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Hidden meaning

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Unravelling the stories, ideas and symbols embedded in the Museum's architecture gives a greater sense of meaning to the site.

by Meredith McKendry


Magazine spread on the stories, ideas and symbols embedded in the National Museum of Australia's architecture

Photograph by John Gollings.

Clad in eye-catching handmade ceramic tiles arranged in a pattern based on QR (Quick Response) codes, the design of the new extension of the Museum's administration wing literally encourages the idea of reading the building. Simply by scanning the QR code with your mobile device, you can gain access to layers of information and detail about the Museum.

Like its latest addition, the Museum's building is full of hidden signs and symbols, from the words written in braille on the exterior to the great virtual knot in the Hall, a metaphor for the weaving together of the lives and stories of Australians. But the symbolic significance inherent in the architecture and landscape design is not always obvious to the visitor. To gain a greater understanding of the ideas and stories embedded in the building, we need to go back to the beginning.

Opened in 2001, the Museum was designed by Ashton Raggatt Macdougall (ARM Architecture), in association with Robert Peck von Hartel Trethowan and landscape architects Room 4.1.3. Chief design architect Howard Raggatt describes the design of the Museum as a series of puzzle pieces joined together. 'We like to think that the story of Australia is not one story but many tangled together, so we set out to create a building that fully embraces that concept.'

The international competition brief for the design of the Museum called for a building that expressed Australia's cultural diversity and reflected a society continually questioning, exploring and reinventing itself. Walter Burley Griffin's vision for Canberra worked along three axes – a land axis, aligned with the surrounding mountain peaks; a water axis, running along the lake; and a municipal axis, forming a triangle at the city's heart. The competition brief proposed that the Museum should incorporate two new axes – one axis was to project from the site towards the city centre and the other towards Parliament House.

The architects chose to re-interpret Burley Griffin's axes in their design: instead of Burley Griffin's straight lines, these axes were imagined bent, stretched, twisted and curled, intersecting through the Museum's site. They also created a third axis that went beyond the visions of Burley Griffin. The Uluru line – a six-metre wide red band that cuts through the site – formed a new axis between the Parliamentary triangle and the geographic centre of the country, Uluru.

Bright orange and curling overhead like a roller-coaster, the 30-metre-high sculptural loop at the entrance acts as both a directional pointer and a sheltered walkway that leads to the Museum. The architects see the ribbon-like structure as representing a rainbow serpent from an Aboriginal Dreamtime story, and a piece of the Boolean string that shapes the Museum design. In their competition entry the architects explain, 'We have subtracted (by Boolean operation) a volume of tangled space in the form of a ribbon or knot from a solid spherelike- object'. The loop is a small piece of this string, which entangles and defines the entire building – a metaphor for the strands that tie us together as a nation.

Clockwise from top left: artist rendering of the string that shapes the Museum design extending outside physically in the loop. Arm architecture. Architectural model of the virtual knot used to create the shape of the main hall by Arm Architecture. The aluminium exterior is covered in raised dimples that look like words written in Braille. Aerial view of the Museum showing the shap of the building. Design drawings by Arm Architecture featuring the word 'Eternity', seen as curves and lines on the building. The Garden of Australian Dreams's concrete surface is covered in a complex layer of maps.
Clockwise from top left: artist rendering of the string that shapes the Museum design extending outside physically in the loop by Arm Architecture. Architectural model of the virtual knot used to create the shape of the main hall by Arm Architecture. The aluminium exterior is covered in raised dimples that look like words written in Braille. The Garden of Australian Dreams's concrete surface is covered in a complex layer of maps. Design drawings by Arm Architecture featuring the word 'Eternity', seen as curves and lines on the building. The hall is a soaring light and open space, perfect for displaying large-scale objects from the Museum's collection.

Leaving the loop behind, visitors to the Museum step through a red, cavelike tunnel and into the Hall, a soaring light and open space with curving walls, windows and ceilings. To the architects, the Hall is like a huge rope knot – seen from the inside. The space resembles what would be left if a resin mould was cast around a five-sided knot and then the knot was removed, creating a sculptural interior space in which walls and ceilings dissolve into each other. The knot extends outside physically in the loop.

At the Museum's centre is a protected outdoor courtyard named the Garden of Australian Dreams, which can be read as a promenade at the water or a sports stadium embracing an oval with spectators performing a 'Mexican wave'. The garden's contoured concrete surface symbolises a complex interweaving of histories represented by different maps, including a standard English-language map and Horton's map of the linguistic boundaries of Indigenous Australia. Says co-designer Richard Weller of Room 4.1.3, 'It is a map of Australia upon which the public can walk and read complex layers of information'.

Along with other elements of the design, the facades of the Museum are embedded with hidden meaning. On some of the raised dimples and sunken holes are words and phrases written in braille, including 'God knows', 'she'll be right', 'good as gold' and 'love is blind'. On the curved facades of the permanent exhibition galleries are selected fragments of the word 'Eternity', chalked on the streets of Sydney by Arthur Stace for over 30 years. Appearing as seemingly random curves and lines, it is impossible to read as a whole and becomes a hidden message. There are repeated references throughout the Museum to the letter 'X', to symbolise the signatures of illiterate Indigenous Australians. The 'X' has even been applied to covers for the in-ground hydraulic services.

The building also features striking combinations of colours and a variety of external surfaces, that can be read in many different ways. The red and black exterior reflects the Aboriginal flag, with hints of blue and tan representing the colours of the uniforms worn by convicts transported to the penal colonies. Deeply patterned black concrete walls evoke soft skin or billowing drapery. The tile colours on the new extension were drawn from heat-mapping technology and blend from the existing green cladding of the administration wing to the pale yellow bricks of the heritage-listed annexe, providing continuity between the two existing buildings.

Visually complex, the Museum's postmodern design and layers of hidden meaning reflect Australia's cultural diversity and, with the vibrant new extension, will continue to provoke debate and discussion about architecture and the built environment.