Best National and Local Museums in Canberra

The nation’s capital city is also its cultural and political heart. The parliamentary triangle is a treasure trove of national museums and galleries. But there are also quirky local museums hidden amongst the national memorials, collections, and celebrations of Australian history. Here are the 19 Best National and Local Museums in Canberra, how to get to them, and where to stay when in Canberra.

1. National Gallery of Australia

The National Gallery’s Brutalist style might not be everyone’s idea of beauty (I love it!), but with over 166,000 works inside, you’re sure to find something you like.

The National Gallery’s collection runs the gamut from traditional Indigenous art right up to the most contemporary works from across the world.

My favorite part of the National Gallery is its large Sculpture Garden on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. Read Discover Canberra’s Hidden Sculpture Garden

2. Australian War Memorial

Spanning over fourteen hectares, the Australian War Memorial is dedicated to commemorating those who have fought and died in the service of Australia.

Though centered on the domed chapel known as the Hall of Memory and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Memorial also includes a gallery, museum, and research center.

3. National Museum of Australia

Eclectic and entirely asymmetrical, the National Museum of Australia does not look like one might expect.

That said Australia’s social history is neither simple nor elegant either, and so the Museum’s form follows its substance: dedicating itself to exploring the complexities of Australia’s social history, from Burke and Wills to Azaria Chamberlain.

The outside spaces and water garden connect Australian modern history to the continuity of thousands of years of indigenous custodianship of the country. It’s a sophisticated and fun space.

4. National Portrait Gallery

Formerly housed in Old Parliament House, the National Portrait Gallery is now contained in a smart new contemporary building with its own shop, café, and theatre for lectures and presentations.

The collection comprises a wide range of both photographic and illustrative portraits, from the Fathers of Federations to the stars of modern Australian music.

5. Canberra Museum and Gallery

There are a lot of museums and a lot of galleries in Canberra, but only the Canberra Museum and Gallery, situated right in the middle of the city, gives us the convenience of both.

The facility spreads out a number of different exhibitions across two separate floors, skilfully combining the artistic with the historical.

6. National Dinosaur Museum

Despite being one of the most popular attractions in the ACT, the National Dinosaur Museum is not nearly as well known as other sites on this list.

Situated just outside of Canberra in the Gold Creek Village, the Museum showcases fossils along with displays of replicas and a live animatronics show.

It had fallen into decline but has had a new renovation and has expanded indoor and outdoor exhibits.

7. Canberra Glassworks

There are few substances that have been more useful to humans than glass, and Canberra Glassworks is a place that celebrates that fact.

Located in the old Kingston Powerhouse, the Glassworks contains a wide variety of handmade glass pieces and includes a glass-making studio that is the largest of its kind in Australia.

8. Museum of Australian Democracy

Old Parliament House was the seat of the Australian Parliament from 1927 until the opening of the current Parliament House in 1988. This simple Stripped Classical building now acts as the home of the Museum of Australian Democracy (MOAD).

Styling itself as “a living museum” it houses a collection of artifacts as well as a number of rotating exhibitions.

Make sure to check out the Press Gallery and the offices of staffers left as if they had just rushed out of the building 50 years ago!

9. National Film and Sound Archive

Housed in a preserved Art Deco/Stripped Classical building that was once home to the Australian Institute of Anatomy, the National Film and Sound Archive contains some of Australia’s most important pieces of media heritage.

Make sure to check out, The Story of the Kelly Gang, the world’s first feature film. There’s also a lovely covered verandah, courtyard garden, and cafe.

10. National Capital Exhibition

Canberra isn’t any ordinary city. Unlike say Sydney or Melbourne, the nation’s capital was planned and largely constructed after Federation, and the National Capital Exhibition tells this story.

The permanent exhibition includes a scale model of the city, interactive displays that show how Canberra has changed over time, according to or contradicting the original plan.

An outdoor cafe under mature shade trees overlooks the lake and gets a breeze on even the hottest Canberra summer days!

11. Questacon (National Science and Technology Centre)

Canberra’s National Science and Technology Centre, better known as Questacon, is a crowd favorite, frequented by Australian schoolchildren for decades.

Questacon contains hundreds of interactive exhibits from the subdued and introspective to the very hands-on, all designed to inspire children to explore the fields of science.

My kids spent many happy hours in the imaginative play area and as they got older, loved the earthquakes and lightning strikes!

12. St. John’s Schoolhouse Museum

Built next to the lovely St. John the Baptist Anglican Church, St. John’s Schoolhouse is the oldest school in Canberra. It began life in 1845. This in fact makes it one of the very oldest things in Canberra!

The Schoolhouse Museum now allows visitors to go back in time to the very early days of colonial schooling, with a variety of artifacts as well as faithful historical mock-ups of old classrooms.

13. Canberra Railway Museum

Right next to Canberra Railway Station is (quite fittingly) the Canberra Railway Museum.

A mecca for Australian trainspotters, the museum has made its way through hard times to display the likes of Z1210 (one of the oldest mainline locomotives in the world) and 6029 (the most powerful steam locomotive in Australia.

There are only 20 volunteers and at the moment the museum is only open Sundays, but they have big plans to increase the renovation of stock, the number of exhibits, and their opening days and hours.

14. CSIRO Discovery Centre

From Wi-Fi to the insect repellent, Aerogard, Australia’s CSIRO has been a world leader in science for around a century. But CSIRO scientists don’t just tinker away in the lab, they’re keen on communicating scientific discoveries to the next generation.

The Discovery Centre was founded for just that purpose, showcasing programs for students of all ages.

15. Drill Hall Gallery

Located within the grounds of the Australian National University, the Drill Hall Gallery was initially built to train soldiers for WWII.

As of today, it serves as a heritage-listed art gallery showing both local and international contemporary art in four separate exhibition spaces.

16. Canberra Fire Museum

Surrounded by bushland, Canberra has (like much of the country) always been highly susceptible to fires.

Open only on Saturdays, the Canberra Fire Museum (of the Fire Brigade Historical Society) tells the story of Australia’s long-running and difficult relationship with this most destructive of elements.

Most popular of all, it also displays a number of historic firefighting vehicles.

17. Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex

Twenty kilometers out of Canberra at sleepy Tidbinbilla is the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex.

Playing a vital role in the 1969 lunar landing, this satellite communication station is partially open to visitors, offering a number of exhibitions and programs about Australia’s astronomical history.

18. Royal Australian Mint

Although coins are falling increasingly out of style in our cashless economy, the Royal Australian Mint in Canberra still churns them out, having produced over fifteen billion of them since its founding in 1965.

Apart from its daily work, the Mint also offers free public tours of the facility along with exhibitions and permanent displays.

19. National Bonsai and Penjing Collection

Somewhere in between a museum and a botanical garden, the National Bonsai and Penjing Collection is a miniature patch of paradise within Canberra’s National Arboretum.

This section of the Arboretum consists of around 120 individual exhibits, with workshops and programs also on offer for those keen to learn more about this ancient art.

Map of Canberra Museums

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