Design shines at the new museum

11 November 2020

Ahead of the much-anticipated opening of the new WA Museum, Boola Bardip, Ara Jansen takes a peek behind the scenes to find out what it takes to design your experience as a visitor.

Nietzsche said the devil is in the details while Flaubert claimed it was God. In the case of the new WA Museum, Boola Bardip, the details are where the magic is.

When the museum reopens in the Perth Cultural Centre on November 21, it will be a culmination of millions of small design decisions which have come together in both the building and the objects now residing inside the galleries.

Consider the aspects of design which have gone into the whole. It might not be immediately clear on the surface, but incredible thought has gone into all the different aspects that make up each display, and how they are linked and work together to tell larger story in each gallery.

WA Museum’s much loved blue whale, Otto (c) WA Museum. Photo: Michael Haluwana, Aeroture

One example is Otto – the much-loved blue whale. The skeleton wasn’t just hung from a ceiling but suspended in a natural lunge-feeding pose, which is based on the latest research into its feeding habits. It’s also the first time in the world a blue whale skeleton has been displayed in such a dynamic pose. The design consideration which went into this makes the viewing experience even more thrilling.

“The whole idea behind the design is that it needs to be easy to use, intellectually and physically easy to use,” says Trish McDonald, the new Museum project director.

‘Great design is making something memorable and meaningful.’ Pictured is a crystal portal in the Origins gallery. Photo: Courtesy of the WA Museum

“I love the quote from German designer Dieter Rams: ‘Good design is making something intelligible and memorable. Great design is making something memorable and meaningful.’ That’s what we’ve tried to do with the building design and the exhibitions in it.”

The project has seen the formation of an international joint venture, Hassell + OMA, who are responsible for the design and architecture of the new museum. One of the project challenges was making old and new work together. At Boola Bardip, new structures have been wrapped around meticulously restored heritage buildings, like the gold mesh structure cantilevered over the original Hackett Hall building.

Principal with Hassell, Peter Dean says the quirkiness in the project is the mix of old and new components, stone and brick in the heritage buildings and the silver, brass and large expanses of glass in the new.

“The surprise element of the project for me is how it sits in its context,” says Dean. “On one side it’s a hugely impressive physically dominating building and on the other side it has this homely domestic feel from the heritage buildings.

“That transition between the two scales and personalities is extraordinarily rich, internally and externally. Tying it all together is a complex landscape which tells a whole heap of rich stories.”

The building has entries on all sides across a city block-sized space. Dean says that makes it accessible and comfortable whilst still being a space where you can be challenged. Within the comfort of the museum space, you can hear local and global stories at the same time, creating an amazing duality.

In terms of the exhibitions, Trish McDonald says it was a case of showcasing objects authentically so they are accessible to visitors but safe. It took a huge amount of preparation to create exhibitions with that balance, which she says is a hallmark of excellent exhibition design.

Boola Bardip has eight permanent galleries and each tells a story, like our unique biodiversity in “Wild Life”, stories of the solar system and beginnings of life on earth in “Origins” or “Innovations”, which explores imagination in ingenuity.

View into the Wild Life gallery, showing the curved ply railings that draw visitors into the space. Photo courtesy of the WA Museum

“It’s not just pinning things on a board,” she says. “It’s about layering objects and creating interesting juxtapositions as well as interesting ways to suspend items. For a vast array of objects, we had to create and make new metal mounts.”

And sometimes it’s about practicalities.

These range from working out how to mount a 700kg meteorite on a curved wall in a gallery to how to make the most of a small bottle, continues McDonald. “We had to figure out how to collect them all together, so people can get close enough to really see them,” she says. “It’s like there’s a mini exhibition inside each show case.”

The goal was to give each gallery its own personality while still reflecting bigger themes and messages. In “Wild Life”, curved ply railings which run vertically and horizontally draw you from one of the numerous entrances into the centre of the gallery.

“The structure delineates different thematic areas and it’s a beautiful piece of design which looks fantastic and references both a forest of trees and the bones of a skeleton,” says McDonald. “I love that it has that magic combination of form and function.”

WA Museum Boola Bardip opens on November 21 for those with a ticket from the ballot. General entry commences November 30. Entry is free for the next 18 months.

Pictured top: A view of Boola Bardip, showing the blend of old and new buildings. Photo: Michael Haluwana, Aeroture

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Author —
Ara Jansen

Ara Jansen is a freelance journalist. Words, bright colour, books, music, art, fountain pens, good conversation, interesting people and languages make her deeply happy. A longtime music journalist and critic, she’s the former music editor of The West Australian. Being in the pool next to the playground is one of her favourite places, ever.

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