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Aerial view of National Museum of Australia with hot air balloons and Black Mountain in the background.

A guide to Canberra's must-see galleries and museums

Updated 26 Mar 2024

New perspectives

Home to some of Australia’s best art galleries and museums, Canberra has long been a destination for culture-hunters, drawn to its incredible cultural attractions, including The National Museum of Australia, National Portrait Gallery, and Canberra Glassworks. Don’t miss these museums and galleries – and some of the iconic works within.

Two women stand and look at a large painted portrait at the National Portrait Gallery | © Sean Davey
Image Sean Davey

National Portrait Gallery

Bree Pickering, director of the National Portrait Gallery , agrees. Portraiture can “joyfully open you up to a new position”, she says, because when viewing a work, “there’s a conversation happening and there are three points of view: the subject’s, the artist’s and yours”.

While many visitors come to the Gallery to learn the stories behind images of Hugh Jackman, Nick Cave, and other famous faces, she notes, “people tell us the memory they leave with is of someone they’d never heard of before”.

No visit to Canberra would be complete without a visit to the portrait gallery. This national attraction is home to hundreds of portraits of all mediums and holds the mission of telling Australian stories to increase understanding and appreciation of Australian people through the art of portraiture – their identity, history, culture, creativity and diversity.

Two people sitting on a bench with art in the background.

Canberra Museum and Gallery

A vibrant place in the heart of the city, the Canberra Museum and Gallery celebrates the region's social history and visual arts with dynamic exhibitions and unique programs and events.

Canberra Museum and Gallery is the home of The Foundation Collection of Sir Sidney Nolan's paintings, donated by the artist to the people of Australia in 1974. Upon seeing a news story of a woman living rough, Nolan quickly painted this work and exhibited it within days. “It has that current sense of feeling something and needing to say something –much like a social media post,” says Virginia Rigney, senior curator of visual art.

A conscript who went AWOL during World War II, Nolan saw himself in the outlaw stories he painted in his Ned Kelly series (1946-47). “He said: ‘This collection is as much about myself as it is Ned Kelly,’” notes Rigney.

On a visit to the museum, you get a fresh take on Canberra’s vibrant history. You can also get to know Sir Sidney Nolan before he was famous – back when he was a young man living under an assumed identity, absent without leave from the army and painting social outcasts with the speed of an Instagrammer. Who is it that’s wearing the mask in his Ned Kelly series: the bushranger or the artist himself?

Colourful glass art, vases and glasses on shelves.

Canberra Glassworks

The Hotshop at Kingston’s Canberra Glassworks helps visitors experience a 3500-year-old trade become fine art right before their eyes. “There are flames – the blast furnaces melt glass at 1270°C – and from those raw elements come exquisite works, which often end up in Canberra’s iconic national galleries,” says Aimee Frodsham, the Glassworks’ artistic director. “There’s a mesmerising fluidity to the way the artisans work; I think it’s a lot like watching ballroom dancing.”

Tours of the Glassworks’ early-1900s industrial building take you inside the workshop.

“You can see the artisans transforming liquid fire into unique tableware and amazing installations for artists such as Patricia Piccinini,” says Frodsham. You can also craft your own piece at one of the regular artist-led classes.

“We’re harnessing lightning and plasma unlike any other art form. Neon work is like bottling up the Northern Lights.”

 

Female couple holding hands in front of Indigenous artwork at the National Gallery of Australia | © CRUX

National Gallery of Australia

Canberra’s culture trail is full of surprises. Take the National Gallery of Australia, which pushes art out into the wild and artists out of their comfort zones. “The Sculpture Garden features a James Turrell skyspace, Tracey Emin… incredible artists,” notes the Gallery’s senior curator Simeran Maxwell. “The garden we have here is remarkable on an international level.” And it’s free.

Stretching across some 20 metres in the Gallery’s outdoor Sculpture Garden, seven gleaming, pivoting cones by Bert Flugelman reflect each other, the natural world that surrounds them and the viewer. And inside, Jackson Pollock’s iconic artwork Blue Poles hangs near Cool White, a compelling work by his wife, Lee Krasner.

“She was an incredible figure in post-war art and, in many ways, gave up her career to nurture his – a fairly common story,” says senior curator Simeran Maxwell.
“We always present a Krasner alongside Pollock.”

Artist Lindy Lee is gearing up to reveal Ouroboros, her first immersive public sculpture, in 2024. “Daytime or night-time, it’s going to pulse with light and energy,” she says.

Cover for the Annual Visitor Guide 2024 with a GoBoat on Lake Burley Griffin during sunset with Black Mountain in the background | © Lean Timms

As seen in the Annual Visitor Guide 2024

This article first appeared in the Visitor Guide 2024. Pick up your copy from the Canberra and Region Visitors Centre, read the digital guide online (for desktop) or download the guide (for mobile).

Find out what’s on (and what’s free) to help plan your trip to the capital this year.

Download the guide

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