The AM is creating a renewed museum to match its world-class collection.
Since the day it opened to the public in May 1857, the Australian Museum has held the imagination of Sydneysiders. In her companion book to the exhibition Capturing Nature, archivist Vanessa Finney writes, “In the opening week an astonishing 10,000 people (at a time when Sydney’s total population was just 40,000) came to view the crowded collections.” Much has changed in those 160-odd years, but the Museum, the wonder of its collections and architectural grandeur, has remained a constant.
This year, the Australian Museum’s place at the cultural and scientific heart of the city will be greatly enhanced as Project Discover kicks off. With a budget of $57.5 million, including $50.5 million from the NSW Government and $7 million to be raised, Project Discover will facilitate the first stage of the Museum’s evolution and significantly expand its role as a world-class educational and cultural facility, providing additional exhibition and public spaces, and boosting visitor experience.
Cox Architects alongside the firm behind the award-winning Crystal Hall, Neeson Murcutt, are leading the design, which will be completed in time to deliver the global blockbuster exhibition, Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh in early 2021 – the most significant collection of artefacts ever to leave Egypt.
Why is Project Discover necessary?
The Australian Museum currently has the smallest public floor space of any major museum in the country. As a comparison, its 6500m2 is but a fraction of Melbourne Museum’s 40,000m2. Furthermore, the AM’s collection is the largest in the southern hemisphere, comprising some 21 million objects and specimens valued at almost $1 billion, yet less than 1% of it is on display.
Project Discover will expand the AM’s public floor space by repurposing existing storage areas. This will enable the AM to showcase more of its priceless collection while attracting world-class touring exhibitions.
A new experience
The improved and expanded Australian Museum will sit among the best museums in the region, ensuring the most outstanding experiences are presented at the AM, allowing it to remain relevant far into the future.
The entrance to the Museum and the expansion of its ‘heart’ is a major focus of architect Rachel Neeson. Crystal Hall will be opened up and a new stairwell incorporated in the design. The Atrium will be opened up by the removal of the mezzanine currently above the shop, and the whole floor raised to be on the same level as Wild Planet and the First Australians Galleries. The overall effect will be a grand entry straight into the Museum. Gone will be the labyrinthine walkways.
“In museum design we talk about something called the heart, which is the central, orientating space,” says Neeson.
“The heart of the Australian Museum is the Atrium. Currently there is quite an indirect and congested passage from Crystal Hall around the shop to get to the heart. We are changing this so that visitors will be able to see directly into the heart from Crystal Hall. The heart will be a wonderful new ‘civic’ space at the centre of the Museum, defined by gracious heritage stone walls.”
A new blockbuster exhibition space will run across two storeys and 1500m2. As well as providing the required area to host major international exhibitions such as Tutankhamun, it will also allow greater flexibility – such as the ability to hold two exhibitions at once. The Museum – and Sydney – will be the destination of choice for major international touring exhibitions.
Education is a special focus of the development. A dedicated entrance for school groups will be built off William Street, including parking bays for buses. Students will be greeted in a purpose-built orientation space and continue their journey in expanded workshop rooms. Project Discover will enable the Australian Museum to double visitation of students around the state.
The Members’ Lounge will also be refurbished and replaced with a state-of-the-art facility for Members and their families to take time out and enjoy refreshments.
The Albert Chapman Minerals Collection has a new temporary home at the Australian Fossil and Mineral Museum, Bathurst, which houses the Warren Somerville Collection of 3500 minerals and fossils. When exhibited together, the collections will become the most significant display of minerals in Australia, and a powerful driver for tourism to the region.
The 550 extraordinary specimens will open there in June and remain on display for 18 months. The renovation will be completed by the end of 2020 and the Chapman Collection and Minerals Exhibition will return to the AM in 2021.
The Pacific Collection
The Australian Museum is custodian to a world-renowned Pacific Collection containing 40,000 significant objects from across Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. The safe relocation of the collection to a new, renovated facility in the centre of the Greater Sydney area was a significant task when it commenced in December last year. However, the move is on track to be completed in June. Staff work spaces and community meeting rooms will provide superior access to the collection for community groups and researchers.
One of the benefits of the new facility is to improve access for Pacific community groups in a way not possible at the William Street site.
Pacific Collection Manager Michael Mel says, “The need for a larger presence for the Pacific communities here is very important. The establishment of access to cultural material and flexible meeting space that can cater for exhibitions, performances and presentations will definitely be
a plus for our Pacific communities here in New South Wales.”
The Pacific Spirit exhibition on Level 2 will remain open throughout the building works. A new Pacific Spirit gallery – three times the size of the current space – will open to the public in 2023.
Just the beginning
Project Discover is just the first step in the future realisation of the Australian Museum’s masterplan.
Kim McKay says, “We have a bold vision for the AM; Project Discover is just the beginning. Once this initial redevelopment is completed, we will not only be able to accommodate world-class exhibitions, we will be on track to create a world-class museum with the best possible opportunities for our scientists, our visitors and the community. It’s an incredibly exciting time for the future of the AM.”