Best museums to visit in Geelong

Geelong is known as a starting point for the Great Ocean Road tour. I spent a month there, and it really is a destination with a lot to do and see. It’s a beach town and a hub of arts and culture. While I was there I visited three museums right in the downtown area – National Wool Museum, Geelong Library & Heritage Centre, and Geelong Gallery. They are all worth a visit.

National Wool Museum

Geelong is the wool capital of Australia. CJ Dennys, the father of the wool industry in Geelong, built his wool store on the site of an old coal yard in 1870, the current site of the National Wool Museum. The original building, a bluestone structure with cement rendered ornamentation and a slate roof, still stands with two additions built in 1889 and 1926.

I’m going to be honest. I expected this to be really boring. A whole museum dedicated to wool? But it had really fun and interactive exhibits, and felt more like a museum of design than just wool alone.

National Wool Museum (NWM) is interactive and does an excellent job of creating an atmosphere, sending you back in time to live the history yourself. You can even try using a lot of the equipment!

wool museum display
Wool factory workers display at National Wool Museum

For me, the highlight was the Reminiscence Cottage, a hands-on recreation of an Australian cottage from the early to mid 1900s. It made me feel like I was at my grandparents house.

wool museum rem cottage with changes
Reminiscence Cottage, National Wool Museum

The permanent collection features more than 7,500 objects that can be viewed both in the museum and online. The museum also features two temporary exhibition galleries. The two exhibits on display while I was there included Marion Hall Best: Interiors and Masters: Art of the Precious Metal Object.

One of Australia’s most influential interior designers, Marion Hall Best’s work spanned four decades from the 1930s to 1970s. The furniture and clothing on display was retro and colorful, yet very unique. I had never heard of Best before attending the exhibition, but I’m glad I took the time to walk through.

The Masters exhibit displayed pieces from 11 contemporary Australian artists working in goldsmithing, silversmithing, and enameling. Featuring primarily jewelry and small metal sculptures, there were a few really interesting and somewhat bizarre pieces on display.

If you are in town for awhile and are looking for more than just the tourist experience, you might consider attending one of the classes offered at NWM. They have “upcycling” classes, special programs and stories for children, free senior events, open studio hours, and other special events. Prices range from free to $35.

On your way out, you can stop in the museum shop, where they sell NWM socks and the Manor House rugs created right there in the museum. The socks are made with the Komet Sock Knitting Machine on the second floor, which knits one sock every seven minutes. The rugs are created using the 1910 loom, which is the centerpiece of the museum and fully operational.

wool museum loom
1910 Jacquard punch-card system weaving loom

The loom uses the Jacquard punch-card system and is described by the museum as one of the first computers.

Geelong Library & Heritage Centre (GLHC)

This was hands down my favorite place to go in Geelong. So it’s not actually a museum, but it feels like one, perhaps because of the heritage center on the third floor. They even do free guided tours each day at 11 am.

GLHC is a six-story dome with 6,000 square meters of space, a café, heritage centre, and all the technology you could ever wish to use in a library. I made four trips to this library and spent most of my time on the top floor observation deck and the 2nd floor quiet space, reading and writing in one of the sound-dampening chairs.

glhc dome
Geelong Library & Heritage Centre

Each floor has a Wadawurrung title assigned by an elder.

Ground floor and Mezzanine: Ki-kirri-ngiti – we talk together

In Ki-kirri-ngiti, you will find the news lounge, a machine that dispenses laptops for use within the library, exhibitions, and Public Café. The café is a popular place to eat, with delicious food and coffee, indoor and outdoor deck seating with a view of Johnstone Park, and space to seat 80. I enjoyed a ham and double cheese toastie with an iced mocha.

The mezzanine features a technology maker-space and the great wall of stories, a six-meter high wall of books.

Level 1 Reading Nest & Cave: Ngawirring ngiyt – Learn together, Kanyul karrung – Youth space

This floor holds the children’s collection. There is an outdoor space and plenty of space inside for kids to hang out and read or play games. It’s family friendly with colorful furnishings and a 100-inch screen with multiple gaming consoles.

