South Australian Museum – Adelaide, Australia - Atlas Obscura

South Australian Museum

The largest collection of Indigenous Australian artifacts in the world, and the rare museum where wood-and-glass cabinets have trumped interactive exhibits. 


In 2003 the Smithsonian quietly renovated their animal dioramas. They removed the taxidermied gazelles, elephants, giraffes, and put in a series of interactive exhibits aimed at 10-year-olds with a short attention span.

The dioramas themselves were dismantled, a patch of skin was kept for DNA testing purposes, and 100-year-old dioramas were broken down in a hazmat tent and thrown away. An 89 foot model of a blue whale was quietly destroyed and thrown in the trash.

There is an ever increasing pressure among natural history museums to “get modern” and trade in their dioramas and handmade exhibits in favor of info video games, and interactive video clips. Thankfully the South Australian Museum has not succumbed to this pressure.

The history of the museum begins with the South Australian Literary Association in 1834, who’s goal was to class up the rough and tumble colony of Australia with some arts and literature. The museum opened in 1861, along with a library, and over the next 150 years has amassed one of the best natural history and anthropology collections in Australia.The museum has over 3000 aboriginal items on display, considered the largest and best collection in the world. Among the permanent exhibits are a biodiversity gallery, a Pacific Cultures Gallery, and an exhibit following the adventures of Australian Arctic-explorer Douglas Mawson. A family favorite is the life-sized giant squid displayed over four floors in an old elevator shaft.

Overall the museum has maintained a wonderful and enchanting aesthetic. In the words of one visitor “If you long for the days when museums were stuffed full of barely-connected wonders in beautiful wood-and-glass vitrines with hardly any inter-actives and interpretive panels, then this is the museum for you. There are things in jars, mummies’ feet (with painted toenails), a breathtakingly beautiful Pacific Cultures gallery, a radioactive cloud chamber, barnacle penises… A gem of a museum.”

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April 28, 2010

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