The National Museum of Victoria and the Museum of Applied Science (later Science Museum of Victoria) enjoyed independent management from 1950, an independence that reflected the distinctive cultures informing their activities within the shared spaces sprawling around the Public Library (State Library of Victoria) and National Gallery between Russell and Swanston streets. Concerned principally with the natural world and, in the case of anthropology, with the world prior to colonisation, the National Museum basked for a time in the postwar refurbishment, most especially the popular Victorian fauna dioramas in McCoy Hall. Behind the scenes, research and preservation continued but displays remained static and soon paled in comparison with images available in coloured wild life documentaries and glossy books. Anticipation of a new building excused complacency until the 1970s when issues of conservation and revival of interest in the natural world provided a new source of energy and relevance.
In contrast, the Science Museum, charged with displaying the products of human ingenuity and the processes and techniques by which the natural world was harnessed and managed to serve human needs, shared the technological optimism of the postwar era. Changing displays and working models provided insight into new developments in synthetic materials, telecommunications, energy sources and space travel.
Neither museum was adequately funded, and by the 1970s both were seen as narrow and antiquated. Calls to attend to the relationships between science, technology and society in museum displays grew more insistent, as did the demand to incorporate settlement history after the arrival of Europeans. Curators were challenged to develop a closer integration between the various parts of the Museum, engage more broadly with the community, rethink the relationship between the collections and the Koorie community and actively embrace the history embedded in the collections. The Swinburne Hall of agriculture, featuring the original 'smithy' of pioneering agricultural implement maker, H.V. McKay, engagement with Aboriginal elders and craftspeople, and critical work assisting conservation groups, captured the new spirit.
In 1983 the two museums amalgamated to form the Museum of Victoria which included a new division of Human Studies to separate Aboriginal artefacts and history from natural history and incorporate social history into the museum's culture. The Story of Victoria Exhibition, the Rural Gallery of Victoria, the Children's Museum, a refurbished planetarium, the transformation of Kershaw Hall into an 'Aboriginal Keeping Place' and attention to dinosaurs and extinction restored vibrancy and relevance as plans for a new building were developed and redeveloped. The opening of Scienceworks at the old Spotswood Pumping Station in 1992 and the Immigration Museum in the Old Customs House in 1998 allowed creative association with heritage buildings, but the decision of the government to abandon building works commenced on Southbank left the remaining divisions of Natural Sciences and Human Studies disheartened, fragmented and constrained.
Denton Corker Marshall's winning design for a new Melbourne Museum at Carlton Gardens alongside the Royal Exhibition Building bore their distinctive signature of soaring blades, sharp lines and complex shapes. It aroused controversy for itself, and for its location in proximity to a heritage building, but its easily comprehensible internal arrangements are well tailored to the demands of the modern museum. In 1998 the old Museum closed in preparation for relocation. Generously funded, at least initially, staff could attend fully to devising exhibitions and practices tuned to the times. The new Museum, which opened in 2000, also allowed all curatorial, research, education and exhibition staff to work together under the one roof, after two decades of separation. Exhibitions are theme-driven but gallery names suggest familiar divisions of knowledge: Mind and Body, Australia, Bunjilaka Aboriginal Centre, Science and Life and Children's Museum. Bisecting these, the 35-metre cantilevered Forest Gallery - a living replica of Melbourne's nearest forests - directly challenges the image of museums as attic or mausoleum, as do glimpses through the building's 497 glass front and port-holed walls of staff at work behind the scenes. Like the institution itself, the Museum's educational purpose has become more complex. It aims to both inform and challenge the visitor while offering an experience that is rich, entertaining and, after a very long wait, worthy of its priceless collection.