Our Museum: History and Vision

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.

  • Exhibitions


    Popular Exhibitions

    The main museum building has 3700 square metres of exhibition space. Our core exhibitions consider maritime aspects of Indigenous culture, European exploration, immigration, sport and leisure, defence and Australia's maritime links with the USA.

    The museum's first special temporary exhibition told the story of the Japanese midget submarine attack on Sydney Harbour in World War II. Since then we have explored a huge range of subjects, including:

    • Pirates!
    • What about Women? Our place in Maritime History
    • Secrets of the Sea – Myth, Lore & Legend
    • Greek Australians and the Sea
    • Lamalera – Whale Hunters of Indonesia
    • Tears, Fears & Cheers – Migration to Australia 1788-1998 (Multicultural Marketing Award winner, 1999)
    • Smugglers – Customs & Contraband 1901-2001 (for Centenary of Federation celebrations in 2001, with a special version touring the country)
    • Charles Darwin – Voyages and ideas that shook the world
    • Exposed – the story of swimwear
    • On their own – Britain’s child migrants
    • Fish in Australian art
    • East of India – forgotten trade with Australia

    Major International Exhibitions

    The museum imports major overseas exhibitions, often touring them around Australia as well as displaying them at Darling Harbour. These have included major productions like Mary Rose - Life and Death on Henry VIII's Lost Warship (Mary Rose Trust, UK) and Ocean Planet (Smithsonian Institution, USA). Les Génies de la Mer - Masterpieces of French Naval Sculpture (Musée National de la Marine, France), with its direct physical links to Louis XIV, Marie-Antoinette and Napoleon, drew record attendances. Scott’s last expedition, developed by the Natural History Museum, London, the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch NZ and the Antarctic Heritage Trust NZ, reunited rare scientific specimens with real artefacts used by Scott on his tragic last expedition. More recently Vikings – Beyond the legend from the Swedish History Museum was the biggest collection of Viking artefacts ever to be exhibited in Australia.

    The museum was the first major Australian museum to tour international shows outside capital cities with our imported exhibitions travelling from Newcastle to Warrnambool and Fremantle.

  • 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.

  • Visiting Vessels Program

    Visiting Vessels Program

    The museum's visiting vessels program has brought some popular attractions to Darling Harbour. The largest in scale and impact was the Netherlands-built replica of the 17th century Dutch East India Company flagship Batavia. The original Batavia was wrecked on Houtman Abrolhos, off the coast of Western Australia, in 1629. The Australia Netherlands Chamber of Commerce brought the superb replica to the museum in 2000 for Sydney's Olympic Games year.

    Other spectacular visiting vessels have included the Australian-built replica of Duyfken, the first known European ship to visit Australia, a Soviet Foxtrot submarine and a replica Viking ship.

  • A Vibrant Ongoing Calendar of Events

    A Vibrant Ongoing Calendar of Events

    The museum offers a diverse range of programs and activities for people of all ages. In 1996 we held the first Classic & Wooden Boat Festival in conjunction with the Wooden Boat Association. This continues to be a popular weekend-long festival. The museum's annual events program includes educational workshops and activities connected to major exhibitions and Sydney festivals, rooftop projections and other diverse entertainment. See Events & Activities

  • Ongoing Improvements

    Ongoing Improvements

    The Cape Bowling Green Lighthouse from North Queensland was reassembled on the north-east corner of the site and opened in 1994. With promenade decking from the front of the museum to Pyrmont Bay ferry wharf, the museum created its Welcome Wall along its northern boundary in 1999. Over 25,000 migrant names are recorded on this feature.

    Also in 1999 we opened the Wharf 7 Maritime Heritage Centre next door to the main building. This three-storey structure houses collections, laboratories, workshops and the Vaughan Evans Library. That year we opened the Peter Doyle Learning Centre for school groups, workshops and community use.

    New facilities including fleet workshops and staff amenities were added to the South Wharf in 2000 and new berths were created with the installation of the new Festival Pontoon and Heritage Pontoon. In 2011 we redeveloped our Eating and drinking and venue spaces, adding the Ben Lexcen Terrace and the Waterside Studio.

    The Next Steps

    When the museum opened it was on the northern fringe of the Darling Harbour retail and leisure precinct. Behind it lay the quiet inner-Sydney suburb Pyrmont with its defunct railway lines, wharves and industries.

    Reinvented for the 21st century, Pyrmont has become a vibrant residential, restaurant and entertainment district. The museum now stands at the centre of a public transport hub. Buses and ferries provide a service to Circular Quay.

    Plans are now underway to redevelop the museum for the next 25 years. The first stage in the new masterplan is the addition of a new Warships Pavilion to be built adjacent to HMAS Vampire and HMAS Onslow. The pavilion is expected to open in late 2015. Future plans also include a new Discovery Centre, Endeavour Centre and the redevelopment of the museum’s core exhibitions.

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