Crystal clear: a new entrance for the Australian Museum in Sydney

September 11, 2015

The Australian Museum in Sydney this week unveiled the Crystal Pavilion designed by Neeson Murcutt with Joseph Grech Architects, stage one of its reincarnation as both a serious museum of natural history and a cultural bastion of the city’s history.

Written by ADR contributor Peter Salhani. Image above: The view over William Street through the Crystal Pavilion’s glass diamond sunshades. Photo by Michael Nicholson.

The new Crystal Pavilion, designed by Neeson Murcutt with Joseph Grech Architects, fulfils a long-held ambition of the NSW Government Architect’s office to reorient the Museum’s main entry from a quiet side door on College Street to a grand public (and, for the first time, wheelchair accessible) entry at 1 William Street. Visitors will now enter via a wide bluestone ramp, where the fossilised footprints of a little Aboriginal girl from the Mungo National Park have been imprinted for all to follow.


Crystal Pavilion by Neeson Murcutt with Joseph Grech Architects for The Australian Museum. Photo Michael Nicholson.


From inside the pavilion a timber-lined tunnel punches through into the sandstone building. This new entry point helps clarify circulation through the maze of galleries, offices and service space, while leaving the building’s history of adaptations and additions legible. Importantly, this new circulation route helps refocus attention on the exhibits themselves. The First Australians Galleries now host a stunning installation of Aboriginal shields, curated by artist Jonathan Jones. Where the old entry once made an ignominious intrusion into the Barnet Wing, now the Wild Planet exhibition roams within this refreshed Victorian volume – the first increase of permanent exhibition space in over 50 years. Around 400 species of animals have been liberated from storage and are displayed in purpose-built Italian glass cases, everything from the threatened to the extinct, from butterflies to the 400-kilogram Black Rhino.


The former entry reimagined, now hosting the Wild Planet exhibition. Photo Stuart Humphreys.


The new entry and Crystal Pavilion for the first time offer a level sightline from the Museum across William Street to St Mary’s Cathedral. The Museum’s new director and CEO, Kim McKay AO, likes the irony of such goliath institutions in dialogue: “Here we are, a natural history museum, a temple of Darwinism older than the Smithsonian, directly opposite St Mary’s – the temple of Creationism. I love the idea of that.”


The pleated glass curtain of the Crystal Pavilion at the Australian Museum. Photo Michael Nicholson.


On the top floor of the Museum the relocated cafe takes in a panoramic sweep from city and harbour to Kings Cross, one of the best views east of the Opera House. There are plans to further develop the public engagement of this space – no doubt Sydney’s party moguls will have a few ideas. Under director McKay’s stewardship, this collaboration between architects, artisans and tradesmen, as well as curators and artists, is part of the ongoing transformation of Australia’s oldest museum (circa. 1827), and the oldest in the British Commonwealth. It’s a transformation desperately needed, as institutions worldwide grapple with audiences in a digital age to ‘adapt or die’.


The Australian Museum seek from Cook+Philip Park across William Street. Photo Scott Humphreys.


Stage one comes with not just a new entry, but a new graphic look and logo, shaped to reference the pleated glass curtain of the carbon-neutral Crystal Pavilion, as well as the tracks of animals and winds crossing Australia’s ochre desert sands. It also pitches (for the first time) an open invitation to William Street, where the Museum’s entry was always intended to be.

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