“What is this Place, Australia?” – The National Museum

The National Museum of Australia, Canberra, grapples with the problem of the identity of a nation and its representation in architectural form. 

By Jennifer Taylor.

Main image: View of The National Museum of Australia at dusk. Photo: George Serras, National Museum of Australia.


“In people’s direct experience of architecture (which, for most, is the primary experience) the accessibility, and the reading, of the artistic content depends on the capacity of practice to embody intentions. The degree of architectural accomplishment in a work will be conditioned by the architect’s abilities in responding to the various stages towards realization.  These could be seen to be: Perception: the accuracy, relevance, and significance, of the designer’s readings and interpretations that underlie the theory.  Decision:  the appropriateness of the position regarding the designer’s choice as to what to reveal or conceal, to mask or display, in order to alert or reassure, or condone or challenge.   Making:  the ability by which those ideas have been transferred through the building process.  Revealing:  the readability of the intentions underpinning the object. Shaping:  the level of satisfaction with which the object accommodates life practices.”

Taylor, “Transfer of Intention: Toyo Ito and the Metaphorical Tectonic”, 1994.*

The National Museum of Australia, Canberra, grapples with the problem of the identity of a nation and its representation in architectural form.  Of concern here is the judgement of, and projection of, that identity, with the consequent determination of the role assumed by the building and its landscape.

Aerial view of The National Museum of Australia on Acton Peninsula, Canberra. Photo: George Serras, National Museum of Australia.

The Museum has been a controversial building since its conception.  It is frankly revealing.  It raises questions, and is politically subversive.  It asks, What nation? Whose nation?  Its answers are irreverent and break taboos.  The Museum has equally passionate critics and admirers.  Before and since its opening in March 2001 it has been subject to a high level of publicity from newspaper items through to a quite remarkable monograph on the building, Tangled Destinies, published in 2002.[1]  In professional critical circles the building has been described as “a happy theme park to mediocrity” [2]  , as “a master work of subversion, ambiguity and fiction”[3], and as “a major work of Australian architecture, in ambition, dimensions and accomplishment”[4]also, affectionately, as a “Glamorous Giant Drag Queen”.[5]  Perlman develops his simile, writing, “Like a body clothed in drapery, blowsily calling attention to itself, the NMA offers the hallmarks of transvetitism: ostentatious fakery; mix-and-mismatch plumage; the arousal and simultaneously the mockery, of desire.”[6]  Or, according to Weirick, “a vortex of madness so horrible it is wonderful”.[7]

Criticism and commendation have rained on all fronts: the architects’ perception of the people, the land and its history; the decisions regarding what to subvert and what to reveal; the making of the building and its durability; the readability of the form and imagery to reveal the intentions, and the shaping of the building to best accommodate its functions.  Predominant among these debates have been the ideology of the building and its representation of Australia, as place and people, thorough history to today.

The question of identity was searched in social and political history and, as in the writing of all history, inevitably the readings and conclusions emerged from the perspective, priorities and selectivity of the historian/critic. The historian/critic here is the architect.  The communication of those deductions sets challenges beyond those normally encountered by the writer of history who operates with the commonly shared tools of words and language.  For architecture, it requires the making of the building and the embodiment of the intentions in the work.

The major tool utilized in the Museum to this end is metaphor.  Metaphor stems from the Greek metaphora, which means ‘transfer’, and it is the means by which we transfer concept to built form.  In writing on metaphor Snodgrass states, «This seeing a thing as something other than itself is an event of recognition … which enters into every event of transference of meaning from one thing or concept to another.»[8]   Metaphors can be restricting, limiting the interpretations, or ambiguous and enabling, allowing for multiple levels and messages to be accessed.

George Serras National Museum of Australia
View of The National Museum of Australia at dusk. Photo: George Serras, National Museum of Australia.


