The best museums in Melbourne

It’s known as Australia’s cultural capital, so it’s no surprise that the best museums in Melbourne offer an incredible variety of special experiences.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Travel Australia Today. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and loves exploring different parts of Australia.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Travel Australia Today and has been a journalist for 20 years.

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The best museums in Melbourne

Use the table of contents to jump down the article - or continue reading for all my tips on the best museums in Melbourne.

It’s regarded as the cultural capital of Australia, so it’s probably no surprise that the best museums in Melbourne are among the best in Australia.

From interesting heritage, to thought-provoking art, there are museums dedicated to creative industries and museums that tell the fascinating story of Melbourne’s multiculturalism.

If it’s your first time in town, visiting Melbourne’s museums is a fantastic way to understand a bit more about the city. But even if you think you know the city, the museums of Melbourne will always have something new for you – and may even cause you to look differently at a part of its culture.

Best museums in Melbourne: National Gallery Victoria
Entrance foyer at the National Gallery Victoria featuring Ichwan Noor’s Beetle sphere (Visit Victoria)

Whatever your interests, you’ll find something within at least one of the museums in Melbourne that’ll make the visit worth your while. Some of the best Melbourne museums are free as well, so that’s a bit of a bonus!

Museums in Melbourne

There are dozens of places you can visit and it might be hard to know where to start. That’s why I wanted to put together this guide to the museums in Melbourne, to help you plan your time in the city.

I’ll go through a long list of all my suggestions shortly, but if you’re looking for the highlights, these are the four that are think are the most important museums in Melbourne. (The details of each are further down)

But it’s worth pointing out that, just because these are the biggest and the most famous, it doesn’t mean they are the best for you. Sometimes it might be the smaller museums focused on a specific topic – like immigration – that will be the most rewarding.

And, of course, some of Melbourne’s museums are better suited to children than others. Scienceworks is a good example, which is definitely aimed at families.

Best museums in Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria
Walking past the entrance to the National Gallery of Victoria (Visit Victoria)

With all this in mind, let’s have a look at the best museums in Melbourne and what you can expect to find when you visit each of them.

Melbourne Museum

I’ve decided to put Melbourne Museum in its own category because there is so much to see here, it’s like visiting a series of smaller museums. It is, after all, said to be the largest museum in the Southern Hemisphere!

One of the most popular sections is the Science and Life Gallery, which has 17 skeletons of dinosaurs on display. In the section about Melbourne, one of the highlights is the body of Australia’s most famous racehorse, Phar Lap.

Another really important area is the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre, developed with Indigenous representatives, that tells the story of the region’s Aboriginal heritage.

The Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at the Melbourne Museum
The Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at the Melbourne Museum

In the centre of the building is the forest gallery, full of actual trees with live birds and other animals. Plus there’s much more here – it’s easy to spend half a day or more looking through all the exhibits.

Art Museums

Melbourne has some of the best art museums in the country and there’s an impressive variety in what’s on offer.

National Gallery of Victoria

Forget anything you’ll find in Sydney (sorry, Sydney, I love you) because the National Gallery of Victoria is the oldest, largest, and most visited art museum in Australia.

The NGV has more than 70,000 works of art that span thousands of years and present a huge range of styles and disciplines. There are the big European names like Cézanne, Monet, Picasso, and Rembrandt. But the Asian art collection is also impressive.

But, as you would expect, it’s the NGV’s Australian art collection that is the most noteworthy. So much so, in fact, that it’s housed in a special building at Federation Square called the Ian Potter Centre, a ten-minute walk from the main building on St Kilda Road with the international works.

NGV's Ian Potter Centre in Federation Square
The Australia collection at the NGV’s Ian Potter Centre in Federation Square (Visit Victoria)

The NGV is free to visit (you’ll need to pay for some special exhibitions) and it’s in the heart of the city, making it easy to pop in and have a look around.

Australian Centre for Contemporary Art

Although it’s been around since 1983, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art only moved to its current building in the Melbourne Arts Precinct in 2002.

The aim of the centre is to foster new artists (mainly Australian, but some international) and it commissions about half a dozen each year for exhibitions. It means there’s always something new to see when you visit Melbourne.

The artworks here are experimental, they challenge you, they work in original ways. If you are interested in art, it’s well worth a visit.

