The building

The Australian National Maritime Museum was designed in 1986 by Philip Cox as part of the Darling Harbour redevelopment, centrepiece to Australia’s Bi-centenary celebrations in 1988.

Photo of exterior of museum building

Image: North side of the museum building.

The design owes much to the Australian tradition of vaulted public buildings such as railway stations and granaries. The museum’s vaulted forms have been likened to billowing sails and cascading waves tumbling towards the water's edge and accommodate varied museum exhibits ranging from tall yachts to model ships. The curved supporting trusses relate to the webbed girder structure of the nearby historic Pyrmont Bridge.

The tallest of the wave-like roofs was designed to provide a clear space of 38 metres, enough to enclose the full rigged hull of America’s Cup winner Australia II, which is now housed in the Western Australian Maritime Museum in Fremantle, also designed by COX.

Original sketch of museum building design by Phillip Cox

Image: Original sketch of museum building design by Philip Cox. Courtesy of COX.

At the time the design was conceived Philip Cox explained, ”In order to have a message that was nautical, it obviously had to have reference to wave forms and sails. How to not only incorporate those images but accentuate them became the real challenge. The building itself had to say something apart from the exhibits it might contain. You need an icon there to draw people in.”

Moored in front of the museum building are two long finger wharfs pointing out into Darling Harbour, providing berths for the historic fleet, which has also developed over the past 20 years. Particular care was taken not to allow the building to compete with the ships. “It had to be kept at a distance, providing a background for those fascinating silhouettes.”