Background: Great Southern Land is the National Museum of Australia’s most significant gallery redevelopment since its opening in 2001. It features more than 2,100 unique objects and interactive digital experiences, many of which have never been displayed. The exhibition intertwines a celebration of Australia’s unique biodiversity and landscape with the stories, traditions and artworks of First Peoples who have lived on the continent for at least 65,000 years and all those who followed after European colonization. It also asks visitors to confront the big questions about the environmental challenges and changes we face.
Design thinking: Australia is a unique, ancient continent defined by powerful natural forces, rich biodiversity and a continuing indigenous culture that carries wisdom about the country. We were awed and enchanted by the agency, beauty and complexity of the continent, as well as the depth of human presence within it, and we wanted to capture and embrace those. We hope that visitors walk away with an understanding of how everything is interconnected and interdependent. We are in and of this place. We are made of the same stuff. Our lives depend on relationships with places, people and other species.
Challenges: Making a new type of experience that would explore a subject as epic and vast as the Australian continent and people’s history in a personal, engaging, emotional and surprising way. We’re deeply excited by how we’ve been able to deliver on that challenge again and again throughout the experience, from an infinite forest of Bunya trees that fold in visitors’ reflections to the model orcas floating in mid-air accompanied by beautiful footage.
Favorite details: One of our favorite moments sits at the beginning of the exhibition. Visitors enter an immersive forest of towering bunya trees. Mirrors on either side of the space create an “infinity effect” where visitors see themselves walking among these ancient, giant Australians; hear ambient audio of a bunya forest and the internal sounds of the trees; and touch the timbers and feel the sounds transformed into vibrations, emanating from within. The exhibit was built in collaboration with multiple Aboriginal communities, including a renowned timber artist and an acoustic ecologist. We love how the exhibition both awes visitors with natural wonder and lets them see themselves within a larger ecosystem.
New lessons: Australians thirst for the deep wisdom of First Nations cultures—their understanding of interconnectedness and interdependency—at a time when that’s more important than ever. There’s more than just the desire to reconcile past wrongs but a way to correct the present when we’re paying the price for our hubris. In these galleries, visitors encounter and can draw inspiration from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, creation myths, and the deep-time power of those ancient cultures. We worked with incredible First Nations artists like Matt Chun and Alison Page and were inspired by their work and perspective.
Specific project demands: This museum is no stranger to reinvention, and we wanted to honor that history. A review of our new gallery sheds light on how the museum has taken a nuanced approach to historical and First Nations narratives since its opening in 2001: “Every part of it, inside and out, represented Australian history resulting from the entanglement of many stories. Its exhibitions provided spaces for social and political commentary and challenged the credibility of national myths, particularly around the frontier wars.”
We wanted to ensure that the Great Southern Land exhibition fits into the National Museum of Australia’s vision for telling our country’s story and share how our exhibition endeavored to address environmental history with the same fearlessness and embracement of nuance.