In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Museums in Australia

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Australian Museums and Colonial Legacies
  • Australian Museums and Cultural Policy
  • Australian Post-Contact Heritage/History Museums
  • Australian Indigenous Art/Material Culture and Australian Museums
  • Private Museums and Bequests
  • Australian Museum Architecture and Museum Exhibition Design/History
  • Australian Museums and Contemporary Art

Art History Museums in Australia
Christopher Marshall, Georgina S. Walker
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0141


The collecting of Australian natural history and Indigenous artifacts predates by centuries the introduction of formal museum infrastructure into colonial Australia. Whereas the earliest collections amassed by explorers, missionaries, and the like were shipped off to institutions abroad, significant museums were nonetheless soon inaugurated throughout the continent to act as repositories for the newly formed collections and to stand as emblems of the civilized values of the recently imported settler societies. The Australian Museum in Sydney (1827) was thus followed by the Museum of Victoria (1854), the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (1863), and so on. The rapid evolution of Australian museums led next to their subdivision into the more specialized subcategories of art gallery, natural history museum, regional museum, and so on. The foundation of Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria (1861) thus narrowly preceded Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (1871), the Art Gallery of Ballarat (1884), and so on, with the concomitant shift in collecting priorities that this entails. Today’s ever-expanding network of Australian museums, galleries, art centers, and other related institutions embraces a yet more diverse and dynamic range of both newly formed and long-established organizations of all kinds and sizes ranging from the Museum of Tropical Queensland, Townsville, to the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, and all points in between. The literature on Australian museums begins during its earliest years with catalogues, collection handbooks. and other specialized publications released by fledgling museum professionals seeking to document the explosion of new knowledge concerning the recently settled continent. Next comes the initially small but continuously growing group of official museum histories, represented here by the detailed organizational studies of the National Gallery of Victoria and Australian Museum published by Leonard Cox in 1970 and Ronald Strahan in 1979. The field of Australian museum studies, by contrast, is a yet more recent phenomenon that has tended to follow the establishment of international methodologies, such as the rise of cultural studies and the new museology, as well as the inauguration of Australian university teaching and research programs in these areas more specifically from the 1970s onward (e.g., see the publications cited under General Overviews). Museum studies publications on Australian museums are currently to be found spread across a fully distributed global network ranging from international scholarship of Australian case studies (see Jagodzińska 2017, cited under Australian Art Museums: Regional, State, and National) to Australian publications seeking to situate Australian examples within a broader global perspective (Green and Gardner 2016).

General Overviews

The texts in this section document the diversity of the field, together with some of the fundamental directions followed by its foundational investigations. Bennett’s landmark research did much to highlight the significance of Australian museums for the wider field of international cultural policy studies (Bennett 1995, and see also the publications cited under Australian Museums and Cultural Policy). Since then the literature has widened and diversified to accommodate the insights of, on the one hand, senior museum professionals drawing on their experiences to articulate an overarching analysis of the sector (as discussed in Griffin and Paroissien 2011 and Vaughan 2011) and a series of more theoretical overviews by current cultural studies and museum studies academics seeking to situate the place of Australian museum developments in global trends on the other hand (as considered in Barrett 2011. Healy and Witcomb 2006, and Witcomb 2003).

  • Barrett, Jennifer. Museums and the Public Sphere. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

    An attempt to reorient the field of museum studies beyond the standard narratives of new museological theory. Proposes a new framework for considering museums that draws on a modified conception of Habermas’s notion of the public sphere.

  • Bennett, Tony. The Birth of the Museum. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

    A landmark account employing a Foucauldian discourse analysis in order to stress the political and ideological basis underpinning the historical development of modern-to-contemporary museums.

  • Griffin, Des, and Leon Paroissien, eds. Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology. Canberra, A.C.T.: National Museum of Australia, 2011.

    A broad-ranging overview of the development of Australian museums from the period of the 1975 Piggott Report onward. Its diverse range of topics include chapters on Australian Indigenous peoples and museums, regional museums, museum education, museums and multiculturalism, and Australian art exhibitions. Available online.

  • Healy, Chris, and Andrea Witcomb, eds. South Pacific Museums: Experiments in Culture. Melbourne, Australia: Monash University ePress, 2006.

    An anthology of extended case studies that seek to situate prominent Australian examples of new museum development during the 1990s and 2000s (e.g., Museum of Sydney, National Museum of Australia, Australian Centre for the Moving Image) within the broader context of postcolonial and new museological issues and preoccupations facing South Pacific museums more generally (e.g., Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Tongarewa, The Centre Culturel Tjibaou).

  • Knell, Simon. National Galleries: The Art of Making Nations. New York and London: Routledge, 2016.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315692203

    Knell examines the ‘national’ art museum as a distinct type of cultural institution from within an international framework. Key themes include the formation of Australian National Galleries (Canberra, Sydney, South Australia, and Victoria); their holdings of Australian art; the role of Australian artists in making national art; the aspirational use of architecture to present a national identity (National Gallery of Australia); and the display of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal art in museums.

  • Lake, Marilyn, ed. Memory, Monuments and Museums: The Past in the Present. Melbourne, Australia: University Press, 2006.

    A series of papers originally delivered at a conference of the Australian Academy of the Humanities held in Hobart during the bicentenary of Tasmania. Analyses include sections on museums and memory, loss and nostalgia, museums and the monument to male identity, postcolonial legacies in Tasmania, and the contemporaneous debate over the political direction of the National Museum of Australia.

  • Vaughan, Gerard. “The Cross Cultural Art Museum in Australia.” In The Cambridge Companion to Australian Art. Edited by Jaynie Anderson, 261–289. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    A historical account of the progressive shift in Australian art museums from a Eurocentric emphasis on developing collections and exhibitions to an increasingly contemporary early-21st-century engagement with non-Western cultures and traditions.

  • Witcomb, Andrea. Re-Imagining the Museum: Beyond the Mausoleum. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203361023

    Witcomb examines museum practices—how they are changing, how they have evolved, and how to engage with museum practices within a contemporary context. Museum concerns, financial pressures, and complex relationships between museums and their audience are given careful consideration.

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