The National Museum takes its place as one of several major civic works undertaken in Australia over the last decade, including the competition for the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art won by Architectus and Davenport Campbell, and Federation Square, Melbourne, by Lab Architects.  Strongly differing from the National Museum is the Museum of Victoria by Denton Corker Marshall completed in 2000.  This elegant and sophisticated structure, with its sleek undecorated lines, provides a remarkable contrast to the robust vitality of the National Museum, especially considering the virtually equivalent brief, but, for the National Museum only half the budget.  The Melbourne building is as cool as the Canberra building is hot.  Of international comparison is Te Papa Tongawera Museum, the New Zealand National Museum in Wellington, 1997, by JASMAX, that grappled with issues regarding indigenous and non-indigenous representation, such as addressed in the design for the National Museum of Australia.

The Competition

In 1980 Parliament determined by the Museum of Australia Act to build a National Museum in Canberra, to celebrate the centenary of the Federation of the Australian states in 1901.  Debate over the new museum raged for some time and concerned issues such as location, the appropriateness of monuments at all within the Australian culture and the way in which such a culture of indigenous, colonial and migratory groups could be presented as the Australian identity.  The international competition was held in 1997, and attracted 76 entries.  The total budget for all buildings was $A152 million. In October 1997 the Melbourne firm of Ashton Raggatt and McDougall in association with Robert Peck von Hartel Trethowan were appointed as architects for the project.[9] The winning building was completed in 2001 on time and on budget.

Ashton Raggatt and McDougall has been known since the 1970s as an inventive and challenging group of designers with a critical practice housing an intellectual agenda often disquieting to aesthetic, social and political norms.  Their Storey Hall extension in Melbourne, 1995, attracted international attention with its brilliant colours and its generation of surface and form from the application of Roger Penrose’s ‘non-periodic tile’ system.


Canberra is a city of monuments standing in green fields.  The nation’s major monument, Romaldo Giurgola’s Parliament House of Australia, reigns from Capitol Hill at the apex of the Parliamentary Triangle.   In 1998 it was decided to locate the Museum, together with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and Cultural Centre outside the Parliamentary Triangle on Acton Peninsular in Lake Burley Griffin. As with tribal custom, the site was cleansed by a smoking ceremony before construction commenced.   The choice of a site outside the Parliamentary Triangle was fortuitous for the winning design that injects a loud note of irreverence in question of the sedate white architecture of Canberra’s monuments, and shatters the city’s image of what the nation is all about.   Jenner writes, “From across the water the National Museum of Australia already appears confusing: singular, but multiple as a dazzle-painted ship.  The Museum bends, prone and pliant, almost entangled in its setting, twisting, like a metallic garland, or like a serpent in the garden.  Closer inspection reveals something like a fairground roller-coaster, a Luna Park, a Laocoön of writhing fragments, a shipwreck or derailment.”[10]  The building would not have been afforded the same degree of licence had it been within the Parliamentary Triangle.

Garden of Australian Dreams. Photo: Dean McNicoll, National Museum of Australia.

The Design

The brief asked for the building and its contents “to ‘anchor’ a society  ‘on the move’, expressing Australia’s cultural diversity, reflecting realistically a society continually questioning, exploring and re-inventing itself, a forum for an honest and candid self appraisal and expression”.  It called for “‘metaphoric expressiveness’ – the building was to use both literal and abstract architectural metaphors to create an emotionally engaging dialogue with its subject matter.”[11]  So this is a cultural museum where it is not the collection itself that is of value, but the stories woven around those objects.

It is an architecture of the mind – not an architecture of material.  It is algebraic – not geometric, and the stories are told with irony, playfulness and wit.[12]

The building and the collection address three major themes, Land, Nation, People, which are continually woven through the fabric, and “weave” is a key word for this project.  The Museum consists of an interwoven series of narratives telling stories of pluralism and difference, dreams and nightmares, which come together as a messy and provocative whole.  The book, Tangled Destinies, furthers the narrative in the building into the narrative of the building – interpreting it, as the building interprets the nation, its present and its past. The building is a part of the collection, and a part of the narratives.  Basically the composition comprises connecting simple, but differing, coloured and patterned skewed “building blocks”, to use the architects’ term, arranged around a central courtyard, named the “The Garden of Australian Dreams”.  The building splays out towards the water’s edge of the site.  The architects viewed these blocks as pieces of a puzzle that could be arranged in varying ways, with the intention of introducing a dynamic of impending change.

