At the main entrance of the National Gallery of Australia stands an installation piece that often leaves foreign dignitaries gasping, Australians standing proud, and everyone else in thoughtful reflection. Two hundred hollow log coffins make up The Aboriginal Memorial, which represents the lives lost during European occupation from 1788 to 1988. This piece was gifted to the Australian government during the bicentennial celebrations in 1988 and stood on Sydney Harbour in silent observance as ships sailed in in the reenactment of the First Fleet arriving.
The fact that this symbol of silent protest was not only accepted by the Australian government, but proudly given prime position at the ingress of the gallery, surprises the nationals of many less open-minded countries, while giving locals reason to feel blessed with the right to freedom of speech. This is just one of over 7500 pieces comprising the largest collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artwork in the world!
It would be easy to pass an entire day at the gallery, or even weeks – which seems just the right way to digest the incredible treasury of works. We observe school groups and study groups, social groups and individuals making their way around the space both on their own and with guides. We’re fortunate to be given a VIP tour by one of the gallery’s volunteers, Jan. Having lived in various locations overseas for over three decades, Jan has an extensive knowledge of not only the Australian collection of works, but the significance of overseas artists too.
Memories of high school art class came flooding back with the viewing of the entire Ned Kelly series by Sidney Nolan, images of isolation by Russell Drysdale and the vivid post war reflections of Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker. Keeping up with the times, the National Gallery of Australia regularly changes works on display and hangs according to theme – and with over 450 000 pieces in their hold, this is no light undertaking!
Significant displays of work from Asia, both historical and contemporary make up a large section of the exhibits. As with the most powerful of art, many pieces make controversial statements about life, society and institutions – some of which would not be allowed in the country of origin. Of course ‘controversial’ sounds exciting and I can’t resist a quick whiz through this section even though our schedule in Canberra is packed and time for the visit limited.
Europe, the Americas and Pacific are represented too, with Jackson Pollock’s ‘Blue Poles’ a highlight. Purchased by the Whitlam government in the 70’s, supporters saw it as a sign of progressiveness, while opposition claimed it an opulent waste of finances. Either way the story surrounding the piece is well worth reading up on – or do as we did and get the low down in a guided tour.
Available for viewing at any time of day is the outdoor sculpture garden. Occupying the landscaped areas surrounding the museum and rolling down to the edges of Lake Burley Griffin, it’s a beautiful place for a stroll and is complemented by native plants. There are currently 26 sculptures on display.
Entry to the National Gallery of Australia is free and is open from 10am to 5pm daily, except for Christmas Day. It’s well worth the visit.
National Gallery of Australia
Parkes, ACT 2600
+61 2 6240 6411