perspectives. When you step into the huge, light-filled air space of the foyer, you’re actually stepping into that knot, now removed, into its imagined cast model with the roof forming the edge of the cast. A bit like those plaster of Paris moulds you may have created in primary school, only bigger. Much, much bigger.
The various strands of the rope (and the stories they represent) continue through the building, splaying into three levels of exhibition spaces, complementing and extending the museum’s story-telling theme. Bits of red ceilings above show you the continuing threads as you wander inside. I’d been in this building lots of times before but I’d never noticed those before this tour of revelation that I’d now taken.
The National Museum is a post-modern building, which means that cultural symbolism is important, and indeed rife. Look for a recurring ‘X’ motif, or pentagon shapes, and shards of the word ‘eternity’ as immortalised by Sydneysider Arthur Stace who wandered the streets of Sydney for 35 years writing that single word in copperplate text on pavements and across buildings. The challenge is to discover the symbols and interpret what they mean. It’s a bit like returning to high school days, looking at words and imagery in a novel and working out what they mean within the larger text. Some inferences are clear; some not so much.
A garden of dreams
Outside, the Garden of Australian Dreams is both barren and complex, combining suburban and Indigenous landscapes. It’s essentially a map of central Australia, depicted in concrete, water and even a bit of lawn, marked out with fences and surveyor posts. Harsh but welcoming: the word ‘home’ appears in a hundred languages on the ground.
You won’t find any flowers there but there’s more than you see at first glance. Look out for references to some iconic Australian artworks, including those by Jackson Pollock and Arthur Boyd, originals of which are both housed in other Canberra institutions. The strange angle at which the stand of Alders grow at the garden edge is no accident, and is that a dingo fence, or perhaps one that hails from any ordinary Aussie backyard?
Like many great buildings, this one hasn’t been free from controversy or sadness. Springing from the site of the endeared Canberra Hospital, the building process itself started tragically when the ill-fated demolition of the hospital, mistakenly touted as a family day out, went horribly wrong and the spraying debris took the life of a beautiful teenage girl.
A number of architectural features clearly reference other buildings. The nod to the sails of the Sydney Opera House is an obvious one, but there are many more. A notable mimicking is the shape of the exhibition spaces, almost an exact replica of the zigzag design of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, much to the ire of its architect, Daniel Libeskind. To rub salt into the wound, the Berlin museum officially opened four months after the Australian museum did, though completed years before. Raggatt maintains he wasn’t plagiarising, he was just ‘quoting’.
Even the exterior of the building, covered in the equivalent of 3,500,000 drinking cans of iodised aluminium cladding, houses a feature that created a bit of a hullabaloo. The raised circular discs on the outside walls are actually Braille, spelling out Australian idioms like ‘mate’ and ‘she’ll be right’. Secretly, they also included the word ‘sorry’, the word of apology the then Prime Minister wasn’t willing to give to the Indigenous people of Australia. Later those Braille words of apology were obscured by the addition of extra dots. Perhaps the original wording should now be replaced, given we’ve grown up enough to say the words out loud.
And that orange looping arm that transforms into a thick red path? Turns out it’s actually looping off in the direction of Uluru/Ayers Rock, to the central heart of Australia.
And this is why I love tours—because you learn so much. It’s a reminder that the design and construction of a building can sometimes tell us almost as much as the contents. The tour went for one hour: I stayed for two, retracing my steps and taking photos. And then I started reading…
If you want to know more, discover the building yourself by wandering through (it’s free) or take a general tour (free too!). The book The Building of the National Museum, available for sale at the bookshop, reveals a myriad of hidden secrets. You can also read more about the building on the museum’s website and listen to a fascinating podcast about the architecture.