Design 29: Creating a Capital

View of Canberra from Mount Ainslie

Canberra viewed from Mount Ainslie with the War Memorial in the foreground (the green dome), the white buildings of the old parliament house on the avenue across the lake leading to the new parliament house on Capital Hill. Photo by Alan Perkins.

This is the year of Canberra.  The celebrations of the centenary of its founding mark a point where Canberra can reflect on its past.  The one hundredth anniversary which coincided with one of my daughters moving to Canberra has caused me to rethink my attitude to the city and recognise that as a place I should take it more seriously.

A couple of months ago I wrote a review of an exhibition about the designers of Canberra, Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin that was held at the National Library of Australia.  Recently I visited a related exhibition held at the National Archives of Australia about the competition for the design of Canberra and the early glimmerings of the emergence of the capital.

The inauspicious public face of the National Archives of Australia.

The inauspicious public face of the National Archives of Australia in Canberra.

‘Design 29: Creating a Capital’ is a small exhibition of five sections.  The first is an area dedicated to the drawings submitted by the Griffins to the design competition for Canberra – entry no. 29.  Four sections are devoted to the design competition with a room each for the successful entry of Walter Burley Griffin; the runner-up, Finnish architect, Eliel Saarinen; third place getter, the French man, Donat-Alfred Agahe; and the entry of the Australian team of Griffiths, Coulter and Caswell.  These sections consist of the drawings and paintings the entrants submitted to the competition.  You can see the items exhibited on the website created for the competition: Design 29 – Creating a Capital.  Another section of the exhibition is devoted to archival material relating to the selection of the site of Canberra and to the work done in the few years after the announcement that Walter Burley Griffin had won the design competition.

I found the painting submitted by Griffiths, Coulter and Caswell, the Australian entrants, the most interesting of the work exhibited, in particular this view.  The first thought that flashed into my mind was that it represented a fantasy.  It was a picture of what the Australians wanted Australia to look like.  The painting depicts a city with formal European green vegetation.  Australian green is very different and the predominant eucalyptus trees have a very different form as demonstrated in the photo of Canberra at the beginning of this post. The entry by Griffiths, Coulter and Caswell reflected the desire of many Australians to live ‘back home’ in Britain and their rejection of the landscape and vegetation of Australia.  To create a city as green as that envisioned by Griffiths, Coulter and Caswell every native tree would have been felled, replaced with European trees and vast quantities of water applied to the grass and trees to keep them alive. This would have been impossible to achieve with Canberra’s low rainfall.

It is the Griffin’s sensitivity to the Canberra landscape and climate which makes Walter Burley Griffin’s competition entry and the Griffins’ subsequent work in Canberra so extraordinary.  As I learned from the National Library Australia exhibition, Griffin was a landscape designer as well as an architect.  At the time of his entry neither he nor his wife, Marion, had visited Australia yet their entry and subsequent work in Australia demonstrate that they accepted and understood Australia’s environment unlike many Australians at the time.

Planning for a new city starts with considering its natural environment.  As I was writing this post I was flying over the rivers of fog of inland New South Wales close to Canberra.  It is winter now and at this time of the year we see our federal politicians wrapped in heavy coats and scarves.  Canberra is one of the coldest cities in Australia.  Its average overnight minimum is -0.2°C in the coldest month of July and the maximum during the day in July can be expected to hover around 11.2°C (Bureau of Meteorology).  Climate was an important consideration in the choice of the location of the new capital but it was understood in different terms then.  An exhibit in the archives section notes that an inland location was chosen for the capital not because of anxiety about the security of a coastal capital but because “[t]he theory that a cool climate would produce sharp thinkers and decisive leadership was popular in the early 20th century…”.   (See for example, ‘Report of the Commissioner on Sites for the Seat of Government of the Commonwealth’, pp. 10-11, published by the Legislative Assembly of NSW, October 1900, National Archives of Australia, series A18, control symbol 2.)

