Boola Bardip means “many stories” in the language of the people of Whadjuk Nyoongar. And Whadjuk Nyoongar is also the name of the piece of Aboriginal Australian land on which the recently reopened Western Australian Museum sits. The institution is near an ancient area of lakes and wetlands, which made it an important area for meeting, hunting and foraging.
The redevelopment has been inspired by stories of the land, sea, sky and people. A new building includes a welcome foyer, multi-purpose spaces for programming and events, plus retail and catering outlets.
There are eight new permanent galleries and a one kilometre square temporary exhibition space. Five existing buildings have also been revitalised – the Old Gaol (dating from 1855-56), the Jubilee building (1899), the Geologists’ building (1902), the Beaufort building (1908) and Hackett Hall (1913).
The museum has adopted a “people first” principle, with more than 50,000 Western Australians being engaged to develop content. Community panels will continue to have a say on the content and visitor experience and there is an ongoing state-wide engagement programme to collect personal stories, opinions and views.
The building opened to the public in November 2020, eight years after the Western Australian Government announced its commitment to build a new museum on the Francis Street site.
Trish McDonald, the museum project director, says the community response has been amazing, with more than 100,000 visitors through the doors in the first month.
What was it like opening the museum during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Trish McDonald: Rather than the large-scale event we had planned, we collaborated with Perth Festival to film music and dance performances in and around the museum to highlight the architectural features and showed these at the opening event, which was livestreamed for those unable to attend. To manage numbers, we ran a ballot for 50,000 free tickets to visit in the first nine days and received applications for more than 400,000 tickets, which gives an indication of how much people were looking forward to the opening.
What themes does the museum cover?
The Western Australian (WA) Museum is the state’s premier cultural organisation, housing WA’s scientific and cultural collection. In developing the content for the WA Museum Boola Bardip, we were guided by the museum’s mission to deal with three major themes – Being Western Australian: Celebrating the diversity of our people; Discovering Western Australia: Providing a gateway to our incredible state; and Exploring the World: Defining Western Australia’s place in the world. These themes are woven through the eight semi-permanent exhibitions.
What is the significance of the museum for Perth?
Great museums help make great cities. The strong contemporary architectural design with its integration of heritage buildings reflects how museums protect and showcase where we have come from, so we can examine where we are and where we are going.
The sense of pride in the design and content is palpable within the community, contributing to the city’s confidence as a cosmopolitan place to live, work, study and visit.
How did the pandemic affect finances?
The Western Australian Government funded the project and we are grateful that funding was maintained throughout the pandemic. The project helped many in the cultural sector impacted by Covid by providing work to local artisans, film-makers, software developers and other creatives.
What is the temporary exhibition programme like?
We have a large special exhibition space that can be divided into two, so we can show a wide variety of exhibitions. Because of the impact of the pandemic on travel and freight, we are negotiating the forward plan for the temporary exhibition programme.
Can you tell us about the permanent collection?
The collection is vast, with more than eight million specimens and artefacts that record the state’s natural and social history, and cultural heritage. Highlights include diamonds that formed before the Earth did, treasure chests of coins, cannons, weaponry and everyday items recovered from shipwrecks along the WA coast, and preserved Western Australia animals – from 4mm-long spiders to our 24m-long blue whale skeleton.
Can you tell us about the architecture of the building?
Hassell and OMA were inspired by the geology of Western Australia in designing the building. The levels of the new building are expressed like geological layers and the large covered outdoor “room” was inspired by geological formations such as Nature’s Window in Kalbarri. Internally, the architects conceived two intersecting visitor paths that connect all the exhibition spaces.
One of the major triumphs is the integration of the new building fabric with the heritage buildings. We now have incredible vistas of the heritage buildings including being able to look down through the roof of part of Hackett Hall into this magnificent space, and see the decorative ceiling close up, which you could only see from nine metres below previously.
Have the new strains of coronavirus impacted future planning?
Relatively speaking, we are very fortunate in Western Australia to have so far avoided the worst of the pandemic. But this doesn’t mean we have not felt its impacts, particularly on the exhibition programme, delivery of large-scale events and the development of tourism products. With few intrastate and international tourists we have concentrated on delivery of Covid-safe experiences that are attractive and relevant to Western Australians which, given the fantastic response we have had, seems to be working.
Chiara Wilkinson is a freelance writer