Level 2 Inspiration Space: Nyaal – Open your eyes

My favorite floor! This is where you will find the non-fiction and magazines. If you have special needs, you can print in braille, use the magnifying glass, or use the reading machine. The machine takes a picture of your page and reads it out loud to you. You can plug in your headphones and have the machine read a book to you, while you vary the speed or even adjust the accent, depending on what part of the world you are from. Pretty impressive!

But the best part of Nyaal is the sound dampening chairs overlooking Johnstone Park. The sound dampeners are built in to the chair and extend forward to block out peripheral visuals as well as sound. It made me feel like I was the only person in the library. I want one of these chairs for my house!

Level 3 The Vault: Kim barne thaliyu – Here yesterday 

Kim barne thaliyu houses the Heritage reading room and repository. Some of the books in this room are so old a slight breeze could turn them to dust. This is the floor you want if you are researching Geelong’s history and heritage. If you can’t find what you are looking for on the public shelves, you can ask a reference librarian for help. They have access to a 520 square meter archive repository with over four kilometers of mobile shelving.

glhc heritage centre
Some of the collection in the Heritage Centre

The Vault also features a giant interactive Mac that allows a large group of people to search through old documents, photos, and maps together. Even if you aren’t doing research, this floor is worth a stop to browse around.

Level 4 Staff Administration: Kim barne murrk – Here is the head

This floor is not open to the public.

Level 5 The High Ground: Wurdi Youang – You Yangs, Big hill in the middle of the plains

The top floor, Wurdi Youang, has large event spaces for up to 300 people and a balcony overlooking Johnstone Park. You can see Corio Bay and the You Yangs in the distance, and you can also see the industrial past of Geelong contrasting with its modern identity as a hub of arts and culture. Factories and train yards, some of which are still in use, are visible across the horizon along with art galleries, parks, cafes, and shiny new high-rise office buildings.

glhc view of geelong
View from Wurdi Youang

Construction of the Geelong Library & Cultural Centre 

GLHC is an impressive building and the first municipal building in Geelong to receive a 5 Green Star rating from the Green Building Council of Australia. The domed roof is made of 322 large glass reinforced concrete panels, comprising 18 hexagonal tiles and one standard pentagram arranged in a mirrored array to form a geodesic dome.

The building is designed with high-performance glazing, smart lighting systems, displacement air conditioning systems, and in-slab heating, along with a photovoltaic system that generates an estimated 35,000 kilowatts of electricity per year. Rainwater is harvested from the domed roof and stored in a 50 kiloliter tank for use in toilets and landscape irrigation.

The library produces 40% less greenhouse gas emissions and uses 79% less potable water than other comparably sized buildings.

Geelong Gallery

The Geelong Gallery is right next to the library and has free admission for the permanent exhibits. The museum opened in 1896 and boasts over 6,000 works of Australian and international artists. The permanent collection includes several iconic paintings from Australian artists as well as collections of colonial paintings and metalworks, English porcelain, and contemporary works, allowing the visitor to view the history of Geelong to the present through art.

gallery 1
Portrait from Archibald Prize temporary exhibit

Be sure to ask about their temporary exhibits. When I was visiting, they had the 2018 Archibald Prize for $16 AUD admission and it was well worth the price. Established in 1921, the Archibald Prize for portrait painting is one of Australia’s most prestigious and popular art prizes. The exhibit included so many beautiful paintings, some abstract, some that resemble photographs, and everything in between. I’m always impressed with how an artist is able to convey real emotion in the eyes. I have always struggled with eyes and hands, and I appreciate the effort that went into these paintings. Australia certainly has its share of artistic talent. For more about the Archibald Prize visit their website.

gallery 2
Museum patron observing a portrait from Archibald Prize exhibit

Old Geelong Gaol

I never did make it to the Gaol, but if you are interested in the conditions of 19th century prison life in Australia, it is $10 to get in. It’s only open on weekends and school holidays from 1-4pm.

For more activities in Geelong and the surrounding region, check out my article on Geelong and Great Ocean Road walking and biking tours.

What is your favorite museum in Geelong? Share your thoughts with us! Are you planning a trip to Geelong? Please share your comments and questions with us! 

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