Eight weeks in Sydney (3) – museums

Adelaide, our home town, has some wonderful museums and galleries: I think we have probably visited all the most obvious ones, and our personal favourites quite regularly.

Having spent almost two months in Sydney, we enjoyed just a small part of what was on offer there.  This year is a Sydney Biennale year, Australia’s largest and most exciting international festival of contemporary art.  The entries were spread among several venues: the Art Gallery of NSW, the newly reopened Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), and in and around the old buildings on Cockatoo Island in the harbour.

Art meets art

We were able to spend several sessions at the MCA and regretted not making it to the other two Biennale venues.  Although we are neither art connoisseurs nor art practitioners, like many people we love all the creative arts, from photography and painting to architecture and opera, from the creative through to performances and displays of great works.  And so we thoroughly enjoyed our three visits to the MCA, taking in its own Collection on display as well as the imaginative and sometimes challenging Biennale entries allocated there.

Helen in another world of music

Our second choice was Sydney’s fabulous Powerhouse Museum (PHM).  Having spent an afternoon in London’s Science and Technology Museum a year earlier, we were well aware that Australia’s best is modest by world standards.  But for Australians, the PHM would have to be the nation’s foremost science and technology museum – and it is very adequate as such, remembering that even its older and much bigger sister in London is far from exhaustive.  We found the collections of musical instruments and steam engines excellent, as was the temporary exhibition of Narnia characters and movie props.  We also loved its collection of Muslim women’s fashions and the entries to the Museum’s Make Lace Not War competition.

The PHM’s online catalogues as well as its move from the old Museum of Technology building (just south along Harris Street) are both reminders that displays of the workings and fruits of science and technology must of necessity be limited!

On board the replica of Capt James Cook’s ship

My lifelong love of ships and the sea has taken me to the maritime museums of many cities and towns in several countries, and Australia’s best one I believe is the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney (ANMM).  Apart from the usual displays and special exhibitions, the ANMM collection includes several retired Royal Australian Navy (RAN) ships and many smaller craft  The ANMM also hosts the extended visits of replica sailing vessels such as the Dutch Batavia, Captain Cook’s Endeavour, and Willem Vlamingh’s Duyfken.  In addition to this, is has a close relationship with Sydney’s Heritage Fleet, an organisation that has bought, restored, maintains and sails (or steams) a collection of Australian historic ships.  I was able to spend several hours on board and exploring two ex-RAN ships, the destroyer Vampire and the submarine Onslow, and also the beautifully built 1994 replica of James Cook’s amazingly compact world voyager, the Endeavour.

My family having a whale of a day

We spent almost another full day at a fourth museum, Sydney’s Australian Museum, which is also the very first museum I ever visited: my parents took me there several times as a small lad in the 1950s.  In the first years after our family’s migration, museums were a place you could take interested children without entry prices!

One of our grandsons turned 7 recently and his birthday wish was to see the Jurassic collection at this Museum, and that he did, with great delight.  But this museum also has a large collection.  From my childhood I have never forgotten the huge sperm whale skeleton in the entrance hall, the Egyptian mummy, the taxidermied animals of all shapes and sizes, and the many rows of glass display cases with precious rocks and insects.  They are all still there!

But many galleries have been added since the 1950s, and museums have continued to respond to change.  Apart from the Jurassic gallery there is now an imaginative children’s play area, and large coffee and souvenir and book shops.  Aboriginal culture, astronomy and the ocean depths get special attention.  Science is explained and there are special programs from school classes and children generally.  We can have not our birthday party but even a conference at the Museum.  And nowadays we’d pay to get in – except that we hold a pension card.  The wheel is turning full circle!

Had we had the energy and made more selective choices, we could have spent our 8 weeks checking out all of the museums and galleries of the city of Sydney and the surrounding region!  I love museums and galleries!


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