1861–66 James Barnet, Colonial Architect – Barnet Wing
1890–92 Walter Vernon, Colonial Architect – Lewis Wing expansion
2016 Public Architecture Award (for Crystal Hall) – AIA (NSW)
2016 COLORBOND® Award for Steel Architecture – AIA (NSW)
2018 National Trust’s award for Heritage Conservation (Built) (NSW)
Founded in 1827 to house a natural history collection, Australia’s first public museum has been at the forefront of scientific research, collection and education for over 190 years. Originally designed by Colonial Architect Mortimer Lewis, the building has led a colourful life marked by adaptation and change.
Construction of the museum began in 1846, but was dogged by controversy; Lewis resigned in 1849 amid a scandal over the mismanagement of public funds. The classical sandstone building was roofless until 1850, when its grand dome was finally abandoned in favour of skylights. It opened to the public in 1857 with only the Long Gallery for exhibitions – scarcely enough for an institution of high ambition.
After a succession of additions by government architects – James Barnet, Walter Liberty Vernon and Edward Farmer – the museum moved into the 20th century, and a rationalisation was sorely needed. Colin Still of the Public Works Department designed a link to the major wings, improving visitor circulation and installing a glass roof over the courtyard, with an atrium to house the library and temporary exhibitions.
In 2008 came a major new collections building by Johnson Pilton Walker Architects (JPW). Designed to house over ten million zoological specimens, the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI) has a glass facade inspired by the luminous colour play of butterfly wings. This new architectural language was reinforced in the 2015 addition of Crystal Hall by Neeson Murcutt Architects and Joseph Grech Architect, which relocated the main entry to William Street and ushered in a new chapter in the museum’s life.
In 2018, public access to the Westpac Long Gallery, recently awarded the National Trust’s award for Heritage Conservation (Built), forms part of the Sydney Open experience. Generations of ad-hoc changes have been swept away. The original floors have been uncovered, the marble columns revealed and restored and original wire fretwork re-installed on all levels. Sydneysiders can now imagine what those first visitors in 1857 might have felt as they proudly viewed their new museum and its curiosities. A delight for the senses, the restored Long Gallery is a fine setting for the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition.
Also accessible to the public – exclusively for Sydney Open – are a suite of rooms in the original Lewis Wing: the Director’s Door (original entrance), the Boardroom and the Krefft Room – named for the Curator and Secretary Gerard Krefft, who was forcibly removed from the building while still seated! Having elevated the museum’s international standing, he was promptly sacked by a Board of Trustees unimpressed by his enthusiasm for the theory of evolution.
Westpac Long Gallery, Krefft Room and Board Room via Director’s entrance
Talks, tours & more
‘Ask-an-expert’: there will be an Information Officer on hand to tell stories and anecdotes about the people and events that have shaped the museum and answer questions about the award-winning Westpac Long Gallery and the heritage and architecture of the original building, the Lewis Wing.
Food & drink available