23 September, 2020   By: Wendy Caccetta

A visual feast inside and out, the new WA Museum is a stunning home for the State's greatest stories and treasures and also a good place to soak up city life.

Even before its opening, the new Western Australian Museum had made a list of the buildings that would shape the world this year, alongside the likes of the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo, The Berlin Brandenburg Airport and M+ Museum in Hong Kong.

This November, we’ll be able to see what all the fuss is about when the doors open on a $400 million labour of love that elegantly binds our past to the present and which Museum chief Alec Coles hopes will sit at the beating heart of our State.

Coles is excited that the biggest transformation in the Museum’s history — eight years in the planning and execution — has attracted such attention, even from international broadcaster CNN, which in January named it one of the Most Anticipated Buildings to Shape the World in 2020 for its architecture.

“This type of thing doesn’t come along very often,” Coles says. “I’ve worked on some pretty big developments in the UK but not on this scale. It’s been a kind of journey of discovery for all of us.”

WA Museum night view

A preview tour of the new Museum for Horizons revealed a striking four-level facility of brick, glass and steel that envelopes and unites the four heritage buildings that made up the old site — the Old Gaol circa 1855; the original WA Museum, Jubilee Building (1899); the first Art Gallery (1908); and Hackett Hall, the State Library’s old reading room built in 1913.

“The architectural design is very much inspired by the strata of the rocks of WA,” Coles says. “Some people have even suggested the big entrance is inspired a bit by Nature’s Window up in Kalbarri.”

Portal for our past and present

Designed by international firms Hassell and OMA, the building is tasked with providing what Coles describes as a “super charged portal for the whole of the State”.

Visually it’s a treat, from a tunnel of minerals illuminated like a beautiful kaleidoscope to a vintage ute turned into an artwork and carrying slogans of Aboriginal cultural pride.

In eight new permanent galleries, thousands of old and new treasures and stories are presented in fresh ways, such as the ancient Megalodon’s head — the biggest shark that ever existed — cast this year from fossil work in the Mid West, to old favourite, Otto, the giant blue whale which washed ashore at Busselton in 1897 and whose skeleton now hangs in a dramatic dive from the ceiling of the Stan Perron Treasures Gallery.

Visiting exhibitions will be housed in a special 1000 square metre gallery.

WA Museum old building

The Museum is also poised to become a hub for city life. Stunning spaces and balconies will be available for social events from cocktail parties to long table dinners and even weddings.

On the ground floor, an open-air courtyard ‘City Room’ invites people into the belly of the precinct. Even its grapevine has a story. At 170 years old it is thought to have been planted by the first jailer and is Australia’s oldest fruiting grapevine.

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Against the odds

Coles, who arrived in WA from the UK in 2010, says people initially said the new museum would never happen.

The popularity of the visiting A Day in Pompeii exhibition in 2010, however, showed there was demand for what modern Museum’s could offer.

“I’d come from the UK and I was negotiating for that exhibition while I was in the UK and there was a fair amount of trepidation at the time about whether we could host it, whether we could make it work,” Coles says.

“I remember that the Cultural Centre at that point was under the auspices of the East Perth Redevelopment Authority and the weekend we opened they started digging up the road outside the Museum. It was like a building site. On a Sunday afternoon only 10 people came in.

 WA Museum from the Perth Cultural Centre

“But gradually as people got the message it built and it built, and at that point became the most successful thing we’d ever done. One hundred and thirteen thousand visitors came.

“It demonstrated our capability and the appetite among the people of Perth.”

From the ground up

About 3300 people have worked on building and outfitting the new Museum, from architects to builders and curators, many world experts in their fields.

Museum representatives criss-crossed WA talking to as many groups as they could about the best items to show and the most important stories to tell.

Just bringing items out of storage, where some had remained for four years from the closing of the old museum in mid 2016, has taken more than a year.

Then there were the special challenges, like how to hang a four tonne blue whale. Special expertise came from a Canadian company that did similar work for the National History Museum in London.

“Every rig had to be tightly wound,” Coles says. “It’s sculpted to every vertebrae.”

Otto the blue whale WA Museum

What’s on show?

Visitors can find their own way around the Museum or use their smart phones to download the Museum app and be guided through its highlights. Entry will be free for the first 18 months.

A visit starts outside in The City Room, which has native plants and Whadjuk dance and yarning circles. Also check out the 12-tonne chunk of Mundrabilla meteorite, the largest ever found in Australia.

Through the Museum front doors visitors will find themselves at Ngalang Koort Boodja Wirn — Nyoongar for heart, country and spirit — a gallery where Aboriginal stories are told through their own voices.

In the Innovations gallery, ground-breaking WA advances such as the world’s biggest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array, are showcased.

WA Museum Wildlife Gallery

Among them are Coles’s favourites — 3D facial analysis work for rare diseases by WA Professor Gareth Baynam and the classical music breakthrough, the Smallman guitar, invented by Esperance’s Greg Smallman.

For lovers of traditional history, the Reflections gallery features defining WA moments and landmarks, such as the advent of the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the Old Swan Brewery.

In the Treasures gallery, Otto the blue whale makes a stunning return to public life after 17 years in storage.

The Changes gallery covers human interaction with the environment from the timber industry to whaling, fishing and more, while the Origins gallery captures the richness of the land, water and sky and includes an internationally significant meteorite collection.

The Connections gallery looks at WA’s place in the world with stories of Indian Ocean travel, migration, refugees and asylum seekers.

And the Wildlife gallery showcases stars of today’s natural world from numbats to trapdoor spiders, back in time to dinosaurs and mega fauna.

Not part of a gallery, but prominently displayed, a COVID-19 collection provides a snapshot of life in the coronavirus pandemic.

The Museum also features a new cafe and gift shop.

Coles says the new facility is for all West Australians.

“We’ve got the oldest continuous culture and certainly Australia’s most diverse population in terms of multiculturalism. We’ve got all these different experiences,” he says.

“These are stories we need to explore and investigate.

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