The building unmistakably carries the hallmarks of computer generation and production.  Through the computer the design aims to reveal the non-linear world and provide an order that is elusive and but hinted at.[13]  Once the information is fed to the computer the process, to a marked extent, is computer directed, with unpredictable outcomes. Each sheet of the competition drawings was stamped “This is not yet a Design”.  The whole building is reliant on computer technology for its surveying, design, engineering and sheet cutting. The form and surfaces of the building were computer generated, with major interior spaces conceived as cave-like volumes carved out of a solid.


In a document entitled “Design concepts for a place to tell the story of Australia”, the architects wrote “We like to think that the story of Australia is not just one story but many stories tangled together”.[14]  So to represent the nation, the building avoids singularity, rather, it is based on the idea of “continuous interpretation”.[15]   The building addresses the world of today, plurality, and the diffuse multiplicity of Australia’s history by three major strategies, all overlapping and reliant in some way on metaphorical associations.  First, through the deployment of non-linear theories such as found in complexity science and the metaphorical deployment of their properties.  Second, using negation and cancellation of accepted canons, and the third, by imagery and explicit metaphor lurking in the artefacts, and on and in the buildings and landscape

The first strategy: non-linear modelling

This strategy is applied in the bringing together of the land and the stories, as tangled lines that weave through the composition and beyond, and are anchored by a voided Boolean knot.  The axes from the site to Parliament House, and to the City Centre are symbolically tangled and entwined as a knotted Boolean ribbon, looped through the air, threaded through the building blocks and the site and extended to form a third axis towards Ayres Rock – Uluru.  This ribbon takes the form of a six metre wide red band that magically transforms itself when required.  At the entry it appears overhead forming a great arch or a roller-coaster and turns into a Dreamtime Rainbow Serpent, revealing itself, it has been suggested, like red wounds, through various openings in the building, and spreading out like a carpet in the central courtyard.[16] The vast white entry hall is the moulded interior volume of a great Boolean knot.  String and knot serve visually and metaphorically as the unifying elements of the composition, drawing the disparate parts together, and tying building into the site and beyond.  Critics have related the notion of the weave and the knot back to Semper and the very origins of enclosure – here re-interpreted through non-linear modelling.[17]  A further critic notes that in this building Semper’s knots become Raggatt’s “Notness”.[18]  He continues, “the architecture – demands unpicking but the process will ensnare anyone who tries.”

The second strategy:  negation

The second strategy draws on literal reference cancelled by negation.  Throughout the work Raggatt employs the negative and the inversion – white is black, soft is hard, hard is soft.  Giurgola’s white Parliament entry is warped and becomes black and red, the colours of the Aboriginal flag, and serves for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research Centre – a pointed comment on democracy.  With statements such as “Not Villa Savoie” the centrepiece of pure Eurocentric modernism here is reversed from white to black and becomes part the Aboriginal Centre, drawing close to the Sidney Nolan paintings of the famous Australian bushranger – Ned Kelly  – typical of the overt search within prior authorities for starting points for meanings used to permeate the entire of this highly eclectic building.  The use of inversion appears throughout he buildings and continues into the Australian Garden of Dreams where a camera obscura literally turns the world upside down.

