National Museum of Australia

The National Museum of Australia is one of ARM’s most inventive, daring and controversial buildings.

ARM and Robert Peck von Hartel Trethowan architects jointly won an international competition in 1997 to design it. The Museum wraps around 11 hectares on the Acton Peninsula on Lake Burley Griffin, opposite Romaldo Giurgola’s Parliament House.

There are two big architectural ideas that guide the building’s shape: the Boolean string, which embodies our views on Australian history as tangled and incomplete, and the jigsaw puzzle, which signifies that the Museum is conceptually unfinished. It is a work in progress towards the articulation of the Australian experience that evolves over time.

What does Boolean mean?

In ARM’s work, the word Boolean describes strings, ropes, snakes, threads, cuts, recesses, joints and knots. Boolean maths (named after English philosopher and mathematician George Boole) allows our architects to work with objects that are wholly, or partly, imaginary.

NMA’s Boolean string is mostly imaginary: it coils and folds and tangles in three dimensions around the site but is corporeal at a few important points in the structure such as the knot that forms the Main Hall’s ceiling and the huge forecourt loop. Our Hamer Hall redevelopment is similar: its curves are sections of a giant rainbow serpent.

Each of the jigsaw-puzzle pieces has a different stylised appearance and construction type. Together, the pieces form an incomplete circle around the central Garden of Australian Dreams.

The Main Hall, three levels of galleries, staff offices and shops look inward to the Garden and outward to the lake, our Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, the National Library and other major cultural institutions.

External and internal walls have giant Braille signs like goosebumps. The signs spell out phrases, some colloquial, some suggestive: “Sorry, mate”, “She’ll be right”, “Time will tell”, “Who is my neighbour?” and “God knows”. You can’t physically feel these words but they do evoke emotion.

“I like the idea that a building isn’t really an animistic thing. It enables people to reflect their own ideas and stories.”

—Howard Raggatt

The Main Hall, its form generated by a pentagonal Boolean string, is shaped like a giant knot seen from the inside. The knot represents the tangle of stories that bind Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Outside, an unraveling 30-metre loop, an extension of the Boolean string, lands on a thick red footpath that points to Uluru.

Main Hall

Garden of Australian Dreams

Cycle bling: in 2016 we added the world’s most glamorous bike shed. It has a folded Mirotone finish that reflects the distinctive Canberra bushland. Staff bikes only.

Ongoing work

The National Museum of Australia is an ongoing client of ARM. Museums need regular calibration to respond to contemporary public expectations and technologies, and to offer something different to regular visitors.

In 2013, we completed a new café and a new workplace wing for NMA’s expanded staff numbers. The workplace wing is a new puzzle piece that slots neatly in between existing ones; the café is a pentagonal tube—the end of the Boolean string sticking out of the building.

In 2017, we revised the NMA masterplan, with new projects to be realised by 2030. The new forecourt landscape is the first completed one. In progress are the Life in Australia Gallery and the Children’s Discovery Centre.


Explore the virtual tour of NMA from NMA and Google downunder.