In the vernacular: On the Architecture of the National Museum of Australia

University of Queensland Press
Publication Type:
Journal Article
JAS, Australia's Public Intellectual Forum, 2002, 72 (NA), pp. 121 - 129
Issue Date:
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The recently completed National Museum of Australia (NMA) in Canberra, designed by architects Ashton Raggatt McDougall, has polarised the architectural community in Australia. While much of the critical comment centres on its apparent contravention of standards of propriety in civic architecture, this article examines the building's playful and obtuse character in light of its supposed `populism'. The NMA's avowedly `anti-monumental' building has been widely read as being `populist'. In examining the veracity of such claims, this article finds instead that there is an aesthetic of populism which exists quite independently of actual popularity, or even a relationship with popular culture. The NMA presents and problematises the question of populism in formal architectural terms. This strategy is particularly significant, and controversial, in a museum charged with the weighty task of representing `the nation', given that `popularity' has implications at every level of the museum apparatus. Drawing from a background in architectural theory and criticism, but crossing the disciplines of museology and cultural studies, this article speculates on how this building manifests broader issues in the history and theory of museums. It examines the politics of the popular in museums, architecture and the NMA as a specific work of museum architecture.
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