The third strategy: direct reference

The third strategy carries the metaphor into direct representation and narrative.  The imagery can be literal or reliant on the metaphorical use emblem and signs.  The most controversial use of metaphor is the appropriation of the ground plan of Daniel Libeskind’s Berlin Jewish Museum for the generation of the zig-zag plan of the wing of the Museum housing the Gallery of Aboriginal Australia, thus drawing clear parallels between the Jews under the Nazis and the Aboriginal people under the Europeans.[19]  References to modern architecture abound, such as the empathetic reference in the major windows of the hall to the dilemma of the glass walls of the Sydney Opera House.

Australia has been a gathering ground for unwanted Europeans (the convicts) early in settlement history, and subsequently for the dispossessed from around the world, and Jenner perhaps rightly describes the Museum as, “a scrap heap constituted as a complex of abandonment and wonder.”[20]  The Museum champions the underdog.  The voices of the people are written or are formed in Braille – saying “she’ll be right”, “that’s for sure”, and “sorry, sorry, sorry”.  The word ”Eternity” inscribed 300 metres long over the face of the building is derived from Arthur Stace, a Sydney loner, who for thirty years wrote ‘Eternity” continually all over the pavements and walls of the city.  At this scale the word cannot be read.

Nowhere is the saturation with symbolic form and detail more explicit than in “The Garden of Australian Dreams”. For some The Garden of Dreams more resembles a Garden of Nightmares. and no aspect of the building has attracted more criticism.[21]  Here, in the building’s central location is a negative space that is a major contributor to the dialogue of the site..[22]  In an article called “Hardly Polite”, Catherin Bull describes the Garden ”as a fearless commentary on the Picturesque imperative that drives most thinking about landscape and landscape design”. [23]

The focus remains on the everyday and multiculturalism, with the protagonists as Mr Average and Mr Nobody.  The size of the garden symbolically is determined by the perimeter of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and the area is conceived as some sort of a stadium. [24] The underlying pattern on the undulating surface is made up of the overlay of the standard map of Australia and a map of the tribal boundaries of Aboriginal Australia.  Layered over these are other images, symbols, maps, signatures, and written pieces of information of Australia’s indigenous and migratory races, for example, the word ”home” is written in the various languages spoken in Australia today.  The images are often literal, even naïve, as with the abstracted cubic “house”, and “back yard with pool” of the suburban dream – described by one critic as “lovely clichés of Australian suburbia”.[25]   There are few trees in the garden – the eucalyptus stand straight while the Italian alders are tilted to represent displacement and a yearning to return to northern lands.

The Museum is a child of its time – a decidedly contemporary work moulded by the thought and technology of 2000. Through its depiction of Australia, it attempts to correct commonly accepted myths regarding the country’s past and the current status quo.  The perception of history that it reveals, and the decisions as to what to present or subvert in the architecture stem from a particular political perspective – not necessarily one commonly shared.  Through the design and making the building reveals its messages, sometimes accessibly and explicitly, as in the “Australian Garden of Dreams”.  The metaphors, however, commonly demand a singular reading, and often are accessible only to the informed (primarily architectural) viewer, thus restricting their availability and the possibilities of interpretation.

Garden of Australian Dreams, National Museum of Australia. Photo: George Serras, National Museum of Australia.

The Issues

There are many issues and questions that this building raises:
How comprehendible and accessible can architectural messages be?
How might a building attempt to construct a sense of national identity?
What might be the place of museum architecture today – container, cultural object, narrator?
What is the meaning of the monument in contemporary society?
Specifically, is any form of monument appropriate to the Australian nation at this time?
Even more specifically, given the indigenous and mixed migrant culture of Australia, how might the Federation of Anglo-Saxon states have been otherwise presented?
How can each individual find something of himself or herself within the story?
How relevant will a story told for today be tomorrow?
And so on.

What nation? Whose nation?

So what is the Australia that this museum reveals?  Pessimistic? Optimistic? Simply an enigma? – Or a feast of vitality and vigour; shame and celebration; individuality and collectiveness; democracy and elitism; courage and cowardice; injustice and benevolence; unabashed, all stirred together to capture the essence of the mix and differences of contemporary Australia, left open-ended for each new generation to add to and decipher.

