Despite being a young city, only becoming the capital in 1913 when it was little more than pasture, remaining mostly that way until the 1950s, Canberra has some impressive museums and galleries. Here are three of the main ones – the vibrant National Museum of Australia, brilliant National Gallery of Australia, and stylish National Portrait Gallery.
National Museum of Australia
To be honest the main attraction is the colourful and dynamic building, very Australian modern, a style most familiar in Melbourne. It does try too hard but pulls off a number of things nicely, including the continuous red line Uluru Axis and the central garden courtyard area.
The collection is fine if surprisingly small for a building of its size, funky architecture getting in the way of decent exhibition space, with less than 5% of the collection on show, and much like New Zealand’s Te Papa national museum, slow turnover of exhibits.
It is more striking for the general effect rather than lots of showpiece items. The twelve minute CIRCA film was worth seeing, with it’s 360 degree rotating cinema setting just about justifying the novelty factor.
I saw the traveling exhibition A History of the World in 100 Objects from the British Museum, paying $20 to see things I’ve probably already seen numerous times for free in London. However like the similar Treasures from the British Museum exhibition I saw in Victoria, Canada, having a selection allows focus. One hundred items in a large space with individual annotations is easier to digest and appreciate than one hundred numbered items in a cabinet. I particularly liked the imperial bronze head of Augustus, three bronze plates from Benin, and of course the Lewis chessman.
National Gallery of Australia
A brutalist building that wouldn’t be out of place on London’s South Bank, softened by surrounding bush toward Lake Burley Griffth. It’s best approached from the lake through the pleasant sculpture garden, including a dinky Angel of the North by Antony Gormley.
Inside the National Gallery of Australia has a surprisingly comprehensive collection for such a new institution. Thanks to some enlightened acquisition policies and funding, most famously for the then $1.3m purchase of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, it includes international works by Monet, Chuck Close, Warhol, David Hockney, Lucien Freud, Rothko, and Francis Bacon. Sadly Jackson Pollock’s famous Blue Poles was absent. It was on it’s second ever trip away from Canberra, the first was when I saw it in London 17 years ago!
National Portrait Gallery
The newest of the trio, only opened in 2008, and nicely laid out but didn’t mean a huge amount to me. I know there’s a lot more to Australia than just entertainers but there was no Kylie!
The Museum of Australian Democracy and Australian War Memorial will be covered in other posts.