The National Museum of Australia (NMA)


Buildings are known to communicate and convey meanings to the public. Architects have managed to capture such meanings through their designs (Whyte 2006). This research paper analyses the way in which the ‘meaning’ of the building is explicitly and implicitly conveyed by using the National Museum of Australia as an example.

The National Museum of Australia (NMA)

The National Museum of Australia (NMA) is one of the most memorable, complex in design and magnificent structures in Australia. Architects, Ashton McDougall and Robert Peck worked on the NMA. It is located on an eleven-hectare site in Canberra, Australia’s national capital, in Acton Peninsula at the edge of Lake Burley Griffin. The idea of NMA came from an International Design Competition in 1997.

NMA is a post-modern building that shows different collections of history and culture. It does not take the root of traditional museum. According to Baudrillard, some elements are normally lost over time in representations (Baudrillard 1984). The outstanding feature in the NMA is the huge loop at the main entrance on the Uluru line. Ostwald observed that architectural theory emanates from various concepts and disciplines (Ostwald 1999), but with an approach that is normally implicit and not explicit.

The NMA building has houses of 6600 square metres. These are mainly individual spaces, and exhibition space, which form jigsaw puzzle and a semicircle at Acton. There is widespread and extensive use of colour both inside and outside. The building has “varied and vibrant colours, such as orange, gold, crimson, black, bronze, and brushed silver” (NMA 2014). NMA has a smooth texture consisting of “anodised aluminium panels that cover most of the walls, and smooth concrete surface” (NMA 2014). There is an artistic work of Braille words forming raised and sunken holes.

A broad view of NMA.
Fig 1: A broad view of NMA.

The entrance has a huge Hall. The Hall bears a wide “inlet for light and a great open space of curving walls, ceilings, and windows” (NMA 2014). People see the Hall as a large rope and note that it acts like a knot that joins Australia as a country, joining them together in history, and in their stories. After the Hall, there are three levels of exhibition spaces and designs. Colour is significant here in reflecting Australian stories.

The NMA has historical and cultural references. The NMA has varied National Historical Collection of Australia’s history as its main attraction. There are other collections too. The NMA holds this treasure of a diverse collection in trust for the country. Historically and culturally, the NMA research works, collections and representations concentrate on three inter-related fields. The first one explores the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, enduring Indigenous attachment to country and contributions to Australian society. The second focuses on the Australian history and society since 1788, which focuses on the history of settlement in Australia and the development of the nation’s political, social and economic life since British colonisation of the continent. Finally, there is people’s interaction with the Australian environment (NMA 2014).

This studies the relationships between people and their places, the evolution of Australian landscapes and reactions to environmental challenges. The above three areas closely “relate to each other, and a number of NMA collections relate to more than one field” (NMA 2014). The National Historical Collection of Australia has “one of the world’s largest collections of barks paintings and the collection of the former Australian Institute of Anatomy, including the racehorse Phar Lap’s heart” (NMA 2014). A part from these, NMA also has different collections of “historical vehicles, politics and politicians’ materials, collections of convict tokens, and mass collection of Aboriginal breastplates” (NMA 2014). In this context, Hays noted that in the current social formation extreme “cultural-aesthetic region and a set of aesthetic practices have spread their weight and their influence over all others” (Hays 1995).

The NMA also has a dynamic collection of other attractions. However, by any international standards, NMA collections do not match some of the leading world museums. It mainly consists of “collections donations, objects from other government’s agencies, and some acquired through purchases” (NMA 2014). Macarthur notes that the NMA development relies on “the reports of Pigott of 1975 and that of National Museum of Australia Act 1980” (Macarthur 2001). The NMA also creates and keeps important archival, academic, and educational collections. These collections are essential in the provision of extra information and historical studies for the NMA collection.

