14 ‘must see’ Museum shows in 2021

From dinosaurs and ancient Egypt to Aboriginal Songlines, Australian museums this year will deliver a diverse and energised suite of exhibitions to welcome visitors back to the wonderment of shared stories.

Museums are places where curiosity is nurtured. For many of us, our first encounter with a dinosaur skeleton or that of a breeching whale, Aboriginal storytelling or an iconic sarcophagus of Ancient Egypt is the trigger to a path of wonderment and knowledge about our world and who we are.

Here, we take a look at some of the exhibitions, presented nationally by Australia’s leading museums, that will inspire all ages in 2021.

Remember that entry is often restricted to timed ticketing even when programs are free. Please plan your trip carefully in order to remain COVID-safe.

1. Tyrannosaurs – Meet the Family, at Australian Museum (NSW)

The Australian Museum (AM) has opened its all-new 1,000sqm touring exhibition hall with an update of its acclaimed exhibition, Tyrannosaurs – Meet the Family – the first exhibition in the world to present the full ancestral tree of the tyrannosaur family.

It returns home after completing a five-year tour across North America and the United Kingdom. The exhibition (pictured top) provides a snapshot of dinosaur life and shows how some species in this group became the world’s top predators with their massive skulls, powerful jaws and bone-crunching teeth.

Australian Museum Director and CEO, Kim McKay AO, said ‘The sheer number of specimens and latest discoveries, which have not been seen before in Australia, is what sets this exhibition apart.’ It’s a great one for kids.

Open now, until 14 March 2021. This is a ticketed exhibition.

Installation view, Object/Art/Specimen at Chau Chak Wing Museum. Image supplied.

2. Object/Art/Specimen, at Chau Chak Wing Museum (NSW)

Described as ‘Pop Art meets Ancient Egypt’, this introductory exhibition shows the benefits of bringing together three collections – the Nicholson, Macleay and Art collections at Sydney’s newest museum, the Chau Chak Wing Museum at the University of Sydney.

In Object/Art/Specimen, visitors will find a thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) positioned in front of modernist industrial artwork; West Papuan bags displayed alongside pottery vessels from 1550BC Jordan; and iconic pop art hung behind an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus.

The exhibition demonstrates how bringing diverse collections together helps the museum rewrite the way we explore the world. It can, for instance, show Australia’s largest collection of ancient Egyptian art, not in isolation but within the context of Australia, the Pacific, and beyond.

The Chau Chak Wing Museum is home to objects of art, natural history, ethnography, science and antiquity.

Object/Art/Specimen is on now, until late 2022. Free entry.

Panathenaic amphora, Athens, Greece, 333-332 BC. Copyright The Trustees British Museum, 2019. All rights reserved.

3. Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes at National Museum of Australia (ACT)

At the end of 2021, the highly anticipated Ancient Greeks exhibition will come to the Australasian region for the first time, as part of a partnership between the British Museum, the National Museum of Australia, the Western Australian Museum and the Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Featuring some 170 objects which explore the theme of competition through sports, politics, drama, music and warfare, Ancient Greeks will open in New Zealand before appearing at the National Museum in December, the exhibition’s only east coast Australian venue. The exhibition will then move to Western Australia where it will delight west coast audiences.

National Museum of Australia director, Dr Mathew Trinca  said exhibition visitors ‘will be mesmerised by the stories of competition in the ancient Greek world and by the beautiful depictions of athletes, the ceramics, sculptures, armour and jewellery featured in the show.’

17 December 2021 – 1 May 2022. This will be a ticketed exhibition.

Artists from Tjanpi Desert Weavers let their tjanpi sisters fly, Papulankutja, Western Australia, 2015. Image credit: Annieka Skinner, Tjanpi Desert Weavers

4. Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, at Western Australian Museum (WA)

Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters is the opening exhibition for WA Museum Boola Bardip. Compelling in scale and complexity, it conveys an Aboriginal founding narrative by using Aboriginal ways of passing on knowledge through the story of the Seven Sisters.

Rich with Aboriginal voices and tangible expressions of the songlines, the exhibition features paintings, sculptures, ceramics and state-of-the-art multimedia. These artworks are portals to the deserts of the Martu, the Ngaanyatjarra and the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara peoples.

Developed by the National Museum of Australia, Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters features the world’s highest resolution six-metre-wide travelling dome under which visitors are immersed in images of Seven Sisters rock art from the remote Cave Hill site in South Australia, as well as animated artworks and the transit of the Orion constellation and the Pleiades star cluster. 

On now until 26 April.

