International Museum Day has jogged our memories about institutions that have inspired us. They may be majestic or modest but these are our favourite museums.
ROYAL MUSEUMS, GREENWICH
When you spend the first three decades of your life living in landlocked countries or hundreds of miles from the sea, you tend to have romantic notions of all things nautical. As an immature teenager, when asked by the school careers’ guidance counsellor what I wanted to be, if I had been honest I would have said: 1) rock star; 2) football star; 3) sailor; 4) lighthouse keeper. But I had no musical or football talents, the first time I steered a boat – a small tin thing hired at a dam – I drove it into a rock, and lighthouses were few and far between (500km to the east or 2300km to the west, to be precise). So I sensibly said I wanted to be a journalist.
Even though I now live close to the sea, my romantic nautical notions linger, and my favourite museums have the word “maritime” attached to them. They can be the grand, gleaming, big city ones, such as those in Lisbon, Sydney and Auckland, or less flashy ones in remote locations, such as the Museu Nacional do Mar in São Francisco do Sul in Santa Catarina, Brazil, which poignantly pays homage to the simple local fishing boats, has a toy-like array of little model craft, and a section dedicated to Brazilian Amyr Klink, whose many achievements include being the first person to row across the South Atlantic (click on the different “salas” or “rooms” on this link to see the museum’s displays).
If I had to single out one, though, it would be the National Maritime Museum in, Greenwich, London. Why? Well, really, when you head to Greenwich you get four museums in one, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Royal Museums Greenwich. Here you are immersed in a whole suburb rich in British naval history, and there is gorgeous parkland between the bits down by the River Thames (the Maritime Museum, the famous tea clipper the Cutty Sark and Queen’s House), and the famous Royal Observatory up on the hill, where you can stand on the meridian line.
As you would expect from an empire-building naval power, the Maritime Museum has enough stuff in it to make the mind boggle. You really feel close up to history peering at the display bearing the bloodied coat that Admiral Nelson wore at the battle of Trafalgar, with the hole from the bullet that ultimately killed him.
It’s a beautiful building in which to spend a good many hours, light, spacious airy. I particularly like Prince Frederick’s barge (“the limousine of its day”) …
and the figureheads mounted on the walls …
The cafe on the upper level too, is well worth a visit, not just to rest your legs and replenish yourself, but to watch the kids playing on the floor map of the world.
It seems I was not the only kid who wanted to be a sailor.
THE MUSEUM OF ANTHROPOLOGY, VANCOUVER
Anthropological and ethnographic museums have always always a magnet on my travels and the Museum Of Anthropology at the University of British Colombia is the most amazing one I’ve ever had the good fortune of visiting.
Established in 1949, it has been housed since 1976 on the traditional, ancestral and unceded land of the Musqueam people in a magnificent building designed by Canadian architect Arthur Erickson. The airy, soaring glass and concrete structure (inspired by the post-and-beam architecture of the northern Northwest Coast First Nations people) is set on a promontory overlooking the sea and showcases perfectly the museum’s enormous collection of artefacts.
Entering the aptly named Great Hall, I stare speechless at the enormous First Nations sculptures before me: magnificent totem poles in a light-filled room that looks out towards a vista of water and trees.
What was meant to be two hours in the museum becomes five hours: I lose myself in stories and visions as I open and close each of the hundreds of drawers containing exquisite artefacts from the first nations people of the Pacific Northwest: display cabinets filled with beautiful masks, carvings, sculptures, tools, intricately embroidered clothing, beads. I imagine them being made, being used, being worn.
The museum also has thousands of pieces from other parts of the world, having collaborated with Pacific Islanders, Africans, Asians and Latin Americans to assemble its enormous collections. The preservation and celebration of culture, not lost to time, on a grand scale: it’s a thought that brings me joy.
MUSEUM OF AUSTRALIAN DEMOCRACY, CANBERRA
Can you choose a favourite museum just because you love the building? If so, the Museum of Australian Democracy in (MoAD) Canberra holds a special place in my heart because it’s housed in the gorgeous Old Parliament House.
When I first visited Canberra as a tourist in 1997, I was intrigued by the ragtag collection of signs, tents and caravans on the lawns opposite Old Parliament House with the stunning back drop of the Australian War Memorial in the distance.
My guide explained that this was the Aboriginal Tent Embassy which had had various incarnations since it was set up in 1972 with a beach umbrella to protest against the government’s intransigence on Indigenous land rights.
The site waxes and wanes in terms of how many structures are there but its presence has become an accepted part of the Canberra landscape and I find it poignant reminder that this wonderful democracy still has some work to do.
Whenever I have out of town visitors, I take them past it and the reactions vary from being a “bloody eyesore” that should be demolished to wanting to engage and talk to the Indigenous people, who keep a fire lit there and sometimes hold particular protests, to find out more about their causes.
But back to MoAD. The iconic building opened in 1927 and served as the home of Federal Parliament until 1988. It was designed by John Smith Murdoch, the first Commonwealth government architect, who was asked to design a ‘provisional’ building intended to serve as a parliament for 50 years. His creation was modest and functional, filled with natural light from windows, skylights and light wells. With its verandahs and colonnades, and strong horizontal lines, it was unusual for a government building and was criticised by some architects.
After the thousands of politicians and their staff decamped up the hill to the new parliament building in 1988, parts of it were used as a restaurant, event venue and exhibition space. The library section housed the National Portrait Gallery until it moved into its purpose-built premises in 2009.
It’s now a living museum of social and political history, with walls that can tell many stories of defining moments, gossip, scandal and a few parties!
I love wandering around and thinking how exciting it must have been to be a political journalist here when politicians were easily available and could be spotted in the corridors smoking or sharing a yarn in the passages. My favourite room is the Senate Chamber with its plush red carpets and leather seats with the imposing and rarely used Vice Regal Chair. TTW
Photos © Zora Regulic, Bernard O’Shea, Diana Streak.