Hoopla, conflict and bureaucratic bungling

Media release: Thursday, 28 February 2013

The people, politics and controversy involved in the design of Canberra have come to life in the National Archives' latest exhibition Design 29: creating a capital. The exhibition marks Canberra's centennial year and reveals what really happened 100 years ago – as well as what might have been.

'While much international hoopla surrounded Canberra's design competition in 1911, the creation of Canberra was mired in controversy from the beginning,' said curator Jane Macknight. 'Even the decision upon a site for the federal capital territory took a decade to be settled as various interests lobbied for their favoured location. And then choosing a design for the city caused more friction.'

Rarely seen original artworks submitted to the design competition will be a definite drawcard, but visitors will also be able to discover the stories, people and politics behind the process with an innovative use of customised iPads provided by the Archives.

'This is not only a first for us, but also for Australia, and a great way to celebrate Canberra's big year,' said Director-General David Fricker. 'Not only do we have some precious designs from 100 years ago on display, we're also combining the exhibition with cutting-edge augmented reality [AR] technology to give visitors a twenty-first century viewing experience.

'One of our ongoing aims is to use innovation and technology to bring records of the past to life, and provide easy access to archival records for everyone.'

This innovative technology reveals alternative visions, close-up details and lesser-known stories about the designs and Canberra's creation.

'The new in-gallery experience will be a first for Australia and pushes the bounds internationally, providing a seamless experience between original designs and immersion with the digital content,' said David Fricker.

Curator Jane Macknight said the complimentary iPads provided to visitors will enable them to see, in a tangible way, how the designs of the finalists differed.

'One of the lesser-known aspects of Griffin's design was a planting scheme to cover different hills with pink cherry blossom, red bottle brush or yellow broome,' she said. 'This spectacle never eventuated but the augmented reality will project an animated sequence, showing Griffin's vision.'

It was never smooth sailing for the Griffins. Even after Walter Burley Griffin's entry No. 29 was announced as the winner, Minister for Home Affairs King O'Malley appointed a second board to review the finalists' designs. The government was determined to have a say.

Official finalists included Eliel Saarinen of Finland and Donat-Alfred Agache of France, but a design by the Australian trio of Walter Scott Griffiths, Robert Charles Coulter and Charles Caswell was purchased by the government and became an unofficial finalist.

As part of the Canberra centenary celebrations the National Archives has pulled original and rarely seen designs out of the vault for the exhibition.

'The internationally acclaimed watercolour originals by Marion Mahony Griffin, who rendered Walter Burley Griffin's vision of Canberra so perfectly, are among the most significant items in our collection,' said Jane Macknight. 'They are also very fragile, which is why they haven't been on show for 10 years.

'We're also very proud to hold the original designs and drawings of the other finalists. They will be on display, some for the first time in a century, as will a rudimentary design later proposed by the second board.'

The stories behind the process of selecting the federal territory, the city site and the capital design are revealed in original documents from the time, which are also on display and can be examined in more detail with the iPads.

Design 29: creating a capital is on show from 1 March until 8 September 2013 at the National Archives, Queen Victoria Terrace, Parkes ACT. It will also be open on Friday and Saturday nights as part of the Enlighten festival on 1 and 2 March, and 8 and 9 March. The exhibition will be officially launched by the US Ambassador to Australia, Mr Jeffrey Bleich.

High-res media images can be downloaded from the National Archives of Australia website

Contact information

  • Elizabeth Masters (Media Officer)
    t (02) 6212 3957 m 0417 247 157 e elizabeth.masters@naa.gov.au
  • Shaun Rohrlach (Director, Communications and Programs)
    t (02) 6212 3990 m 0434 664 621 e shaun.rohrlach@naa.gov.au
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