Our History

Aerial view of the Australian National Maritime Museum under construction

The Australian National Maritime Museum being built at Darling Harbour, Sydney.

  • About


    The Australian National Maritime Museum was planned and built more than 20 years ago as part of the massive Darling Harbour and Pyrmont redevelopment. The museum was the site’s showpiece and remains the Australian government’s most visible national cultural institution in Sydney.

    The Site's First Traditional Owners

    Opened in 1991, the Australian National Maritime Museum occupies an outstanding harbour-side site close to the centre of Sydney – Australia's oldest city and for a long time the nation's busiest port. It stands on land traditionally owned by the Gadigal people who found a rich source of fish and shellfish in the sheltered waters of Darling Harbour and Cockle Bay. Indigenous culture is explored in our core exhibition Eora First People.

    A Hub of Commerce

    Darling Harbour, close to the site of the first British settlement at Sydney Cove, soon became the cradle of the colony's maritime commerce. Later, this inner-city branch of Sydney Harbour served as the industrial and cargo transport hub of New South Wales. Here cargo ships from local ports and across the world docked and departed, immigrants arrived in streams of thousands to start a new life in a new land and waterside workers - wharfies - became engaged in a struggle against work conditions and practices they found increasingly oppressive

    Darling Harbour's importance as a transport hub accelerated through the 19th century as NSW's railways reached out into regional areas, drawing more and more primary produce into the capital for shipment out across the seas. Large tracts of land, particularly on the western side of the waterway (where the museum now stands) were given over to railway lines and sidings, storage sheds and workshops.

    And then came a period of extraordinary change. With the introduction of new cargo handling technologies, particularly containerisation, Darling Harbour's port activities started to move away from the city centre to Botany Bay and other places. By the 1980s Darling Harbour was almost redundant as an industrial centre and transport interchange. It would soon pass through a remarkable transformation – to become a relaxed and welcoming harbour-side recreation and tourist district.

  • The Vision

    The Vision

    Australians have always had close links with the sea. In 1975 a museums inquiry commissioned by the Australian Government recommended that '...priority be given to a national maritime museum in Sydney'. In 1984 an ambitious Darling Harbour redevelopment program was unveiled. The museum would stand adjacent to the historic 1903 Pyrmont Bridge, now a pedestrian link to the city.

    Prominent Australian architect Philip Cox AO designed the museum building and construction started in 1986. Prime Minister Bob Hawke opened the Australian National Maritime Museum on 29 November 1991. US President George Bush, with Australia's new Prime Minister Paul Keating, dedicated the museum's USA Gallery on 1 January 1992. HM Queen Elizabeth visited the museum in February 1992.

    Building the National Maritime Collection

    Well before work started on the main building museum staff, in temporary offices, were starting to assemble the new National Maritime Collection and planning the initial core exhibitions. The distinctive collection took shape over five years through purchases, gifts and transfers from other Commonwealth collections.

    The Royal Australian Navy presented two vessels: Daring Class destroyer Vampire and Attack Class patrol boat Advance. Historic yachts came as bicentennial gifts from New Zealand and Norway. A maritime historian donated his private library – the foundation of our research library which began serving the public and staff from 1986. It would later be named the Vaughan Evans Library in honour of its benefactor.

    The museum struck out in a new direction when it received, again as a bicentennial gift, a generous grant from the Congress of the United States of America. Funding went to the establishment of the museum's innovative USA Gallery and its exhibitions that illuminate the maritime links, past and present, between Australia and America. The grant also funds research into this shared maritime history and the development of the USA Gallery collection. Here we show exhibitions that illuminate the maritime cultural connections between our two countries.

  • The Building of Our Popular Fleet

    The Building of Our Popular Fleet

    At opening in 1991, we had 12 vessels on the water ranging in size from the vast 120-metre Daring class destroyer HMAS Vampire to the 8.6-metre open fishing boat Thistle. The fleet, now numbering 14 and rich in its diversity, includes a pearling lugger, a WWII commando boat, a coastal lightship, two historic yachts and a Vietnamese refugee boat.

    The two vessels added since opening are the former Royal Australian Navy submarine HMAS Onslow (in 1999) and the magnificent Australian-built replica of Captain Cook's famous HMB Endeavour (in 2005).

    Another significant acquisition was Blackmores First Lady, the yacht in which Australian solo sailor Kay Cottee made her record-breaking circumnavigation of the globe in 1987-88. This 11.2-metre yacht is open for inspection as part of the Watermarks exhibition in the museum's main building.