Museums in the Northern Territory
From Aboriginal art and culture through to European settlement and World War II, life in the Northern Territory is a rich and unique story.
The history of the Northern Territory is fascinating. Not only are we the home of the longest continuous living culture in the world, we’ve also been the centre of nation building projects like the Overland Telegraph Station, the first mainland Australian target of the Japanese in World War II and where one of the most destructive cyclones in Australia’s history took hold.
Outside of those major events, there are thousands of stories of Territorians beating the odds. Pastoralists, pioneers, artists, athletes, social activists and regular people just doing their jobs have made the Territory what it is today.
There’s history all up and down the track for you to explore and see just what the Territory’s made of.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta’s cultural history
The Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre is home to two art galleries Maruku Arts and Walkatjara Art and a collection of artefacts that share the incredible history and culture of the area. You can learn the Dreamtime stories – the Tjukkurpa – of the Anangu people and the importance of Uluru and Kata Tjuta in sacred ceremonies that still exist today. Take a walk or a Segway tour around Uluru afterwards and see some of those sacred sites for yourself.
Alice Springs antiques and artefacts
The Museum of Central Australia is located in the Araluen Arts Centre and has an incredible collection of significant fossils, replicas and preserved skeletons showing who was roaming these parts millions of years ago. Within the museum, the Strehlow Research Centre houses one of Australia’s most important and impressive collections of film, sound, archival records and objects reflecting the ceremonial life of local Aboriginal people.
The Central Australian Aviation Museum is also located at the Araluen Art Centre in the original hangar of Connellan Airways. It recognises the aviation pioneer, EJ Connellan, who established Alice Springs’ first aerodrome and ran Connair which flew for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Check out RFDS planes and other historic aircraft and memorabilia from more than 80 years of flying. The museum also commemorates those lost in the Connellan Air disaster of 1977.
Megafauna Central is the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory’s satellite exhibition showcasing the inhabitants of the land millions of years ago from a fossil site 150 kilometres northeast of Alice Springs. Megafauna – from the Greek for ‘large animal life’ – covers everything from ancient crocodiles, marsupial lions, relatives of the Tasmanian tiger and giant birds. You can even see palaeontologists at work unearthing and preserving ancient bones or try the augmented reality technology to see what these creatures would look like in the same room as you.
The Road Transport Hall of Fame and Ghan Museum is Central Australia’s nod to the vitally important transport industry. Exhibits cover cars, people movers and military vehicles from across the world, Australian-made Kenworth trucks and the Old Ghan Heritage Railway with a range of formerly used carriages. Learn all about the incredible transport workers who made life possible in the remote Northern Territory.
The Women’s Museum of Australia, based at the old gaol in Alice Springs, is dedicated to recognising and honouring the pioneer women of Central Australia who largely went unrecognised. The museum collection houses more than 2,500 objects and a HerStory Archive containing the stories of over 1,500 influential women. Take a tour of the Old Gaol while you’re there and hear the stories of the old cell blocks in the interactive tour.
Alice Springs Telegraph Station is a historical reserve dedicated to Australia’s connection to the world through telegraphs beginning in the 1870s. The station’s buildings have been carefully restored and house a number of displays and artefacts showing how communication worked back in the day and some of the key roles held by locals. There’s a café and souvenir shop on site and it’s the perfect spot for a picnic or BBQ.
As well as dedicated museums, there are a number of historic sites throughout Alice Springs CBD which you can take tours of and learn more about the early days of life in the town. The Adelaide House Museum, the Residency, Hartley School and the Stuart Town Gaol are just some of the spots worth checking out showing early healthcare, education and law and order. These historic places are lovingly maintained by volunteers whilst the National Trust and entry fees contribute to their upkeep.
Outside of Alice Springs, Hermannsburg is a listed historic precinct with the National Trust. A number of buildings constructed during mission times in the late 1800s have recently been restored to their original condition, some of which include include a museum, various house team rooms and the Namatjira Gallery. It’s an easy drive from Alice Springs and well worth the visit – especially for their delicious apple strudel.
Historical displays in Tennant Creek
In Tennant Creek, Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre is the home of the Barkly region art and cultural scene. The museum houses a range of cultural artefacts and stories from the Warumungu people including dioramas, bush tucker and medicine, preserved animals and wood carvings returned to Tennant Creek from the South Australian and Melbourne museums. You can book a guided tour of the museum to get even more out of your visit.
