My best advice for visiting the South Australian Museum – don’t try to do it all in one day. Seriously, break it up into smaller chunks.
It’s not a big building, so the amount of stuff crammed into this unassuming museum is pretty surprising. With just 5 floors of natural and cultural heritage exhibits permanently on display, and free entry, it’s easy to think you can tackle SA Museum in an afternoon. And you can, but be prepared to be slightly overwhelmed if you do.
The Museum is located in the cultural precinct on Adelaide’s North Terrace, between the Art Gallery of South Australia and the State Library. The main entry is down a few steps and past the front lawns into the smaller of the two wings.
The permanent collections are housed in several galleries, including the World Mammals, Australian Aboriginal Cultures, Pacific Cultures, South Australian Biodiversity Gallery, Opals, Minerals and Meteorites, and the Australian Polar Collection. There’s also the Megafauna and Ediacaran Fossils and the Ancient Egypt galleries. (Got all of that?)
And you can’t forget the Giant Squid that runs the height of four stories! It’s tucked away in the south-eastern corner of the building, but make sure you walk the stairs that circle around it and look into the viewing windows at each level.
There is a Special Exhibitions space on the ground floor near the entry, these temporary exhibits can attract a small fee but are always well curated and worth the time to see.
The Pacific Cultures gallery is housed in the Mezzanine Level of the Museum and is itself a relic. It is one of the original galleries of the north wing, which opened in 1895. It remains home to the largest display of Pacific material in Australia. The display cases, which themselves are heritage listed, contain around 3,000 items including bows, arrows, spears, masks, and more. The monumental amount of stuff in the cases is somewhat overwhelming.
Australian Aboriginal Cultures
The Australian Aboriginal cultures gallery takes up the largest space and is one of the best presented areas of the Museum. While the Pacific Cultures gallery crams its items into one space, the Australian Aboriginal cultures gallery features its 3,000 items across two floors. What’s astounding is that is only displaying about 10 percent of the Museum’s Aboriginal collection.
The South Australian Museum is home to the largest and most comprehensive collection of Australian Aboriginal cultural material in the world.
There’s clearly still a lot of material on display, but it is presented in a calming environment that allows you to read and take in all there is to see. As it is one of the Museum’s low sensory areas, the lights are low and there isn’t a lot of noise. It’s interesting to read about the history and knowledge of Australia’s first peoples, as well as to see the cultural similarities and differences between the different areas of the continent.
The Museum showcases the knowledge and historical lives of the world’s oldest continuous living culture, with sections explaining the medicine men and their unique understanding of the land and its resources; tools and containers, such as the water bags made from inside-out wallaby skin (which apparently only lets water in one way); and the various types and uses of string, including a game that looks remarkably like one we used to play as children in the 80s in America’s Midwest.
Minerals and Meteorites Gallery
The South Australian Museum has one of the largest mineral collections in the country. The gallery identifies and explains minerals from around the country and the world, showcasing several of the more than 35,000 specimens in the Museum’s collection including the Fire of Australia, the finest uncut opal in existence. It even showcases several items from out of this world, with several meteorites on display. Apparently, every meteorite that has landed in South Australian since July 1980 is the legal property of the Museum, allowing them to be studied for their scientific importance.
The South Australian Museum holds so many noteworthy and leading collections, and it is one of the subtle ways that South Australia tends to punch above its weight when compared with larger cities. It is worth going back for more than one pass of the Museum to make sure you take it all in.
The South Australian Museum is located on North Terrace, Adelaide, between Kintore Avenue and Frome Road (or between the Art Gallery of South Australia and the State Library). The main entrance is slightly set back from North Terrace in the red brick building with glass front, which was the original North Wing.
The Museum is about a 5-minute walk from the Adelaide Railway Station (also on North Terrace), or about 100 metres from the Art Gallery tram stop.
The tram is free within the city centre; there is also a tram stop in front of the Railway Station if you don’t want to walk.
Several bus routes run along North Terrace and stop outside the Museum.
There are several parking lots in the vicinity of the Museum, and sometimes on weekends you can find free on-street parking in the city. Wilson Parking on North Terrace is directly opposite the Museum and access is at a dedicated streetlight.
Opening Hours and Admission
Entry to the South Australian Museum is free; some special exhibits may have a charge.
The Museum is open 10am to 5pm every day, including weekends and public holidays with three exceptions: ANZAC Day (25 April) the Museum is open from 12 noon to 5pm, it is closed on Good Friday and Christmas Day.
Visiting the South Australian Museum was on my list of activities to do in Adelaide as South Australia’s COVID-19 restrictions began to ease. You can read about my list at 10 Things I Plan to Do in Adelaide After the Pandemic. Other activities include: