Home to the Future

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It is a building of glass and sunlight, of soaring angles and tumbling curves. But at the heart of the new Melbourne Museum, the aluminium-clad columns give way to trees and the shimmer of glass panels are replaced by a creek's surface. In this living exhibit, insects, snakes and eight species of birds will reside among 120 types of plants and trees enclosed by a louvered roof and fine mesh walls. It will also house technology, with an audio-visual system set into a tree trunk, data cabling and a sophisticated irrigation system. It is a rare mix of museum exhibit, botanic garden and zoo, and how it evolves, says the gallery's manager Luke Simpkin, "will be partly to do with us and partly to do with nature. It's a big experiment really."

It's just one way in which the $A290 million museum, which opened Oct. 21, plans to redefine such institutions as an interactive experience rather than a passive display. Around Australia museums are revamping, with a national museum set to open in Canberra next year. "It's a time of major expansion and enthusiasm," says Kevin Fewster, director of Sydney's Powerhouse Museum. And Melbourne is setting the pace. The largest museum complex in the southern hemisphere, it uses multi-media and technology in ways rarely tried before-such as interactive cinema-and has exhibitions driven by themes rather than the 12,000 objects on display. "Museums used to be like rear-vision mirrors," says Robin Hirst, director of programs, research and collections. "Now they have to be a window too; they have to look forward."

The building's sharply modern design suits its futuristic outlook. A 35 m-high cantilevered section-the Forest Gallery's roof-marks the museum's entry onto Melbourne's skyline. Designed by local architectural firm Denton Corker Marshall and set in the inner-city Carlton Gardens, the building is a dynamic playground of abstract shapes spread over six levels and held together visually by a giant steel matrix. Its location is just as striking: reflected in its glass is the Royal Exhibition Building -the domed landmark built in 1880 and initially a controversial choice as the new museum's neighbor. But the contrast, says architect John Denton, was deliberate: "We wanted them to be a pair-they're dissimilar twins-one from the end of the 19th century and one from the end of the 20th."

Inside the airy entrance space, blocks of primary color, angular lines and a golden timber wall of Australian sycamore-impressive but not imperious-set the tone. From the east-west running galleria, the exhibition spaces fall back in a provocative sequence: from the black walls and theatrical lighting of the Australia Gallery-home to Phar Lap-to the dramatic white curves of the Te Pasifika Gallery, where Pacific Island canoes are displayed as though surfing down the face of a wave. Denton says the intention was to avoid the problem of older-style museums which lock people away in monotonous, confusing spaces: "You move from intensity into light relief; you sample bits of the museum, go in and out, but come back to an orienting space." While a clearer verdict on how well the architecture and exhibits combine is some months off (five galleries, including the Forest Gallery, will open over the next six months), so far there has been little but praise for the design. "The architecture has been given more rein and the freedom to express itself," says Melbourne architect and RMIT University lecturer Norman Day. "It's become part of the experience."

It has also given the collection, squashed for a century into the old state museum, a chance to breathe. With 16,000 sq m of exhibition space, three times as much as its predecessor, many more of the museum's 16 million objects can now emerge from decades of storage. Items like the 12m-tall Canadian Haida totem pole in the museum's front window, not displayed in a century, will be scattered through the three permanent galleries unveiled last week: the Australia Gallery, Te Pasifika and the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Gallery. In the latter, now home to one of the country's most respected collections, one of only six possum skin cloaks in existence sits next to a 1970s Aboriginal hearse.

Such exhibits tell a bigger story than their own individual histories. Says head curator Michael Pickering: "We're trying to use the collection to address social issues." Through the use of audio shows, text and photographs, the gallery takes visitors beyond taxonomy and into indigenous issues of land and culture. "Some may find it distressing or read into it a political agenda," says Pickering, "but we have a story to tell." It's part of a stronger emphasis on themes, says programs director Hirst: "We won't have a room full of displays of rocks just for the sake of geology. Whatever rocks we use will be telling part of a story."

Shaping the stories will be director George MacDonald. Director for 16 years of Canada's Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, the anthropologist and archeologist is also a champion of technology in the complex, which he predicts will attract three million visitors each year-half of those to the museum itself. Its technological menu will include touch screens accessing the museum's database, an immersion reality theater-the first outside North America-with 186 computer terminals for interactive computer simulations, wandering performers and a streaming audio-video system. "I'm committed to outdoing theme parks at their own game of being significant attractors of people," says MacDonald, "but with the quality of content. We have an educational mission so there's no point in just entertaining people."

And for those who yearn for the museums of their childhood, MacDonald says there will still be glass cases of butterflies and other classic specimens. But it's clear the museum hopes to symbolically set them free. "Museums are not just attics of the past," MacDonald says. "They're more about creativity than they are about conservation and preservation-they have to be risk takers." With a new home and a new attitude, Melbourne Museum is its own biggest exhibition in progress.