Looking to broaden your perspective on life, history, culture and art? Tasmania’s museums offer a variety that can certainly take the mind for a spin. Take a physical and mental wander around four of Hobart’s most interesting museums.
Mona, Museum of Old an New Art
The first morning ferry heading up river is full, so there must be something to it. Our destination, the Museum of Old and New Art, now universally known as Mona, is Australia’s largest private museum. Founded by philanthropist and collector David Walsh, it has made a dramatic impression since its opening in 2011.
Often discussed are the confronting exhibits, focusing on death and overt sexuality (ask at the desk how to avoid those if necessary) but Mona is much more than that.
The architecture for a start is unlike conventional museums. Its three display levels are underground, cut into the side of a sandstone cliff, the sheer wall of which seems an artwork in itself. Down the spiral staircase we go. Start at the bottom and work upward.
The O, a how-to-learn-about-the-art device, is an iPhone-sized companion with GPS that checks where the visitor is standing and offers in-depth explanations about the art. All under the refreshingly irreverent tab “art wank.”
Mona’s own evolving exhibition, Monanism, features such varied offerings as Sidney Nolan’s Snake, a vast mural inspired by the Australian desert and its indigenous inhabitants, and Erwin Wurm’s sculpture Fat Car, a comment on 21st century consumer indulgence.
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery
Somewhat more traditional, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) sees itself as the keeper of the state’s cultural identity. Situated near Hobart’s waterfront, the museum building itself is part of that history with some galleries housed in colonial bond stores.
One such is the permanent exhibition “Our land: parrawa, parrawa! Go away!” This focuses on the impact of colonisation on the aboriginal population in the Black War. Contemporary accounts show stark perspectives.
There’s the now-shocking editorial in the Colonial Times of 1826: “The government must remove the natives – if not, they will be hunted down like wild beasts.” The indigenous people shouted, “Parrawa, parrawa! Go away you white buggers. What business have you here?”
Not the only ones to be persecuted, there’s an entire room devoted to the extinct Tasmanian tiger or thylacine. Another display contrasts specimens of animals native to Tasmania, from the Tasmanian Devil to Cape Barren Geese, with introduced species not only featuring the pig, fox and cat but perhaps surprisingly the lyrebird, which was released here in 1934 to save it from foxes in Victoria.
Permanent displays range from the art and design of colonial times to the power of change, featuring social, environmental and political protest, and the significance of Hobart to the Antarctic expeditions.
Apart from instruments, log books, stuffed albatross and the like the exhibit Islands to Ice lets the visitor touch one piece of ice and see another from a 200m-deep core sample taken from under Lake Dome, with trapped air bubbles from before the Industrial Revolution.
Maritime Museum of Tasmania
The companionway is that feature on deck through which a captain descends to his cabin. I had never imagined I’d be looking at the one used by novelist Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, who from 1888-89 captained the barque Otago. The vessel was later scrapped in Tasmania in the ships’ graveyard now known as Otago Bay.
The Maritime Museum of Tasmania, located near the dock area, narrates the state’s history on water from aboriginal canoes to Able Tasman’s sighting of the island in 1642, naming it Van Diemen’s Land, and on to the present day.
Among the obligatory scale models of ships is an intricate one of Tasman’s flagship the Heemskerck, which was manned by 60 crew and carried trade goods and provisions for 18 months.
Museum artefacts include a ship’s compass, the bell from the 20th century motor vessel the Rhexenor, a signalling search light with a 12 inch reflector and 1000 watt lamp and the wheel from the SS Victory.
Seafarers often believed that figureheads of women at the bow were the eyes of the ship, guiding her to safety. Here on the wall are figureheads from the Zephyr and Mary Wadley. Sadly, the hopeful superstition did not hold up for either trading vessel, the former being wrecked on Maria Island in 1913 and the latter lost at Garden Island Creek in 1901.
There’s even a piece of the Petrel on display, ship-wrecked in 1853 but not washed up until 2006.
Modern displays cover whaling, the navy and ferries.
Mawson’s Huts Replica Museum
Deep in Antarctica at Cape Denison stand the original huts erected by the expeditionary group from Australia led by Dr Douglas Mawson during 1911-14. The conservation of these huts, buffeted by harsh winds and subjected to encroaching ice, is the aim of the not-for-profit Mawson’s Huts Foundation.
While the foundation cannot easily take us to Antarctica, Hobart’s newest tourist attraction offers an insight into what life in the huts was like.
The Mawson’s Huts Replica Museum opened on 2 Dec 2013, the 102nd anniversary of the departure from Hobart of Mawson’s expedition.
It is built to the same structure and with wood from the same mill in Finland as the hut in Antarctica. The so-called Main Hut is actually two buildings combined into one.
The one with the pyramid-shaped roof provided sleeping, kitchen, dining, laundry, storage and darkroom facilities for 18 men, all in a building only 7.3 metres square.
The smaller adjoining hut was equipped as a workshop, with wireless equipment, generator, lathe, stove and benches for the carpenter, mechanic and scientists.
Two Greenland sled dogs, a credit to their taxidermist, provide a warm greeting for the visitor at the entry. In Antarctica the workshop’s eastern verandah housed the sled dogs.
Standing inside the building, looking at the bunks laid out just as they would have been in 1911-14, one is amazed at how so many men could co-exist in such a small space. Maybe the gramophone player helped. Yes it’s a replica of course.
Getting out of Hobart – museums with a difference
Australasian Golf Museum at Bothwell in central Tasmania. See golf clubs and balls that illustrate the history of the game. The village is the site of the nation’s first golf course, the Ratho Golf Links.
Eaglehawk Neck Historic Site at the isthmus of that name on the way to the Tasman Peninsula features the Officers’ Quarters building erected in 1832, which is now a museum. Learn about the infamous “dog line” that deterred escapees from Port Arthur.
Launceston Tramway Museum uses film, audio and a ride on a restored tram to take visitors back to when Tasmania’s second city let commuters ride the rails.
National Automobile Museum of Tasmania, situated in Launceston. It features four themed displays each year and cars and motorcycles that have become legends.
Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, is located on two sites in Launceston, the 1870s era railway workshop at Inveresk and the 1891 Royal Park Art Gallery building on Wellington Street. Collections cover visual arts, history and natural and physical sciences.
Woolmers Estate at Longford in the north of Tasmania, while not strictly a museum, is one of the World Heritage listed convict sites. Visitors can take guided tours of the homestead and experience the rich colonial and convict history of the estate and its various buildings.
Burce Holmes was a guest of Tourism Tasmania