Australia’s top ten museums


Australia is usually pictured as an outdoor haven, with beaches and bushland glimmering under the bright sun. When it rains, however, you’re probably going to want to plump for an indoor option. Luckily, Australia has some tremendous museums – and there’s one to suit all tastes.


Best for sports fans


The Bradman Museum in Bowral, New South Wales


Domestic Aussie Rules football and rugby league games may draw higher crowds, but cricket is unquestionably Australia’s national sport. And while the Melbourne Cricket Ground may be the biggest venue, the picturesque ground at Bowral is the one that epitomises the spirit of the game. This was where Donald Bradman – the greatest batsman who has ever lived – played his club cricket. Next door to it is the Bradman Museum, which originally started out as a shrine to the man who retired with an average of 99.94. In recent years, it has become more all-encompassing, tracing the history of cricket and great moments from the game’s past.


There’s also a chance for novices to learn via new hi-tech installations that show various batting shots, fielding positions and umpiring gestures. Perhaps the most addictive is the game where you can play at captain, setting fields in a bid to get the electronic batsmen out.


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Best for the fear factor


The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin


There are numerous sections in the MAGNT, but the museum’s icon is amongst the rest of the stuffed wildlife. Sat alongside the birds of prey, shellfish, parrots and butterflies that still have relations living in the area is Sweetheart. This 780kg, 5.1m long saltwater crocodile gained notoriety in the 1970s for attacking fishermen in dinghies, overturning at least two. It was decided to move him from his billabong in 1979 and take him to a crocodile farm, but he died during the capture attempt.


Sweetheart may be the star, but he’s not the real reason to visit this museum. Where it offers something special is the exhibit on Cyclone Tracy, which ripped through Darwin on Christmas morning in 1974, killing 71 people and destroying over 70% of the city’s buildings. The panoramic photos of the devastation and the reconstructions of ruined homes are deeply moving, but most terrifying is the darkened booth that you can step into. Once inside, you hear a recording made by a priest on that fateful morning, and the sounds of the 200km/h-plus winds make you want to cower.


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Best for history


The Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney


One of Sydney’s finest old colonial buildings, the Hyde Park Barracks has gone through numerous incarnations over the years. It started as a convict barracks, became an immigration depot and asylum and then a court complex before finally becoming a museum in 1979. The former incarnations have rich stories to tell, and they’re presented expertly. The Convict Sydney Exhibition is arguably the best done. Around 50,000 transported convicts passed through the barracks between 1819 and 1848, and a giant mural depicts the whole system. Starting at the industrial revolution in the UK, then heading to the docks and across the oceans to life in New South Wales, there are lots of little details. Brilliantly, the mural is replicated on a scrollable video screen, where you can touch the details to find out much more about various aspects of colonial life.


Other highlights include the archaeology room, where some of the 85,000 items found under the ground and floorboards are put on display, and a room devoted to orphan girls shipped over from Ireland. Between 4,114 girls were sent to New South Wales, and their often-inspiring, often-heartbreaking stories are spelled out here.



Best for kids


Questacon in Canberra


Questacon is where science and technology become tremendous fun. Just about everything inside is hands on, and the theming of the various exhibitions is superb. A perennial favourite is the Sideshow: The Science Behind The Fun exhibit. It has a rollercoaster simulator and a giant slide, but does its best work when explaining how fairground slideshow games work. You learn that throwing balls into a bucket is easier when you lob them up and put a bit of spin on them to stop them bouncing back, and that it’s easier to knock cans off a shelf with a heavier ball.


Elsewhere, you can be in charge of traffic flow systems in a bid to stop (mercifully fictional) cars from piling up in traffic jams and test out the advantages and disadvantages of recumbent bicycles over normal ones.


Essentially, it’s a giant playground, with fabulously inventive methods of explaining how physical forces work.


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Best for moving stories


The Immigration Museum in Melbourne


Perhaps better than any other museum in the country, Melbourne’s Immigration Museum tells the underlying story of Australia. It is a country built on immigration, from the early waves of convicts to the recent influxes from all over the world. The tales of numerous individual immigrants are told, while you learn about the conditions suffered by those coming in on the original convict ships. The various racist policies to restrict non-white immigration are also detailed, from Dutch people being forced to pass a dictation test in Maltese to extra taxes for Chinese immigrants. It’s one of those places that you mean to dip into for an hour, yet emerge five or six hours later with your mind whirring.



Best for atmosphere


Port Arthur in Tasmania


The tale of Australia’s convict era is told well in a number of spots, but nowhere does it feel more real than Port Arthur. This is where it all really happened – Port Arthur was a prison for the very worst of the reconvicted convicts, and the museum displays are in the old buildings. The curators get it spot on, knowing when to use gimmicks and multimedia to make things more interesting, and when to allow the complex’s ghosts speak for themselves. It’s also in an amazingly beautiful setting. The prison was chosen for its position at the end of a narrow isthmus – it was difficult to escape from – but the natural beauty didn’t half give the prisoners a good view.


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Best for art


National Gallery of Australia in Canberra


The National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne and Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney are both pretty good, but Australia’s best art collection can be found in the capital. There’s a massive amount to see in there, with a smattering of the big names from European and American art history represented, and a couple of good contemporary art sections. Its real strength is in Australian art, however. There’s no better place to go through the best in Aboriginal art, whilst Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings are arguably the most iconic works ever produced in the country.


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Best for niche topic


Whaleworld near Albany, Western Australia


Whaling was once big business in Australia, although the country has long since realised that there’s more to be made from binoculars than harpoons when it comes to whales. The old Cheynes Beach whaling station is now the site of Whaleworld, which is more an experience than a museum. Oil storage tanks have been converted into movie theatres showing films about whales and sharks, whilst a full sensory blitz accompanies you around the flensing decks and old station buildings.


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Best new museum


Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart


Opening in January this year, the Museum of Old and New Art has almost single-handedly seen sleepy Hobart picked out as a new happening hotspot. It’s worth a visit for the architecture as much as the contents – but just about everything about it is either striking, challenging or both. It’s more about installations than the traditional paintings hanging on walls look, and the variety makes walking from room to room a tremendously eclectic experience.


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Best overall


The Australian War Memorial in Canberra


If you can go to just one museum in Australia, make it the Australian War Memorial. In fact, it’s worth detouring to Canberra for alone. It doesn’t glorify or celebrate war, yet meticulously details its horrors. The collection is enormous and best tackled over a couple of visits, but if you have to pick just one area to concentrate on, make it the World War I section. From a British perspective, it’s hard to understand what this war meant to Australia. It was something of a coming of age for a fledgling nation. 60,000 Australians died in the various battles, of which the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey became the symbol of sacrifice.


World War I is depicted through a series of detailed 3D panoramas, all of which recreate the topography and troop positions from major battles. But there are also numerous personal artefacts, photos and in-depth explanations of events to add heart and background to the visuals.


Other galleries explore World War II and engagements since then, while the aircraft hall contains an impressive selection of war planes.


It’s also worth making sure you’re there for the end of the day, when a lone piper or bugler plays The Last Post. It’s something to make the hairs on your back stand up.




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by David Whitley



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