Lyon Housemuseum

What makes the Lyon Housemuseum so interesting is that it truly is both the things the name suggests – a house and a museum.

It’s now made up of two adjacent sections. The first is the original Housemuseum that’s the private home of the founding patrons, with residential areas blending with exhibitions. It’s available to visit on specific dates throughout the year.

Next door is the Housemuseum Galleries, opened in 2019, that has much more of the collection on display. It also has new spaces that can show touring exhibitions of local and international works.

The architecture of both buildings is quite spectacular and are, in some ways, the greatest artworks you’ll see here.

Heide Museum of Modern Art

Another gallery within a house (sort of) is the Heide Museum of Modern Art. It was once the home of art-supporters John and Sunday Reed – although there have been new buildings constructed on the site for the gallery since.

After they started living here in 1934, John and Sunday welcomed contemporary artists into their home, creating an intellectual environment. Many of those people, including Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker, would become some of the country’s most famous artists.

Heide Museum of Modern Art
One of the more modern buildings at the Heide Museum of Modern Art (Visit Victoria)

The permanent art you’ll find here was collected over about four decades and represents some of the best of the time. But there are also regular temporary exhibitions. There are also some interesting works in the gardens of the site.

The Johnston Collection

Set in a two-level 19th-century brick house, The Johnston Collection seems right at home. There are about 1500 items in the permanent collection, with a focus on decorative and fine arts. These include ceramics, furniture, textiles, and glasswork.

Visiting the museum feels like stepping back in time to a previous century where teacups and clocks are pieces of art. Although the majority of items are from 18th-century England, there are pieces from across the world here.

The Hellenic Museum

Going back even further in time, several millennia in fact, there’s the Hellenic Museum, which is house in the original Royal Mint building.

Many of the pieces in the permanent exhibition are from ancient times – marble statues and byzantine paintings, for examples. A partnership with Greece’s Benaki Museum means there are a number of impressive antiquities here.

But the Hellenic Museum also promotes modern Greek culture and there are always temporary exhibitions of contemporary art and installations that blend the old with the new, finding new perspectives of works that have existed for thousands of years.

Creative

There’s always a feeling of creativity in Melbourne, a city of arts, so of course there are some museums in Melbourne that celebrate this side of the culture.

ACMI

I think the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) is one of the best museums in Melbourne after reopening in early 2021 with its $40-million-dollar redevelopment.

It tells the history of the moving image from early days (with shadow puppets, for instance), right up to the modern era with video games and art installations. Although there are international aspects, there’s obviously a big focus on Australian cinema.

ACMI Melbourne
The Interceptor from Mad Max amongst screens at the new ACMI exhibition

What makes it so special are all the interactive elements throughout the collection and the way that you can collect the stories you’re interested in and review them online later on. There’s lots to see and you could spend quite a few hours here.

Scienceworks

You may wonder why I’ve put a museum about science in this category. Well, it’s partly because Scienceworks didn’t fit neatly anywhere else (I’m not too proud to admit that) but also because of how creative the exhibitions are. It may be about technology, but it feels artistic!

The museum building is new but the architecture reflects a nearby pumping station, an homage to Melbourne’s industrial side. While the exhibitions inside tell some historical stories, they also look to the future.

One of the most popular sections is the Lightning Room, where there are regular performances involving a giant Tesla Coil which is able to produce three-metre lightning bolts!

The Australian Music Vault

Melbourne has such a strong music scene and you can learn all about it at the free exhibition at the Australian Music Vault, which celebrates the industry.

A really special aspect of the museum is the interactive digital experience, where you can listen to interviews with people like musicians and producers to hear their stories.

There’s a lot to learn here about the influences of Australian music, you can see costumes and instruments from performers, and all sorts of other really cool memorabilia.

Grainger Museum

Found within the grounds of the University of Melbourne, the Grainger Museum is a bit different to the others because it focuses on just one person – Percy Grainger (1882 – 1961).

Percy was a composer and pianist who was born in Australia but actually had more of an impact overseas in Europe and the US, where he lived for most of his life. He had a big impact on the revival of British folk music.

The museum has a large collection of instruments, musical scores, costumes, and photographs. It’s probably more aimed at people who have an interest in the genre, but it’s a good example of the range of museums you’ll find in Melbourne.

