Many people think of Adelaide itself as dated, boring and a bit of a museum. It hardly any wonder then that the main museum there – the South Australian Museum is a “museum of a museum”. While museums world wide are being jazzed up and turned into interactive and politically correct experiences this museum is like entering a time-warp – a museum straight out of the sixties were stuffed animals and locked (though not dusty) display cabinets crammed with artefacts prevail. That said, it has used a more contemporary approach in a few areas – such as the exhibition on the Australian Antarctic explorer Sir Douglas Mawson which is appropriately supported by real artefacts of interest.
You are probably thinking that I don’t like the place. Far from it, I love it.
There is nothing worse than museums, generally those with nothing worth displaying, filling the place with pictures, models, sound tracks, things you touch and feel (which never work) and such like. The South Australian Museum is not like this.
While the museum, a natural history museum, is physically not that big it has a large, eclectic and pretty much unrelated and sometimes surprising collection displayed in five main viewing areas. Exhibits are reasonably labelled though perhaps some visitors will feel the labels lack sufficient detail.
The museum collections
Australian Aboriginal Cultures Gallery – The museum’s largest display covering two floors. This quite reasonable display, in addition to the usual selection of didgeridoos, boomerangs, shields, baskets, bark paintings, and fishing gear includes the very interesting Yuendumu School Doors.
The doors represent one of the earliest examples of Aboriginal artists successfully transferring their ancient ground paintings to a large-scale modern medium. The collection also includes the Wyrie Swamp Boomerang – the world’s oldest known (10,000 years) wooden boomerang recovered, perfectly preserved, from a peat bog in 1973.
Pacific Cultures Gallery – this section was opened in 1895 and in terms of display cabinets and layout it probably hasn’t changed much since. I particularly like this section with hundreds of spears, clubs, bows and arrows, masks, shields, ritual objects and much more packed into antique wooden bookcase look alike display cabinets and flat display cases with faded hand written labels abounding. The Museum acknowledges that the Pacific Gallery is being preserved as an example of 19th century museum display, essentially visual storage. It is the largest collection of Pacific artefacts in Australia and second only to one in New Zealand in the southern Hemisphere. The exhibits have been sourced from Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Zealand and New Caledonia.
Egyptian Gallery – rather a surprise to find this in what is essentially a provincial museum. This is a small collection of very interesting but second rate Egyptian artefacts tucked away in a back corner room with no apparent connection with Australia or anything else in the museum. It’s probably there because it has always been there – which it has! While very worthwhile viewing there is no need for the British Museum to get worried by the South Australian competition, just yet!
‘In the Footsteps of Sir Douglas Mawson’ – a special exhibition devoted to the Australian Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson – the first person to undertake a scientific exploration of Antarctica. This exhibit is made more interesting by the inclusion of quite a few of Mawson’s personal items, including his sled, boots, sleeping bag, tools, balaclavas and rocks collected on expedition.
Minerals, fossils and meteoroids– a very respectable collection. I especially liked the mineral/rock collection most of which has been collected in Australia (and again displayed in more traditional style showcases).
Stuffed animals (elephant, monkeys, birds, fish and so much more) – a sight to behold and one that’s becoming as extinct as some of the exhibits. The selection, located in a few places in the museum, is getting a bit old and ragged looking and possibly not to everyone’s liking – I find it quirky and at the same time rather tacky.
Look carefully at the lion as you enter the lower level display – is it still alive? Animal related, I present a challenge – can you find the Museum’s poo display? Send me a photo if you do.
Notwithstanding the time warped impression created by the museum the museum café (recommended) certainly experiments and seeks to be modern. While the food is well priced and well cooked and presented some of the ingredient and sauce combinations presented on the lunch menu just do not work – the basil sauce around my plate did not work with the salsa sauce. Off course, the basil concoction may have been decoration and I committed the faux pas in eating it. Perhaps the creations of the chef would be better placed in the modern art section of neighbouring Art Gallery of South Australia
Allow a couple of hours.
Museum opening hours : Every day except Christmas Day and Good Friday, 10am-5pm.
Admission : General collection free.
Address: North Terrace