Beat the heat and holiday boredom at Canberra’s national treasures

Ian Bushnell 10 January 2020
The National Gallery of Australia

The National Gallery of Australia. Photos: Jack Mohr.

It’s hot. I mean bakingly, searingly hot. Air con is somebody else’s luxury and the Christmas shutdown has you stuck at home pining for the cool climes of the office.

Besides withdrawing to the bathroom tiles, heading to the cinema for Frozen 2 or loitering in the none-too reliable aircon of shopping malls, where else do you go to get away from that fearsome sun?

Fortunately, the national capital has a range of big, cool and (most importantly) free boxes full of interesting things, depending on your bent, and all within a short distance of each other.

Seasoned summer ‘capitalists’ know where I’m heading here.

The national cultural institutions are Canberra’s treasures and while most of them have ticketed exhibitions, they’re free to get in the door and offer plenty of other free activities to keep you, the family or visitors occupied.

So here’s the menu and check the websites for what’s ticketed and what’s free:

National Gallery of Australia

The ticketed summer blockbuster Matisse & Picasso tells the story of the artistic relationship between two of Europe’s greatest 20th-century artists and features more than 60 paintings and sculptures, as well as drawings, prints and costumes. This is a story of friendship and rivalry.

The free option at the NGA is also spectacular and celebrates the legacy of Australian artist Hugh Ramsay (1877–1906), whose portrait paintings achieved success here and in France before his untimely death at the age of 28.

Two girls in white

Hugh Ramsay: Two girls in white 1904 also known as The sisters. Oil on canvas on hardboard. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Photo: Ray Woodbury, AGNSW.

National Portrait Gallery

Eye to Eye presents a summer collection remix arranged by degree of eye contact, exploring artists’ and subjects’ choices around the direction of the gaze.

The Look features striking photographic portraits of contemporary figures from the National Portrait Gallery collection.


Born or Built? looks at how the line between humans and technology is blurring. It examines the similarities and differences between humans and machines, explores our overlapping shared future, and questions the choices we will make to get there.

The Moon marks the 50th Anniversary of the moon landing and celebrates the work of the mathematicians, engineers and scientists that achieved what many thought was impossible.

(Be aware, though, Questacon charges entry fees.)

National Library of Australia

It’s Story Time at the NLA with a compelling exhibition of Australian children’s literature.

There are tours daily during the school holidays from 2 January to 31 January 2020.

The Catch reveals the diversity of fishing practices across the years, documenting the natural bounty of Australia’s fisheries, as well as some of the challenges of managing them sustainably.

Drawing on material from the National Library’s collections, this exhibition travels through time, examining fishing techniques from diverse communities. Learn how fishing helped families survive the Great Depression, see the 1930s posters that spawned a new tourism industry and understand why fishing hooks us in and keeps us coming back.

National Library

It’s Story Time at the National Library of Australia.

Museum of Australian Democracy (Old Parliament House)

Behind the Lines 2019: The year’s best political cartoons is framed by the world of rock music, and under the theme song of The Greatest Hits Tour, the exhibition allows visitors to hit rewind on the most significant political moments of the year through political cartoons.

Truth, Power and a Free Press begins a conversation about media and the issues affecting our democracy.

Behind the Lines

Cartoonists of the year Jon Kudelka’s Greatest Hits Tour-inspired Behind the Lines. Image: Supplied.

National Archives of Australia

Time travel by exploring government records about military service, immigration, First Australians and much more.

But if you’re after a more structured experience, Spy: Espionage in Australia is running until April 2020.

Spy: Espionage in Australia reveals the personal experiences of secret agents and the curious history of espionage and counter-espionage in Australia, from Federation through to the present day.

See genuine spy equipment, surveillance images and candid interviews with ASIO officers. Play the part of a secret agent in the interactive family trail. Test your skills at codebreaking and reading invisible ink.

Spy brings the stories of spies out of the shadows and into the light, and was developed with the assistance of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).

Surveillance photo

Surveillance photograph showing Ivan Skripov, First Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Canberra and a KGB officer, meeting double agent Kay Marshall, 1962. Photo: NAA (A432, 1963/2272).

National Museum of Australia

DreamWorks Animation: The Exhibition — Journey from Sketch to Screen goes behind the scenes of DreamWorks Animation’s most popular films. Explore more than 400 objects from the studio’s archive, including original artworks, storyboards and scale-models, as well as immersive and interactive digital experiences.

The Australian of the Year Awards 2020 explore objects of personal significance to inspirational Australians.

Australian War Memorial

The Courage for Peace looks at Australia’s peacemakers, peacekeepers, disaster-relief workers and capacity builders, and how they operate in the midst of tension and tells the story of their crucial work, showing how the conditions for peace are forged by the difficult, necessary, ongoing commitment of many.

Against All Odds is an exhibition exploring just a few of the amazing stories of how courage, determination, and sometimes a little bit of luck can be all that stands between a person and death, wounding, or capture.

Laughter: A Powerful Ally shows how in times of adversity, people often look to humour to keep up their spirits. This exhibition tells the story of comedy performance spanning the First World War through to recent conflicts.

The Australian War Memorial

The Australian War Memorial.

National Film and Sound Archive

It’s game on at the NFSA with Game Masters: The Exhibition. The NFSA turns into Australia’s biggest video game arcade, with the world’s greatest designers and 80 playable games.

We Can Be (Kid) Heroes showcases the heroic power of kids, from princesses to penguins in a series of summer children’s movies screened in the Arc cinema.

Game Masters

Game Masters at the NFSA.

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