Grau Projekt

What do you get when a team known for cocktail bars opens an art gallery? The answer is Grau Projekt.

The idea is to create a large warehouse-style art gallery that can do a whole range of contemporary shows, and then pair them with a cocktail to try to invent a new kind of art museum. It’s not stuffy, it’s not pretentious, it’s just cool.

There’s a new exhibition about every six weeks, with a new cocktail for each one. It’s not open every day or all day, so you’ll need to book a ticket in advance.

About Melbourne

I always think it’s nice to go to museums that are specifically about the destination that you’re visiting, so you can learn a bit more and perhaps appreciate something you wouldn’t have known otherwise. These museums are all directly related to an aspect of Melbourne.

Old Melbourne Gaol

One of the most interesting historical sites in Melbourne is the Old Melbourne Gaol. It was in use from 1842 to 1929 and was ‘home’ to some of Australia’s most notorious criminals, including bushranger Ned Kelly. Oh, the stories it could tell!

Well, it does tell some of those stories across the three levels of the museum that’s now housed within it, with information panels, memorabilia, and many of the original rooms.

The buildings have been well preserved and you certainly get a sense of how unpleasant it would’ve been to have spent time here. There are also some temporary exhibitions, special tours and games for children.

Old Treasury Building

Once used as the offices for the state’s Treasury Department, the Old Treasury Building was turned into a museum in 1994 and has a series of exhibitions about the formation of Melbourne and other significant periods of the city’s history.

The Old Treasury Building, Melbourne
The Old Treasury Building within Treasury Gardens (Visit Victoria)

There are interesting displays about topics like the Gold Rush, Melbourne as the national capital, and the stories of the governor. Temporary exhibitions are also held on other topics.

While it’s quite a traditional museum, compared to some of the modern interactive ones in the city, it is an excellent resource for learning about Melbourne, which will help if you’re visiting for the first time.

Maritime Museums of Victoria

There was once a single maritime museum in Melbourne but these days what you get are 16 different sites across the state called the Maritime Museums of Victoria.

Seven of them are in Melbourne, including the original main site that’s now called the Polly Woodside Maritime Museum. Its focus is the ship called the Polly Woodside, that was built in Belfast in 1885 and carried coal and wheat between England and South America, travelling about 2.4 million kilometres in its life.

Across the museum sites, there are riverboats, steam tugs, tall ships and warships. They cover hundreds of years and are offer an insight into how important maritime industries were for Melbourne.

Victoria Police Museum

I’m going to mention it here anyway, but I should point out that the Victoria Police Museum is currently closed for redevelopment and is due to reopen later in 2021 at a new site.

When it does, you can again see this fascinating collection that tells the tales of some of the most notorious moments in the history of the state – and Melbourne in particular.

There’s forensic evidence from high-profile cases, uniforms and memorabilia showing the history of Victoria Police since its formation in 1853, and (most famously) some of the armour from the Kelly Gang bushrangers.

Melbourne Tram Museum

Melbourne is famous for its trams so it seems appropriate that they’re celebrated at the Melbourne Tram Museum. It’s set within the former Hawthorn Tram Depot.

There are 21 fully-restored trams, including one of the first electric ones. It’s fascinating to see how they’ve evolved over the years, reflecting the way the city has grown and changed as well.

The museum is only open a couple of days a month, so check the calendar and see whether you can get there while you’re in town.

Multicultural

You can’t tell the story of Melbourne without talking about immigration. In fact, there are so many museums related to multiculturalism in Melbourne that I’ve given them their own section.

Immigration Museum

Taking a look at the whole topic of multiculturalism is the Immigration Museum in the Old Customs House on Flinders Street.

It looks at how and why people left their homes to move to Melbourne – and how their arrival shaped the course of the city. Immigration has had a huge impact on so many things here, from the coffee to the music.

Over three levels, there is a series of exhibitions, plus space for temporary shows. The courtyard is also regularly used for festivals and other cultural events.

Chinese Museum

Known as either the Museum of Chinese Australian History, or just simply the Chinese Museum, the institution has the goal or preserving and presenting the impact of Chinese immigration on the country and the city.

There are exhibitions dedicated to particularly influential times, such as the Gold Rush when thousands of Chinese people came to Victoria. But there’s also the world’s biggest processional Dai Loong Dragon and lots of other interesting memorabilia such as clothes and photographs.

Set across five levels, the museum is not just about the history – it also acts as a visitor centre for Chinatown, in which it’s located.

Islamic Museum of Australia

The modern architecture of the Islamic Museum of Australia is quite striking, but the exhibitions inside are also presented in an engaging and contemporary way.

Some of the museum is dedicated to immigration and tells fascination stories of Muslims who came to Australia, including the Afghan cameleers and Malay pearlers. But there’s also a lot on display that shows the wonders of the Islamic culture, including architecture, art, and textiles.

The museum is about 10 kilometres from the city centre in Thornbury, a rich multicultural neighbourhood.

Jewish Museum

Another fascinating institution is the Jewish Museum of Australia (not to be confused with the Sydney Jewish Museum), which has more than 20,000 items tracing the narrative of the Australian Jewish experience in the world.

As well as fine art and photography, there are letters and diaries that offer an insight into the lives of notable people. A permanent exhibition tells the stories of migration and the new lives that were built in Melbourne and other parts of the country.

There are also other permanent exhibitions about Judaism more generally, and there are space for temporary shows and other kinds of cultural events.

Niche Museums

Often it’s nice to visit a general museum and see a broad range of ideas. But sometimes you might be really interested in particular topic and what to really delve into that. You’ll find that option at these niche museums in Melbourne.

Australian Sports Museum

If you love sport, then you’ll love the Australian Sports Museum. Opened in early 2020 within the famous MCG, the museum has the country’s largest collection of sporting memorabilia.

But as well as seeing the items in the collection, there are all sorts of interactive exhibits and sporting challenges within the modern complex, making this an engaging experience even if you don’t know all the details of the games.

National Sports Museum at the MCG
The National Sports Museum has a collection of memorabilia from a huge range of sports (Visit Victoria)

Of course there’s plenty about AFL, cricket, and rugby league, but there are also great sections about the Olympics and other popular sports. This is really one of Melbourne’s best museums and worth a visit!

Mary MacKillop Heritage Centre

It’s just a small museum but the Mary MacKillop Heritage Centre tells a big story about the woman who became Australia’s first Catholic saint (in 2010).

The exhibition has some original items, as well as lots of information panels, with details about the life and work of Saint Mary and the Sisters of Saint Joseph, where she did much of her work in the late 1800s.

Mary Glowrey Museum

It’s just a coincidence, but another Mary is remembered at the Mary Glowrey Museum as the second Australian to be officially considered for recognition as a saint. Originally from Victoria, she went to India in 1920 and dedicated her life to looking after marginalised people.

The museum is quite small and uses her correspondence with family and friends as the basis for much of the exhibition. It has some audiovisual and interactive elements as part of it.

Medical History Museum

It may seem quite specific (and maybe a bit morbid) but the Medical History Museum is about more than just medicine. Through these stories, we can learn a lot about the cultures of the time.

From a 19th-century pharmacy, to weird scientific equipment, there are more than 9000 items in the collection. The exhibitions cover a range of topics including Indigenous bush medicine, the role of women, and military healthcare.

The museum is free and part of the University of Melbourne. It may not be at the top of your list of things to do, but you won’t be disappointed if you do visit.

RAAF Museum

About 30 minutes from the centre of Melbourne, the RAAF Museum has the country’s largest collection of military aircraft and memorabilia. It’s located at Point Cook, which was the birthplace of the Australian Flying Corps (later called the Royal Australian Air Force).

There are a few hangars with planes on display, from frail wooden ones from World War I, right up to the fighter jets of today. You can also learn about the way of life for the pilots and other people who have served in the air force over the decades.

There are even some days when you can see the aircraft in flight, so check the calendar to see what’s happening when you’re in town.

Melbourne’s Living Museum of the West

And the final museum I want to mention is probably not one you’re going to rush out to see, but I think the idea of it is really commendable. It’s called Melbourne’s Living Museum of the West (or just the Living Museum).

It tells the stories of the city’s western suburbs – traditionally considered to be quite industrial and working class – with an ecomuseum created in collaboration with the community and with a focus on oral history.

Although there are various buildings that are part of the museum, much of the collection is written or recorded and not easy to display. The focus is now on the visitor centre, where you can learn more about the project.

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