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History On The Loose No glass cases here: Australia's lively new National Museum presents objects not as icons but as foci for multilayered views of the past

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A ribbon of red runs through the new National Museum of Australia. Inside, you can trace it in The Crimson Thread of Kinship, a specially commissioned 12-m tapestry that tells the story of the country's federation. Outside, in the Garden of Australian Dreams, it continues in "The Uluru Line," a red carpet that points from Canberra's nearby Parliament House to the continent's ancient center. Then, high above the building, it swoops in sculptural freeform, like some computer-generated rainbow serpent. For the museum's architect, Howard Raggatt, the red ribbon is a symbol of a nation's destiny untangling in a new millennium. "The story of Australia is a great work in progress," says Raggatt, "not a finished or conclusive event."

This week the finishing touches will be applied to the $A157 million NMA: the multimedia installations will be debugged, the mustard-colored lounges slid into place, the espresso machines plugged in. For the March 11 opening, an Arnhem Land sand sculpture will be "sung" into being, completing a chain of events that started with Sir Henry Parkes' calls for a national museum over a century ago and began in earnest with the first turning of earth in February 1999. But what's likely to first strike viewers as they enter the galleries, circle the revolving cinema and set off images and sounds of Aboriginal dancers in the Welcome Hall is the sense of a history moving towards the future, not trapped in the past. Says Nicole Ma, producer of the museum's multi-media displays: "It's for the 21st century."

But how to make sense of the past? A 1975 government report called for a museum that could tell the stories of Australian society since 1788; people's relationship with the land; and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. That left a conundrum once the Howard government committed itself to the project in 1996. "If you're looking at national identity and the national story," explains museum director Dawn Casey, "whose stories do you tell? Who do you include, who do you exclude?" Casting the net wide, the museum consulted historians Geoffrey Bolton, Graeme Davison and Kay Saunders, archaeologist John Mulvaney, and a range of other academics, writers and filmmakers. Their brief: "To cover history as it unfolds." Meanwhile, Melbourne architects Ashton Raggatt McDougall set about creating "spaces that were both flexible and yet quite particular."

What they've come up with is a museum in motion, small in scale (5,300 sq. m of floor space compared to 15,500 sq. m in Wellington's Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand) but big in ideas, supple and sexy. Snaking around Acton Peninsula on Lake Burley Griffin, the six connecting pavilions unfold organically, presenting Australian history by theme rather than chronologically. Skin-colored walls help bring the five key exhibits to life: "Tangled Destinies" looks at land and people; "Eternity" presents personal stories through categories of emotion (the black lace dress of "dingo baby" Azaria Chamberlain, for instance, comes under "Mystery"); "Nation" plays with icons; the "Gallery of First Australians" (GFA) presents Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture; "Horizons" takes note of the country's more recent arrivals.

At the NMA, little remains static: a 6-m interactive map of Australia dissolves into rainfall patterns and explorers' trails at the touch of the fingers; a spinning billboard explains Australian slang; and a broadcast center will allow the NMA to become a forum for debate. It's the museum as cd-rom, where images, sounds and objects jostle for attention.

Most radical is the NMA's move away from objects to the stories behind them. For director Casey, it's a reaction against the more traditional museums she encountered on her travels through Europe. "If you go to the British Museum, they've got the Elgin Marbles but how they've presented them hasn't changed in the last 100 years," Casey says. "As you walk around our museum, we have changed how you tell those stories." At the NMA, objects are held up for debate as much as deification. In "Nation," a cenotaph is underpinned by documents showing how the Anzac myth was constructed, reconstructed and then contested. "I hope this won't be one of those quiet, respectful places," says "Nation" curator Guy Hansen, "but more a place where Australians can have a discussion about their cultural history."

Facilitating this is the new museum drug, multimedia. Digital effects can "elicit emotional responses from audiences that graphics or objects can't," says producer Ma. Nowhere is this better shown than in the gallery of First Australians. Beyond the welcome area, an 11-panel moving picture frieze with binaural sound shows indigenous soldiers, supermarket-goers and skaters at work, breaking down stereotypes in sensurround. In between, ceremonial objects are freed from their usual anthropological cases. A fish trap from Maningrida, in Arnhem Land, sits alongside creator Frank Gurrmanamana's video account of the Wangarr story it symbolizes. "We refer to our collection as stories that you'll see on the videos, as anecdotal records and songs and ephemeral, non-tangible culture-not just objects," says GFA director Margot Neale.

In the spaces below, weighty subjects such as 19th century massacres, the removal of children, deaths in custody and reconcil-iation are aired with a diversity of viewpoints and a lightness of touch missing from the new Melbourne Museum. Here the gates of the Bomaderry Children's Home near Nowra, New South Wales, where many part-Aboriginal children were raised, speak more eloquently than would one curator's proposed sorry writ large. "If our job is to inform and reflect on what's happened and what's happening, then we have to find a way of doing it that isn't alienating," says Neale.

The beauty of the indigenous cultural display, which comprises two-thirds of the museum's 170,000 items, should do the rest. Backlit to show the adaptability of Aboriginal culture, a wall of Kimberley spearheads made from recycled glass and telegraph-pole insulators can't help but appear elegant and poetic. The world's most significant collection of bark paintings, much of which will be displayed in the open collections area, highlights a northern Australian art form uniquely of and about the land. The GFA's biggest revelation is the Torres Strait Islander space, entered through a neon-lit variation of the traditional dari dance headdress. Housed here for the next 12 months will be the Haddon Collection from Cambridge. These exquisite shell and feathered artefacts, gathered when the first missionaries arrived in Torres Strait in the late 19th century, reveal a fragile culture on the brink of change. Nearby, a contemporary outrigger canoe from Saibai Island stands as a robust symbol of islander identity navigating its way into the future.

Outside is the Garden of Australian Dreams, where visitors may need a Ph.D. to decipher the elaborate cartography (a map of Australia is overlaid with painted tribal boundaries, a dingo fence, even the 1494 Papal Line that divided the world between Spain and Portugal). More obvious is a droll Australian sense of humor at play in the Mexican wave of trees and copse of bright blue poles (get it?). Mixing brains with burlesque, the garden is not unlike Raggatt's building itself. Already likened by Federal Arts Minister Peter McGauran to "an Outback shearing shed," this post-modern circus of anodized metal achieves something rare for an Australian public building: it serves its serious purpose with humor and, most of all, retains its mystery.

Where museums can often be solemn monuments to nationhood, the NMA is an open book. Inscribed on its lakeside fašade are enigmatic messages in Braille and copperplate fragments of the word eternity (with which a Sydney eccentric once chalked that city's pavements). Raggatt hopes the building is "something you can read ideas into," and that in years to come Australians will be able to project their own experiences onto it. Come this Sunday, that dream will begin to take shape. In the exhibit "Your Story," visitors are invited to record their oral histories on video, which will later be projected on a gallery wall. A century after federation, Australia is ready for its closeup.