Question: Where in the world is it a rite of passage to lay flat on your back upon entering a museum?
Answer: Beneath the stained-glass ceiling at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia
At the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), exhibits may come and go as cultural tastes shift over time, but one thing never changes: the stained-glass ceiling in the Great Hall is still such a knockout, visitors end up flat on their backs. While some museums might not care to have patrons scattered about like throw rugs in a busy hall, it’s a matter of pride and tradition at the NGV.
Painter and glass artist Leonard French was commissioned in 1961 for the project as part of the rebuilding of the century-old NGV on a new site. According to the artist’s daughter, a fortune teller in Greece told her dad that he would “create the heavens.” By late 1962, he had completed the plans for the ceiling: 12 columns upholding a lattice of 224 panels, each with dozens of colored glass tiles. The 10,000-square-foot result would become the largest stained-glass window in the world.
It was tricky business: French knew that if he used leading to outline the suspended glass, it would be too heavy, risking collapse. Instead, French inset the glass in plywood surfaced with aluminum. The glass was sourced from France and Belgium in 50 different hues, with the edges chipped randomly to allow for more prismatic reflections. The handmade feel was intentional, so that the ceiling would feel very human. When it was unveiled in 1968, many art critics didn’t appreciate this detail—but museumgoers did.
Soon, visitors started lying on their backs so that they could better witness the glowing beauty. At first, it was high school students visiting the gallery on school tours; then, other youth and even adults followed suit, and it became the norm. Locals will tell you that you can spot which visitors grew up in Victoria: they’re the ones who immediately lay down, unselfconsciously, beneath the artwork. During 21st century remodeling, the NGV decided to move the ceiling glass to a front wall, but the plan was scrapped after people protested that it would change the experience. The ceiling stayed put and visitors may still lie beneath it, letting their eyes drift to the “heavens” that fortune teller predicted.
9 More Artworks to Love Across Australia
- To commemorate the first century of women’s suffrage, Melbourne unveiled The Great Petition (at Burston Reserve), a rolled steel sculpture that resembles an unspooling petition like the one women first presented to Australia’s Parliament in the late 19th century.
- A colony of anodized aluminum bees comprise a piece titled Queen Bee, which transforms the side of the Eureka Building (Riverside Quay, Southbank, Melbourne) into a hive, and is said to represent harmonious city living.
- Travelers is a sculpture on Sandridge Bridge in Melbourne featuring 10 steel figures representing migration across the span of time in Australia (from Dreamtime to the arrival of tech workers in the 20th century).
- In Alice Springs, the Yeperenye sculpture (located in Araluen Cultural Precinct) is a 10-foot-high metal caterpillar embodying one of the three creators in Alice Springs mythology; funded by Grand Circle Foundation, the sculpture was made by a metal artist and decorated with panels created by local students.
- Visitors to Mossman will find Dreaming of The Oldest Rainforest Bush Foods (Johnston Road), the city’s first public art installation; the collection of 12 colorful poles represent the meals prepared by different generations of Kuku Yalanji people.
- In Sydney, The Youngsters (Martin Place) is a series of bronze youth scattered about the Central Business District in various poses; their clothing is lined with coal and quartz as a nod to the history of minerals in the Australian economy.
- Titled The Distance of your Heart, a flock of 67 bronze songbirds appeared in 2018 along Bridge and Grosvenor streets in Sydney, each only a few inches tall; look for them perched on windowsills, lampposts, and under public benches.
- When the city of Sydney replaced the 75-year-old wooden escalators at Wynyard Station, they didn’t discard the historic machinery; they let artist Chris Fox transform them into Interloop, a ribbon-like sculpture installed in the ceiling of the station.
- In less than a year, Bara, the newest of Sydney’s public artworks, will debut on the Tarpeian Precinct Lawn of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Bara is a giant rendition of a pair of the fish hooks used by indigenous women for thousands of years, bringing the ancient past to life in modern art.
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