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New era gives chance to reflect on notion of time

Date

Sally Pryor

An exciting year ahead ... National Museum of Australia director Andrew Sayers.

An exciting year ahead ... National Museum of Australia director Andrew Sayers. Photo: Rohan Thomson

For some, the fact Canberra's centenary year is almost upon us may cause a frisson of anxiety.

For others, such as the director of the National Museum of Australia, Andrew Sayers, the ticking over of the calendar year will come as something of a relief.

Since he took on the role in 2010, the centenary has stuck in his mind as an opportunity to cross some things off the museum's to-do list.

A major exhibition celebrating the city's 100th birthday opens on the declared birthday weekend in March, focusing on 1913 as a poignant time of optimism and self-confidence before the advent of war.

The Museum Cafe is open, with its spectacular lake views, and the grand entrance hall freed for some of the museum's suitably grand objects.

It's part of the museum's $11 million revamp, which also includes the nearly completed administration wing.

Its bold facade, clad in multi-coloured tiles, will be in keeping with the rest of the institution's distinctive look, and will also free up for hire some of the building's "peninsula rooms" overlooking the lake.

Mr Sayers said the centenary had been an opportunity to bring the museum into a new era. It had also caused him to reflect on the notion of time.

"Interestingly, I was just talking the other night to our volunteers and making the point that when you reach beyond the age of 50, 100 years actually doesn't seem like a long time," he said.

"When you're young, a century seems like a massively long time. Now of course, we have effectively, in Australia's non-indigenous population, life expectancies of close to 100 years, and it is very interesting to see the continuities in some of the things that obsessed Australians in 1913."

The administration building is still a few months from completion. In the meantime, staff have been relocated to a building far more prosaic than the eye-catching edifice next door.

Long-time Canberrans are unlikely to ever forget what once lay on the Acton Peninsula, as many were born there. The old Royal Canberra Hospital was demolished in 1997, but some traces remain, including what is now, temporarily, the museum's staff quarters.

The low, cream, brick building that will eventually be connected to the administration wing was once a hospice.

And although it has been revamped into a comfortable set of offices, with conference nooks and well-stocked kitchens, the fabric of the original building is still in evidence. In one room, there are switches on the wall labelled "Oxygen" and "Suction" while, in another, a set of lights on a metal panel once lit up when patients required nurses' attention.

Some of the walls have what look, at first glance, to be decorative wooden panels but, on closer inspection, are standard hospital bedheads.

It's hardly surprising, then, that in the library, where the Rare Books Room is tucked away in what was once the morgue, some staff have reported strange happenings in the climate-controlled area.

Sought-after books have appeared mysteriously on the top of stacks and pages have been heard rustling even when the airconditioning is off.

It would be enough to distract anyone from the job at hand, but staff, working as they do with objects from the past, have learnt to cope..

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