Mirka Mora, Family gathering in the dream park (detail), 2008 oil on canvas. Courtesy William Mora Galleries. Copyright The Estate of Mirka Mora

5. MIRKA, at Jewish Museum of Australia (VIC)

The Jewish Museum of Australia, in partnership with William Mora Galleries and supported by Heide Museum of Modern Art, will present MIRKA – an intimate, previously unseen view into the rich and fascinating life of the late Mirka Mora (1928–2018).

A story of survival and migration, interspersed with a generous dose of family, art, food and love, Mirka Mora’s history is a profoundly affecting post-Holocaust Australian Jewish tale which, until now, has not been presented with such depth and scope.

Launching in February, MIRKA will transform the Museum into an immersive ‘Mirka-world’ reflecting the artist’s trademark mischievousness and bohemian spirit, and sharing her powerful story in vivid detail, through letters, sketchbooks, diaries and recorded interviews.

Featuring more than 200 never-exhibited works from the private collections of the Mora family and Mirka’s studio and archives, MIRKA will offer the most comprehensive picture of the artist’s life and 70-year-long career.

Opening 14 February – 19 December 2021.

Yayoi Kusama, Narcissus garden (detail), 1966/2002. Gift of the artist, Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. © Yayoi Kusama. Photo: Natasha Harth, QAGOMA

6. Narcissus Garden at Museum of Sydney and Vaucluse House  (NSW)

Celebrating the theme Reflections on Identity, Sydney Living Museums and NSW State Archives have announced that Narcissus garden (2002), a contemporary artwork by world-renowned Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama, can be viewed at two significant historic sites.  

Narcissus garden is an installation of a carpet of mirrored balls that not only reflect one another but also the viewer, creating an infinitely recurring web in which the surrounding visible world is trapped and perpetuated. Displayed at two properties – Museum of Sydney and Vaucluse House – Narcissus garden disrupts its surroundings and provides a unique opportunity for visitors to see the work and reflect on the impact of the places and people that shaped the colonial experience in New South Wales. Sydney Living Museums’ members will have the opportunity to view the work at a secret third location. This exhibition is on loan from QAGOMA.

At Museum of Sydney, 20 February – 18 April, and Vaucluse House 24 April – 23 May.

Discover Sea Monsters at Queensland Museum. Photo Kate Pentecost. Courtesy of ANMM.

7. Sea Monsters, at Queensland Museum (QLD)

While dinosaurs may have once ruled the land, giant marine reptiles hunted the depths of the sea in the prehistoric past. The Sea Monsters exhibition brings together real fossils from millions of years ago and gigantic replicas including a 13-metre long Elasmosaur and 9-metre long Prognathodon, alongside hands-on interactives, including a 180-degree immersive video that puts you right inside the action.

What can their fossilised bones tell us about how they lived? How do they compare to today’s top ocean predators? Discover the secrets of these monsters of the deep in this new exhibition that will delight all ages.

Featuring research from Queensland Museum scientists that focuses on these ancient reptiles and spans the globe including Queensland, Norway, and beyond.

On now, until 3 May 2021

Alick Tipoti, Danagi Waaru, 2015. Fibreglass, resin, ghost net, paint. ANMM Collection. Image supplied courtesy the artist.

8. Mariw Minaral Spiritual Patterns at SEA, Australian National Maritime Museum (NSW)

Alick Tipoti is a renowned visual and performance artist, community leader, linguist and regional advocate from Badu in Zenadth Kes (Torres Strait). He is one of the nation’s finest artists and the exhibition, Mariw Minaral showcases a selection of his award-winning work across a range of mediums.

The Australian National Maritime Museum is fortunate to have established a strong collection of his work and, with some additional pieces from the artist himself, this exhibition illustrates the broad talents of this exceptional artist.

Tipoti says: ‘My art is all about telling and illustrating the stories my father told to me. The one thing I will never do is let my forefathers’ words be lost.’

Audiences will experience the exhibition as a cultural journey and appreciate the importance of Tipoti’s practice and our First Peoples intrinsic connection to land, sea and sky.

On now until 31 January 2022. 

Immigration Museum, Becoming You: An incomplete guide. Image courtesy Museums Victoria.

9. Becoming You: An incomplete guide at Immigration Museum (VIC)

Becoming You: An incomplete guide explores the surprising, real-life coming-of-age stories of 72 well-known and everyday Australians. These personal experiences traverse landscapes of time, gender, orientation, culture, age, and distance, reflecting the Immigration Museum’s commitment to celebrating our shared humanity.

From first kisses to pushing the boundaries, the relatable real-life stories are presented in unexpected and captivating environments, covering it all: the good, the bad, the embarrassing, the triumphant, the monumental and the seemingly mundane. Amongst the more well-known identities are the surprising, delightful and moving stories of everyday people reflecting the diversity of contemporary Australian society.  Step through environments, experience the stories in unexpected and delightful ways and wonder: does the process of becoming an adult ever really end?

On now, until December 2021.

10.  Ink in the Lines at Australian War Memorial (ACT)

Many members and veterans of the Australian Defence Forces have tattoos, and while their reasons for getting tattooed are as varied as the people themselves, self-expression and belonging play a part. They also share a common purpose in getting inked: to remember. Inscribed on skin are their identities as veterans, the commemoration of loss, experiences of trauma and overcoming adversity, the bonds of family and friends, and acknowledging the experiences that make us who we are.

Read: Exhibition Review: Ink in the Lines

Ink in the Lines has been a very popular exhibition since opening in late September last year and is accompanied by an interactive online exhibition, diving into the history of tattoos within the Australian Defence Forces. The online interactive experience allows veterans to contribute to the exhibition alongside podcasts, videos and articles.

On until May 2021

11. Ancient Rome at Museum of Tropical Queensland, Townsville (QLD)

Journey back in time to Ancient Rome with this family-friendly interactive exhibition showcasing incredible art, machines, and technology. 

Ancient Rome: The Empire that Shaped the World brings to life one of the most technologically significant times in the history of mankind. The exhibition covers an epic period of history, from the triumphant victory of Julius Caesar over the Gauls in 52 BC, to the transformation of Rome from a Republic into the mighty Roman Empire.

Few pieces of ancient Roman technology have survived over thousands of years. Instead, they have now been reconstructed using the same materials and techniques by the artisans of Florence. Highlights of the exhibition include artefacts, models, catapults, frescoes, armour, weapons, busts and much more.  Re-live history and discover the life, culture, determination and genius that carved the great Roman Empire.

Opens 22 May.

Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing Butterfly. Image courtsy The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

12. Treasures of the Natural World at Melbourne Museum (Vic)

Treasures of the Natural World, a one-of-a-kind exhibition that brings together the best of London’s Natural History Museum’s collection, comes to Australia for the first time. Visitors to Melbourne Museum will experience remarkable objects up close and learn how they changed the way we understand the world.

More than 200 specimens from the Natural History Museum’s immense collections show the marvels of our natural world. From the unique or extremely rare to the mysterious and astonishing, each and every one of these invaluable objects have been carefully selected for its historical importance and its contribution to science. Many of the items on display inspired scientific discoveries that changed how we understand life on Earth and provide insights into some of the world’s greatest scientific minds.

Showing from 25 June 2021 – 30 January 2022

Installation view, The Storytellers at Museum of Brisbane. © Toby Scott.

13. The Storytellers at Museum of Brisbane (QLD)

Ever wondered what it would be like to spend a night in Boggo Road Gaol, what Kangaroo Point has to do with kangaroos, or what went on at your Nan’s place during the Second World War? Step into The Storytellers and uncover the hidden histories, myths and tales of Brisbane as told by the city’s contemporary writers.

Featuring new stories by Victoria Carless, Simon Cleary, Matthew Condon, Trent Dalton, Nick Earls, Benjamin Law, Hugh Lunn, Kate Morton and Ellen van Neerven, The Storytellers creates an immersive and interactive experience combining historical objects, augmented reality, artworks, and written and narrated histories to share Brisbane’s many identities.

On now, until December 2021. Free

Image supplied.

14. Hobart Current: Liberty at Tasmanian Museum and Gallery (TAS)

Who chooses freedom for whom, in what space and during what time? Rosie Dennis, Creative Director of Hobart Current, has selected ten contemporary artists to help find the answer.

The works commissioned for Liberty offer personal and vulnerable perspectives on the theme, challenging notions of agency and representation, surveillance and exile. Throughout 2020, four of the Liberty artists led intensive education programs with Tasmanian high school students who researched and created their own projects on the theme.

Tasmanian artists Sinsa Mansell, Brigita Ozolins, James Newitt, Jacob Leary, Dexter Rosengrave and Nadege Philippe-Janon feature in this collection, which also spans interstate and international talent including Uncle Wes Marne, Suryo Herlambang, Jagath Dheerasekara and Sarah Jane Pell creating new works in the mediums of film, installation, performance and visual art.

Hobart Current is a major biennial program presented in partnership between the City of Hobart and Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, with Liberty its inaugural exhibition. It be on show at TMAG and within the Hobart CBD and is presented as part of Ten Days on the Island 2021.

Opening 12 March – 9 May 2021

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina