Brisbane’s museums look to the future as well as the past, with links to cultural movements throughout the Asia-Pacific.
The city’s arts scene celebrates its thriving Indigenous culture as well as innovations in international arts. Meanwhile, niche historical museums delve into the ancient past when dinosaurs and megafauna ruled the land, as well as Brisbane’s convict history and the city’s critical role in the WWII war in the Pacific.
Museum of Brisbane: best for cutting-edge culture
Bone up on Brisbane at the award-winning Museum of Brisbane, which goes beyond dusty history to delve into music, fashion, and contemporary culture with its boundary-pushing program.
Recent MoB exhibitions have unpacked the impact of Bauhaus on Brisbane architecture, invited visitors to graffiti the walls of Boggo Road Gaol, and showcased Indigenous artist Dylan Mooney’s Blak Superheroes. There’s a fantastic kids program, and the gift shop is a top spot to pick up funky Brisbane-themed souvenirs made by local creatives. Find it on the third floor of the Brisbane City Hall.
Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art: best for landmark art
Known to its friends as QAGOMA, Australia’s largest art museum compromises two massive buildings in the South Bank cultural precinct.
GOMA is the go-to for modern art. Housed in one of Brisbane’s most striking buildings, which is illuminated at night like a disco dancefloor, the gallery is fronted by Michael Parekowhai’s The World Turns, a life-size bronze elephant doing a face-plant into the ground.
Exhibitions focus on Australian, Asian, and Pacific artists and the gallery has a superb collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. It offers Indigenous arts experiences co-designed by Indigenous-owned Blaklash Creative. Rare and unusual films are shown four times per week at GOMA's Cinémathèque.
Next door prestigious Queensland Art Gallery is heaving with the heavyweights of Australian art such as Sidney Nolan, Margaret Olley, Albert Namatjira, Arthur Boyd, and William Dobell.
Queensland Museum: best for dinos and megafauna
Dinosaurs take pride of place at Queensland Museum at South Bank, including Queensland’s own 25ft Muttaburrasauraus langdoni and American dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops. There are also displays on ancient megafauna such as giant kangaroos, humongous wombats and massive frogs, which populated Australia when woolly mammoths and saber-toothed cats wandered the Northern Hemisphere.
The onsite SparkLab Sciencentre aims to ignite young imaginations in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and maths. Temporary exhibitions might feature the wonders of the world built in Lego, or examine Queensland’s fragile Great Barrier Reef. There’s a cool Science on a Sphere installation that projects digital datasets from air traffic to animal migration on a planet-like screen.
Fortitude Valley and New Farm: best for small galleries
Head to the arty Fortitude Valley and nearby New Farm to sample the best in the contemporary Queensland art scene. Distinguished small galleries include Jan Murphy Gallery, Suzanne O’Connell Gallery, TW Fine Art, Edwina Corlette Gallery, Mitchell Fine Art, Griffith University’s POP Gallery, and Brisbane arts superstar Philip Bacon Galleries, to name just a few.
The Valley’s always-inspirational Institute of Modern Art presents works in an array of media from sonic installations to Filipino fashion and First Nations fiber art. Over in New Farm, cutting-edge visual art, theatre, live music, comedy, and a couple of great restaurants are housed in a former power station at the Brisbane Powerhouse.
QUT Art Museum: best for up-and-coming artists
Located on the Queensland University of Technology campus near the Botanic Gardens, QUT Art Museum is chock-full of exciting new works by art students, international guests, and pieces from its 3000-strong contemporary art collection. Past exhibitions have focused on Australian women abstract artists, documentary photographs of fringe-dwellers, and works inspired by Dick Bruna’s Miffy & Friends.
Birrunga Gallery and Dining: best for Indigenous connection
First Nations-owned and operated Birrunga Gallery and Dining is a hub of Indigenous culture in Meanjin (Brisbane). With an art gallery, performance space, cafe, and wine bar, this is a great space to connect with the local community. The cafe menu features native herbs and bush tucker, like finger lime mayo and Dorrigo pepper croc tail.
Macarthur Museum Brisbane: best for World War II History
In 1943, 100,000 US troops were stationed in Brisbane, a massive influx that made up a quarter of the city’s population at the time. The MacArthur Museum Brisbane invites you to imagine the impact of the American troops on the city and the tension of daily life during wartime. Sit at the desk of General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied Forces in the South West Pacific Area, where he and his staff hammered out strategies to win the war.
Commissariat Store Museum: best for convict history
For a peek into Australia's colonial history, stroll into Commissariat Store Museum, a convict-built storehouse from 1829 and Queensland’s oldest building still in use. Uncover the early penal settlement through an oddball collection of items including leg irons, a convict’s prosthetic foot and the full-bottomed wig of Sir Samuel Griffith, premier of Queensland 1883-88.
Pillars Project: best for street art
The Pillars Project is a street art gallery under the South Brisbane rail overpass. It features 11 beautiful pieces – look out for Brisbane boy and international street art superstar Fintan Magee’s tribute to Brisbane’s devastating floods of 2011.