And what of the building?

Of course it is a theme park – the theme is the nation.


* Jennifer Taylor, «Transfer of Intention: Toyo Ito and the Metaphorical Tectonic», 2G, Spain, 1997 No. 1.  pp. 7-17.  This appears to provide an appropriate structure for approaching the National Museum. (The underlining has been added.)

[1]  Dimity Reed (ed.), Tangled Destinies: National Museum of Australia, Images Publishing, Mulgrave, 2002.
[2]  Stephen Frith, “A monument to lost opportunity”, Canberra Times, 20.3.01
[3]  Ian Perlman, “Prescribed Meaning is not always necessary”, Tangled Destinies: National Museum of Australia. Images Publishing, Mulgrave, 2002. p. 91.
[4]  Conrad Haymann, “Enigma variations: The National Museum of Australia and the AIATSIS Centre”, Arts Monthly Australia, April 2001, p. 5.
[5]  Ian Perlman, p. 93.
[6]  Ian Perlman, p. 93.
[7]  James Weirick, as quoted by Catherin Bull, “Landscape, museology, and alliance”, Architecture Australia, March/April 2002. p. 64.
[8]A. Snodgrass & R. Coyne, «Models, Metaphors, and the Hermeneutics of Designing», Faculty of Architecture, University of Sydney, Working Paper, 1991. p. 7
[9] Landscape design was by Richard Weller and Vadimir Sitte, of Room 4.1.3.  The exhibition design for the collection was undertaken by DMCD of New York with Anway and Company Exhibition Designers.
The Museum project was managed by what was known as the Acton Peninsular Alliance with a non-hierarchical consortium of seven major players, including the client, the contactor and the architect, in which everyone shared the risks and it was to everyone benefit to perform well.  The progress of the design was moderated by a selected Design Integrity Panel.  An aboriginal woman, Dawn Casey, was appointed to the position of Museum Director.
[10]   Ross Jenner, “The Palace at 4 am”, Tangled Destinies: The National Museum of Australia, The Images Publishing Group, Mulgrave, 2002, p. 103.
[11]  Brochure, “Building History: The National Museum of Australia’, p. 7.
[12] In this I am agreeing with Rod Barnett who writes of “…a continuum of algebraic (rather than geometric) clusters and flows”, “A Field of Signs”, Tangled Destinies: The National Museum of Australia, The Images Publishing Group, Mulgrave, 2002, p. 103.
[13]  The Bilboa Guggenheim Museum by Frank Gehry the CATIA system was used by means of which the surface is subdivided into interlocking polygons which are then set out for the cutting of the skin.  In Canberra the program unfolds 3D shapes into flat cutting patterns and these serve directly as templates for the material.  (NURBS Non-uniform Rational Bezier Lines).  For further in formation see Perlman, p. 99.
[14]  Brochure, “National Museum of Australia: A celebration of Federation 2001”.
[15] Brochure, “National Museum of Australia: A celebration of Federation 2001”.
[16] Ross Jenner, p. 103.
[17] For example, Ian Perlman, p. 99. With reference to Gottfried Semper’s theories of the 19th century.
[18]  Ross Jenner, p. 105.
[19]  A further matter of debate arose from the question of intellectual property regarding the use of the plan.
[20]  Ross Jenner, p. 108.
[21] Sudjic writes “Here is the Garden of Dreams that records as many nightmares as utopias”.  Deyan Sudjic,. p. 119.
Particularly critical of the Garden was the Report of the 2003 Review Panel chaired by Associate Professor John Carroll.
[22]  Isozaki’s Tschuba Civic Centre comes to mind.
[23]  Cathrin Bull, “Hardly Polite”, Tangled Destinies: National Museum of Australia. Images Publishing, Mulgrave, 2002. p. 153.
[24]  This follows use of such references in Peter Corrigan’s entry for the Parliament House Competition.
[25]  Rod Barnett, p. 139.


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