While you’re in town, check out Tuxworth Fullwood House on Schmidt Street. It was initially built as an extension of the hospital to keep up with demand from the large military population of the town during World War II but then later served as the outpatient department for the hospital. The building was restored in 1980 and is the only remaining part of the original Tennant Creek Hospital.
Katherine’s fascinating history
Katherine Museum holds a number of historically significant collections including objects reflecting Katherine’s pastoral and wartime history, written works and photographs. This is a fascinating way to spend some time and learn more about the important role Katherine played in the development of the Territory.
If you’re interested in railway history, the Katherine Railway Station Museum is for you. Built in 1926, it serviced the railway extension between Katherine and Pine Creek including the Vestey’s Meatworks and then became the headquarters of North Australian Railway during World War II. It’s full of railway history and shares the stories of civilians involved in the war effort. There’s also a second-hand bookshop on-site.
Heading south from Katherine in the pastoral town of Mataranka is the Stockyard Gallery. It’s a small local gallery that specialises in local art and artefacts reflecting the rich past of Katherine and the local people.
Further down the track is the Larrimah Museum. Located in the old railway yards, the display highlights the role of the railway in the war effort and the transport industry after the war. There are displays, photographs and interpretive texts to diligently explore.
Heading north from Katherine, the Pine Creek National Trust Museum was the original home of the mining warden in Burrundie overseeing the gold rush era of the 1870s. It was moved to Pine Creek in 1913 and has served as a number of different places since that time including doctor’s residence, clinic, military hospital and post office. Take a wander through and learn more about the gold rush, buffalo hunters, local Chinese history and the Overland Telegraph Line.
Darwin’s wartime history
Darwin has a strong and proud military history reflected in the many museums and displays dedicated to military activity and service. There are lots of tours to take and you can even explore the oil storage tunnels in the cliffs of the city.
The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory is the Territory’s flagship museum and art gallery. Its permanent collection holds thousands of artworks and historical artefacts from across the Territory. There are a range of historical exhibits including an exhibit on early Territory life, the Cyclone Tracy interactive exhibit, animals and plants, Sweetheart the crocodile and a section dedicated to maritime history. Check out the discovery centre offering educational activities just for the little ones.
Darwin Military Museum including the Defence of Darwin Experience located at East Point Reserve shows the role that exact spot played in defending the Northern Territory and Australia from attack during World War II. Gun turrets and watch towers can be explored outside while inside you’ll find artefacts from all conflicts where Australian troops have been in active service.
The Royal Flying Doctor Service Darwin Tourist Facility located on Stokes Hill Wharf uses technology including holograms, storytelling ghosts and virtual reality to tell the story of the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the Bombing of Darwin Harbour. Combined with decommissioned aircrafts, a flying boat, story boards and interactive displays, you can get a real sense of what life was like in Darwin during the 1940s, including how they responded to the bombing and its tragic impact on local lives.
The Darwin Aviation Museum tells more stories of the role of aviation in Darwin, particularly the war effort. A number of war planes are on display including a B52 bomber, Mirage and Sabre jets, Spitfire replica, Orion P3-C, Wessex and Huey Cobra helicopters. There are guided tours available as well as video presentations and hundreds of photographs.
For more aviation and vehicle history, the 1934 Qantas Hangar in Parap has every moving vehicle you can imagine. As its name suggests, it was the original home of Qantas in Darwin and is now dedicated to the Northern Territory’s automotive history. You’ll see steam and traction engines and locomotives, delivery vehicles, classic cars and motorbikes as well as an old fire engine.
For the best in convict history, Fannie Bay Gaol operated as a gaol and labour prison between 1883 and 1979. More than a dozen buildings make up the gaol including prisoner blocks for men and women, watch tower, kitchen mess building, an infirmary and gallows where executions were held until 1952.
The Chinese Temple and Museum, nestled in the heart of Darwin city, is a testament to the role of Chinese people in Darwin’s settlement and growth. The exhibit shows the contribution of the Chinese community to the gold rush and the railway line from Darwin to Pine Creek. Get up close with an authentic handcrafted stone lion from China and sit under the sacred Bodhi tree for a moment of reflection.
Outside of Darwin, the Batchelor Museum is a great little spot to reflect on the Top End’s wartime history and rich Aboriginal culture. World War II saw Batchelor become a strategic base for the region, offering shelter and space away from the more prominent spots in Darwin.
Heading out east, you’ll find the Borroloola Police Station Museum constructed when the area was a popular river port and drovers camp for the Gulf Stock Route and Barkly Tableland properties. It’s the oldest surviving outpost police station in the Northern Territory and houses displays covering occupations, administration and mining in the region.