It is necessary to highlight that there are certain features and use of the selected material, such as steel, which have influenced the design, the building form, the structural assembly, component parts and the building’s construction processes. These works of steels are not only the beauty of the NMA, but also pointers to a complex and diverse geometrical works by which the constructors imagined the famous axes of the NMA, which lay out as joined and knotted on the site. NMA design exploits the use of steel to create spiral staircase. Steel provides varieties of designs that are also durable. Steel also enabled the constructors to customise their looks in terms of height, handrails, diameter, and balusters to meet the design needs of NMA. They also blend well with any kind of preferred colour coating.

The NMA designers clad steel materials in areas such as walls, canopies, columns windows, lifts, staircases, panels, and NMA facades using different steel materials and a choice of finishes. Some NMA metal cladding applications include “the satin finish stainless steel, and anodised aluminium panels, which create magnificent walls and windows in NMA” (NMA 2014). Some of the striking features of the metal cladding are “the spherical wedge and curved panels forming the interface between vertical and horizontal elements of the building” (Macdonald 2000).

The use of steel influenced some of the structural features that needed stainless steel. The designers created some of the striking designs in NMA. These features include customised themes of stainless steel staircases, tapered bars, balustrades elements of handrails and stanchions, curves of elevations, and different painted steel frames, which create outstanding period effects.

In roofing, steel materials play significant roles in the rods that hold the NMA building. The steel rods hold the structure together and make it safe for visitors and users because of their structural support. There are also striking steel features on the building façade, which are open on the exterior walls to keep the design intent visible and influence the history and cultural experiences of the Australians.

The steel structure and other features reflect the designers design intent. They played a significant role in determining the design of the ground floor lobby, Halls and other interior features. The most of the building features are steels including the columns that consist of steel cladding. This is not common in most museums. The steels cover both the interior and exterior of the building as a deliberate attempt to cover the preferred architectural features.

The decision to incorporate in the work has enhanced the architectural intent of the building. The strength from steel reflects aesthetic and strength, which show history of Australia.

Steel is strong, flexible and durable building material. It has influenced both engineering and architectural designs and intent throughout steel structures. Steel is also recyclable and can withstand extreme environmental conditions. Steel has influenced architectural intent in NMA building aesthetically. It shows beauty, history, and culture. The exposed and shining features of different colours show elegance and lightness (Macdonald 2000). Macdonald observed that engineers and architects work together to achieve visual quality and technical elegance in buildings (MacDonald 2000).

The elegance of the coated steel itself was important in the design. The painted steel columns and walls on the outside and in the lobby are the basic components of the NMA building that are significant to the material itself. Steel, therefore, is one of the crucial and integral parts of expressing architectural intent.

 Lobby: Steel Aesthetic & architectural intent.
Fig 2: Lobby: Steel Aesthetic & architectural intent.

Structural steel is among the most used materials in most landmark buildings. However, most designers choose to bury them in the concrete, walls, columns and building façade and hide their elegance. However, designers of the NMA building decided to expose steel structures in the building and cover them with different coats to enhance the design intent and building aesthetics.

The use of steel also presents challenges to engineers. For instance, the NMA building has a high visibility of steel structures and features, which is a problem in achieving such desired designer’s intent. Thus, managing the architectural intent and designers can present serious challenges in implementation of the design. Steel played a significant role in achieving the designers’ intent of architectural invention of its kind, a collection of cultural allusions, visual spins, and architectural symbolism of history.

The NMA building shows a high level of scrutiny and consciousness of details in size, proportion, connection and joinery of the steel structures particularly around the rope knot that signifies the unity of Australians in one country. These ideas had to meet the intent of different designers, architectures, and other stakeholders. The ability to sculpt steel and create pieces of art in a building cannot yield concrete result with inflexible approaches.

Steel works well alongside other materials. In addition, it has both the strength and flexibility that is necessary in creating shapes, forms and sizes to fit desired architectural expressions. These qualities make the steel suitable for designing air and light inlets across the walls.

The beauty enhanced by steel presented serious challenges to the design and engineering groups. For instance, the NMA building had to conform to the international and national safety and occupancy requirements. In most cases, steel building must be fireproof, meeting this requirement and maintaining aesthetic beauty is a serious challenge. Thus, painting on the exterior had to meet safety requirements and maintain aesthetic beauty.