Large tent with children standing outside it

Tent school at Cotter River. Image courtesy of Hall School Museum.

Keep in mind the cold Canberra winters when considering the conditions in the school that serviced the families of the first workers who commenced construction of the city.  The notes to one exhibit state that “[a]fter requests from trade unions a school was set up by the NSW education department, and was housed in a large canvas tent between 1914 and 1917.”  Imagine the conditions in which the children were studying.  There would have been no heating.  The tent was without a floor until at least June 1914 after having opened at the beginning of April that year (‘Public School – Cotter River, Federal Capital Territory’,  Series A207, control symbol G1915/1619, National Archives of Australia).

I am curious about that tent school but understandably the exhibition did not share further information.  Like the exhibition at the National Library I was left with unanswered questions.  Walter Burley Griffin had included a casino in his plans but the War Memorial was built in its place.  Why did Griffin regard a casino as being important enough to include in his original designs?

The Use of Technology in the Exhibition

Thus far I have given you the impression that aside from content, this exhibition is traditionally delivered through physical exhibits and accompanying curatorial notes erected on a small white rectangle on the wall.  However, technology plays an important role in this exhibition.  At the start of the exhibition a member of the staff approaches visitors and asks them whether they would like to take an exhibition ipad around the exhibition.  I noticed that some people didn’t take up this offer, but I love gadgets loaded with more information so I gladly accepted the bulky ipad.  The wall notes for the four sections covering the competition entries were minimal – just a title and the name of the person who had created the work.  To gain more information the visitor has to focus the iPad on a coloured square next to the item.  This works much like a QR code and enables the visitor to access a lot of background information about the item.

The extra information on the ipad was extensive.  I found the ipad with the bulky protective casing too heavy to easily hold with one hand but fortunately there was good seating in the exhibition.  I sat down and read the information.

In fact I spent more time looking at the ipad than the items on the walls. I was entranced by the information it contained. In the end I lost that sense of visiting an exhibition. I felt that I had gained more information from the ipad than the physical exhibits and was left with the thought that I could have stayed at home and accessed the same information through the exhibition and the National Archives websites.  Yet when I examined the exhibition website for this post I found the exhibition website has only a fraction of the material that is on the exhibition ipad.

The use of technology has improved the experience of exhibitions greatly for visitors over the years.  We have embraced audio commentary, QR codes and interactive displays.  However, it is important that the technology assists the visitor rather than intervenes between the visitor and the item.  It is important that the visitor primarily interacts with the item displayed rather than the screen they are carrying around.

Yet curators are always working within tight constraints.  In the case of the Design 29 exhibition there is very limited wall and floor space that a curator can use to convey information.  Without the extra supplied through the ipad the visitor would be unlikely to gain much from the exhibition.  Without the ipad the walls could have been cluttered with information. The National Archives are not primarily an exhibiting institution so they have limited funds and space to achieve the right balance between information in the physical space and accompanying information delivered through technology.

While the use of technology in this exhibition jarred, I appreciate the effort that the National Archives have put into digitising the information stored on the ipad.  I suspect that much of it is already available through their regular online catalogue but it would take a bit of hunting down to find it.  I hope that all this information is added to the exhibition website so that the Archives can deliver this exhibition to all Australians irrespective of where they live.

I am interested to hear your opinions about the use of technology in exhibitions.  What has worked for you? Please share examples of what you regard as best practice… or worst!

Exhibition Details

Name:  Design 29 – Creating Canberra
Where: National Archives of Australia, Queen Victoria Terrace, Parkes, Canberra
Cost: Free
Exhibition Ends: 8th September 2013

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3 thoughts on “Design 29: Creating a Capital

    • I’m glad that you found my review useful. Keep experimenting! I appreciate the efforts the National Archives have put into trying new things over the years in their quest to provide a good service to the Australian public.

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  1. Pingback: Augmented Canberra - A Capital Yarn set in Canberra

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