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Our savage summer

Long after the smoke clears, the summer of 2019–20 will remain in the hearts and minds of Australians as a turning point. It was a time when we as a community faced hardship and tragedy at an extraordinary scale. It was also a time where we came together as a community to care for and value our unique Australian identities and our home.

Two kneeling men tend to a small fire in bush land.
Victor Steffensen and Uncle Dave Wandin conduct a smoking ceremony on Wurundjeri country

The National Museum’s collection is rich with expressions of life in this unique and powerful continent, from the array of beautiful and equally fascinating mineral specimens of Broken Hill to the bold statement of ancient life captured in the 2.8 billion year old Pilbara stromatolite.

Captured within these specimens is not only the making of our continent but also dynamic expressions of the continent, its flows, pulses, rhythms and processes. When viewed alongside the material culture in the Museum’s collection representing human relationships, stories and interactions with land, we can recognise a story as old as time itself.

Two men inspect a cross-section from a large sedimentary rock.
Dr Stephen Munro and Professor Malcolm Walter with stromatolite cross-section

New stories

Over the past three years, the Museum has been developing a new permanent gallery of environmental history, which will open in 2021. The new gallery taps into the rhythms and pulses of country and to the things that have made the continent the special place that we know and love. We have extended this view to our animals, plants, weather systems, soil and forests and beyond.

We look at the ways the continent is changing and the ways we have worked in collaboration with it over its deep human history. In essence, we are all part of this ancient story. In the age of the human, also known as ‘the Anthropocene’, we now come together to renegotiate our relationships with an expressive continent that is gaining strength in its own voice.

As much as this process has challenged us in the way we think, talk about and represent an Australian narrative, it has challenged the way the Museum goes about its job.

This gallery and the stories within it speak strongly to this different time we are all experiencing. We are creating a new social space where people can come together and renegotiate and contribute ideas about what it means to live and thrive in a multi-species community on this dynamic, rapidly changing continent.


To design the new gallery, the Museum engaged Local Projects, world leaders in experience design. Our multidisciplinary team knew that the experience of visitors – their emotional and visceral journeys – was the gallery’s primary concern. Local Projects shared this orientation towards the visitor, and our work together has been deeply collaborative.

Here’s a short video in which Local Projects talk about their work on the gallery. Together with the wonderfully creative staff at Local Projects, we have found ways to enable the continent and its cast of characters to enchant our visitors, activating the powers of country within the Museum’s collection and within the gallery space.

Local Projects on the new gallery 2:41

Local Projects and the Museum worked closely with ARM Architecture, who originally designed the Museum building, to remodel the space and enable a dynamic integration of exhibition and architectural design.

In many ways, the project has evolved in collaboration with people and country here and across the continent. The process by which the gallery has developed is reflected in the stories it holds, stories that foreground the empowering value of dialogue and relationship in difficult times.

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