Australian Music Vault: Inside the new exhibition celebrating Aussie music

In Australia, a lot of our difficult conversations are actually brought to public notice through our musicians rather than anyone else.”

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Every generation has its iconic moments in music and culture, and Australia is no exception. From political rallies to hit singles; the birth of subcultures to the demise of trends – our country has witnessed it all in spades. And throughout it all has been a soundtrack all of our own. 

The Australian Music Vault aims to commemorate all of this. Celebrating the past, present and future of Aussie music, it’s set to be an immersive experience offering insight into the stories behind the sounds. At the heart of it all is an ongoing exhibition at the Arts Centre, opening the Vault for music lovers young and old.

One of the aims of the Australian Music Vault is to showcase the hitmakers, producers and industry stalwarts to the next generation of gamechangers –  all through demonstrating the power of pop music.

“[The exhibition] helps elevate popular music to its rightful place – as one of the arts," says Australian Music Vault curator Carolyn Laffan. "Often it’s seen as quite a disposable thing. This is a way of saying, ‘Popular music is a way we express ourselves as a culture.’ One of the things we’re looking at is musicians as agents for change. In Australia, a lot of our difficult conversations are actually brought to public notice through our musicians rather than anyone else. 

“You have a song like [Archie Roach’s] ‘Took The Children Away’. You could make an argument that without that there wouldn’t be a level of compassion and understanding of the Stolen Generation. Without that, you might not have an apology from the government. All the work that Midnight Oil have done over the years is sadly still relevant, as a lot of those issues have not been resolved. We take our lead from songwriters and musicians, but they also reflect back to us the things that are important. 

“They’re able to put into words things that we’re thinking and feeling but can’t put into words. They stay with you, and that’s why you have these generational anthems. We’re approaching the exhibition in a non-chronological way, and the reason we’re doing that is to show the commonalities and the themes that reoccur rather than just a year-by-year analysis. We’re looking at it as part of society; an expression of who we are as people. 

It’s fitting then that Archie Roach is one of the inaugural patrons of the Vault alongside fellow legends Kylie Minogue, Ian “Molly” Meldrum and music industry titan Michel Gudinski. The Vault will feature items from Roach as well as memorabilia from AC/DC, Men at Work, Split Enz, Midnight Oil, The Seekers, Nick Cave, Cold Chisel, Missy Higgins, Silverchair, and a constantly rotating list of artists who have scored the Australian experience through countless hooks and unforgettable choruses. 

Far more than an exhibition, however, the Australian Music Vault also aims to provoke and challenge. Namely, by asking one deceptively simple question: Is there an Australian sound? And if so, what is it? 

“What we’re trying to do is to get people to think, ‘What is the Australian sound to me?’ Is there something in pub rock that actually comes from having to play in very bad venues, with very bad acoustics, with a lot of drunk people, where you’ve got to crank up the volume — has that actually helped to create a specific sound? 

“Hip hop is a great example too," says Laffan. "It’s evolved into this amazing beast that doesn’t have anything to do with American hip hop anymore. It’s a real vehicle for talking about the political issues and cultural issues that we’re grappling with as a society.” 

Of course, Australia is devoid of a universal sound. Australia is the sound of Paul Kelly depicting a warm St Kilda night and of A.B. Original shattering white Australia’s stranglehold on January 26 all at once. It’s the sound of Olivia Newton John bringing Australian pop to the world. It's the sound of a new band playing your local venue on a Friday night. It crosses generational divides, brings us together and illuminates who we are as a country.

Australian music and the events that surround it is a beautiful, multifaceted beast. With the opening of the Australian Music Vault, we can celebrate it as the wondrous thing it is now, what it has been –  and for what it will be in the decades to come.



  • Poster for AC/DC ‘Lock up Your Daughters Summer Vacation Tour’, 1976 Arts Centre Melbourne, Australian Performing Arts Collection
  • Barry Gibb, John Farnham and Molly Meldrum at The Go-Set Awards, 1970 Arts Centre Melbourne, Australian Performing Arts Collection
  • Nick Cave notebook, 1984-1985 Photograph by Dan Magree Arts Centre Melbourne, Australian Performing Arts Collection
  • The Angels frontman Doc Neeson. Photograph by Kathleen O’Brien Arts Centre Melbourne, Australian Performing Arts Collection 
  • Forum Theatre, Melbourne, 1999. Photograph by Shellie Tonkin Arts Centre Melbourne, Australian Performing Arts Collection

Australian Music Vault will open to the public at Arts Centre Melbourne on Tuesday December 19.