The steel structure developed parts of large and small steel columns and beams stretching from the building basement and supporting the vertical and horizontal weight, which increases as the building becomes large. The architectures did not fix the steel structures as they were available with their standard measurements, but rather the architectural and design teams took the reduction in size and manipulated it so that the plate sizes drop off in a controlled and planned manner that helped create the building’s feature of strength, lightness and beauty.

Steel beam structures and strength of the structure.
Fig 3: Steel beam structures and strength of the structure.

The oval steel thread is not only the symbol of the NMA building, but also an indicator to a complex and thorough work of geometrical designs by which the architects created the knots that show the relationship of Australians in a single country. One can compare the NMA’s geometry to the baroque architectural designs. It is highly stylish with the aim of creating a meaning to viewers (Macarthur 2001).

The looping effect does not cross and pull the building together. Instead, it enlarges the NMA building to point the edges of the surrounding water as the area planning and design intent required.

The design procedures also allowed some elements of arts and history to influence the museum in presenting the history of Australia as woven and joined together. The architectures’ idea of symbolism found its place well incorporated in the NMA building ideology. The two axes represent strings and a forced five-sided creation that visitors cannot easily see but separate the building into different parts.

We must understand that the NMA building is on remarkable due to application of the latest computer technology (Davies 1988). This allowed the teams to design, perform sheet and material cutting, and carry out survey. Still, the building “geometry is not clear to any layman, and it is difficult and almost impossible to understand it even with the design diagrams” (Macarthur 2001). Thus, such building’s geometry remains hard to understand and always open to misconceptions in interpretation.

One can compare the NMA building geometry and architectural intent to that of S. Ivo della Sapienza of Rome designed by Borromini. Borromini applied a feature of “a six-pointed star both to create the structural design of the segmented roof and to stimulate the symbol of wisdom” (Macarthur 2001). Conversely, the geometrical features do not conform to the building elements that it has created. The star is behind the veil, which clearly differentiates life and time experience from the complete and unchanged world of symbols. Some academics have shown that Borromini wanted to represent “a five-sided figure as the sign of Christ represented in His five wounds, and if one thinks, with the baroque, that interpretation is infinite, then the string which makes up the NMA can be the Redeemer as well as Griffin’s axes” (Macarthur 2001).


Modern buildings also communicate and have meaning just like Gothic and Renaissance constructions. This research paper highlights how contemporary architects have used sophisticated designs to reflect ideas in buildings. The NMA is a large building that captures Australia’s history, values and shows that Australians are united people in a single country. It reflects architects’ intentions, which are filled with cultural, historical, visual puns and architectural motifs. The NMA architectural design offers a simple, elegant and well-considered approach of capturing meanings and communicating to the public. It is elaborate and reflects Baroque architectural designs that were highly ornamented and flamboyant in styles.

Reference List

Baudrillard, J 1984, ‘Precession of Simulacra’, in B Wallis (ed), Art after modernism: rethinking representation, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, pp. 253-281.

Davies, C 1988, High Tech Engineer, Thomas and Hudson, London.

Hays, K M 1995, ‘Architecture Theory, Media, and the Question of Audience’, Assemblage, no. 27, pp. 41-46.

Macarthur, J 2001, ‘Australian Baroque: Geometry and Meaning of the National Museum of Australia’, Architecture Australia, vol. 4, pp. 1-5.

MacDonald, A 2000, The engineer’s contribution to contemporary architecture: Anthony Hunt, Thomas Telford Publishing, London.

NMA 2014, National Museum of Australia, Web.

Ostwald, M 1999, ‘Architectural Theory Formation Through Appropriation’, Architectural Theory Review, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 52-70. Web.

Whyte, W 2006, ‘How Do Buildings Mean? Some Issues of Interpretation in the History of Architecture’, History and Theory, vol. 45, no. 2, pp. 153-177.