Richard Bomford (centre) and fellow geology students protest a departmental ruling banning them from attending class in bare feet, 1972. Photo: Jim Green, The Canberra Times

The digital campfire: remembering 75 years of ANU

ANU was established in 1946 to rebuild Australia and the world after the devastation of the Second World War. Since then, the University has forged an incredible story. But how do you tell this tale in the 21st century? Dr Daniel Oakman reflects on marking milestones in the digital age.

The room was small and overheated, the carpets dirty and the wooden desk covered with a sprinkling of the previous occupant’s hair. But, after two decades working in an open-plan office, a private space in the Coombs Building seemed like a luxury. The year was 2019, and, for me, it was something of a return to my past. I had been a Coombs-dweller before, having completed my PhD at the ANU Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies 17 years earlier. 

A lot had changed. My old research school and department were gone. Most of the academic and administrative staff I once knew had either died, retired, or moved to other parts of the University. The famous tearoom that once hummed with life lay abandoned. Some things were the same, like the ageing computer on my desk and the office chair, still as uncomfortable as it was in the late 1990s. 

Thankfully, the flashbacks to the anxious final months spent finishing my dissertation soon passed. And, I got back to thinking about how best to tell the story of my alma mater and its extraordinary place in the national imagination. 

Universities are potent concentrations of human endeavour.

Anniversary celebrations are tricky. In truth, they are my least favourite mode of history and the most troublesome, especially when telling the story of a complex institution like a university. Don’t get me wrong; they can be helpful in gaining attention. But they don’t make for good history, skewed as they often are towards success. They can be shallow celebrations of a glittering façade, a collection of seemingly effortless triumphs with no hint of the hard graft, anguish, doubt and obsession that so often accompanies the will to achieve. Also missing, especially in times of economic and structural upheaval, is any sense of the cost, of what – and who – has been lost along the way. 

Universities are potent concentrations of human endeavour. They are places where bright and inquiring minds turn their intellects to some of the most critical questions and challenges facing humankind and the planet. Passions run high. The quest for knowledge — for researchers, teachers and students — can be intoxicating. They can be hard places too, where spirits are dashed. 

The story of ANU encompasses all these things. Although the University’s commitment to its national mission has never wavered, the last 20 years have been the most tumultuous in its history. The 21st century began with the unsettling merger of the Institute of Advanced Studies and the faculties, only to be followed by a decade of budget contractions and painful organisational reform. More recent disruptions include a debate over the decision to divest University investments from the fossil fuel sector, the withdrawal from negotiations with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, a cyberattack, a destructive hailstorm, and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

I started my work capturing this extraordinary story by speaking to people who had not only witnessed the way ANU had changed over the decades, but played an active role in its evolution, including vice-chancellors, academics and students. I read the archives and listened to interviews with former staff. With limited access to official records from the last 25 years, I knew I needed to find a different method to capture the University’s contribution to national life with a more nuanced and human-centred understanding of its recent past.  

Then, I discovered a photograph. Under a high ceiling and elegant pendant lighting, small groups of men and women enjoyed cups of tea and cigarettes. Some are huddled close in conversation. Others are absorbed by documents of some kind — or each other. It’s a picture of the Coombs tearoom in 1964, soon after it opened. The seating has had a few upgrades over the years and smoking has long been forbidden, but the tearoom tradition survived in a remarkably similar way for more than half a century. The tearoom was designed as the social and intellectual heart of a complex building. It has long been a symbol of scholarly life at ANU and the collegiality needed to sustain it.  

While it is easy to overstate the significance of the Coombs tearoom, especially given the advances in communication technology that have moved professional exchange online, it formed the kernel of an idea for bringing the ANU community and its past into conversation. 

What if we could recreate the essence of the tearoom to bring every member of the ANU community together in dialogue with each other and the past, creating a ‘digital campfire’ where people could explore, reminisce and reflect on university life: the triumphs and the tears. The campfire might seem a little like a group therapy session. And, in some ways, it is. How else, I thought, could we record, listen, enjoy and learn from the rich experience of those who have helped make ANU? 

The web platform selected for the anniversary is more commonly used by government agencies looking to secure community feedback on development projects — not historians. But with a bit of creative repurposing, the ‘Spirit of Inquiry’ webpage was born. It’s named after a series of colourful ceramic artworks by Deborah Halpern that once adorned the concrete terracing of the old Union Court. The name seemed to suit both the questing nature of the University’s foundational motto and its continuing commitment to intellectual and scientific endeavour. It also alluded to that indefinable amalgam of ingredients that shape the culture of ANU. 

Universities must find new ways to reinvigorate their place in the national imagination.

Currently, visitors to the site can explore a range of themed content. They can reflect upon the thousands of years that Indigenous people managed the land on which ANU is built through a selection of images of stone tools once used on the Acton Peninsula and along Sullivans Creek. A series of aerial images of ANU taken in the 1960s and 2010 show the rapid growth of the University and the transformation of the landscape. There is a special feature on the ANU Bar and its vibrant music scene since the 1970s. Visitors can immerse themselves in a selection of photographs taken of live performances over three decades by former forestry student Kevin Prideaux, better known as ’pling. There are illustrated timelines: one charts the significant milestones in the University’s history, while another offers a detailed record of student activism from the 1960s to the present day.  

The heart of the webpage, however, is the interactive portal called ‘ANU Explorer’. It is here that curated history and user-generated content will build organically over the next 12 months and beyond. Everyone is welcome to upload stories, images or videos about any aspect of their experience at ANU. In addition, they can comment, like, and start conversations with other users. Already we are seeing rare images of campus life being uploaded and more contemporary responses, such as from Bob Crawshaw. While never having worked or been a student, Crawshaw has responded to the campus environment with an artful series of photographs. 

Participatory projects like this are an organic and unpredictable way to build a history. Therein lies its exciting potential — and its risk. Few universities have tried it. In the middle of a global pandemic, the future of Australian universities has rarely seemed less assured. Universities must find new ways to reinvigorate their place in the national imagination. A bold engagement with their past will be one of the many ways needed to secure their future. 

In 2020, I moved out of the Coombs Building and into a new office building for the Research School of Social Sciences, a gleaming blue cube built on a site once occupied by the old Student Union (later renamed the Pauline Griffin Building). Unlike ‘The Coombs’, the windows don’t open, but there is air conditioning. The internal walls are thinner, made of plasterboard instead of brick, and I can hear my neighbours when they laugh. We make our beverages in the spacious communal kitchen. The computer, alas, is the same. 

1 August 2021 is anniversary day: 75 years since the passing of the Act of Parliament that formally brought the ANU into existence. The weather is wild and unpredictable on this day, so the official ceremony has been moved to the Kambri Centre. As I make my way across campus, I catch a glimpse of the blue-tinted exterior of my building that reflects the skipping clouds and vegetated slopes of Black Mountain. The clouds — some white and light, some grey and heavy with rain — appear to billow up and around the building like smoke, blurring the edges between the glass and the sky. 

The campfire is alight. What will you bring along? 

Dr Daniel Oakman is a historian based at the ANU School of History.