Filling Coombs with the ocean

Bianca Hennessy

Society and culture | Pacific

9 September 2014

Bianca Hennessy reflects on academic spaces at university after preparing a photo exhibition from a field school in Samoa.

The Coombs building at ANU is a character in many stories. Most of these stories are about around getting lost. Its hexagonal honeycomb structure, winding corridors and half-level staircases make it one of the most disorienting environments on the ANU campus.

If you work in Coombs every day, you become accustomed to its idiosyncrasies. Many academics talk about the Coombs building as if it is a wily old friend, a practical joker whom they regard with bemusement and affection. After a while, you begin to appreciate that the building’s design promotes diverse people bumping into each other in unexpected places. You never stop learning new routes and shortcuts through it, and thus your relationship with the building itself becomes more in tune over time.

For students, though, Coombs is more oppressive. The prospect of forgetting the route to your tutorial room or lecturer’s office is a very real one. We joke about leaving a trail of crumbs to find our way, or else we risk never seeing sunlight again.

The character of Coombs and the way we interact with space at university was on my mind as I helped to curate a photographic exhibition for the Pacific Islands Field School. The exhibition is currently on display in the foyer of the Deans offices (of the Colleges of Asia and the Pacific, and Arts and Social Sciences.)

The foyer branches out in two wide arms as you ascend to the offices of the Deans. You can feel the collegiate hierarchies of authority inscribed into the architecture. Its wood-panelled staircases arching upwards towards the seats of power evoke a feeling of exclusivity. You feel like you should probably behave yourself, and perhaps not even be there at all. It is clearly a place for Important People on Official Business, and undergraduates are rarely included in that category.

For as long as anyone can remember, these staircases have been adorned with portraits of the former Deans of the Colleges: rows of old white men. While the contributions of these leaders are impressive and should be remembered, their portraits don’t give an impression of the vast diversity that characterises the Colleges today. The research and education that takes place within the building expands the world itself, even if just within people’s minds.

Now, the walls of these staircases are alive. Bursting from them are the experiences of real students in dazzling technicolour: sweaty dancing in a village fale, stoic enactments of Samoan history, intensive planning of an arts and fashion event with local art students. In one photo, children play in an ocean pool during a violet sunset. In another, my friend Mitiana holds his Samoan grandmother’s hand. And in a nod to the ANU’s long history of engagement with Samoan anthropology, Derek Freeman’s collection of precious artefacts are intermingled with those collected by current undergraduates.

My involvement with putting together this exhibition was initially fuelled by a desire to celebrate the time I spent in Samoa and encourage other students to get involved with Pacific Studies. As I spent more time on the project, though, the meaning of the exhibition deepened. It took on the purpose of proving the strength of collaboration between staff and students, arguing for the irreplaceable value of field schools and in-country education, and demonstrating the potent force of students infiltrating spaces – both physical and figurative – that they are too often excluded from.

We launched the exhibition with a Samoan prayer delivered by Reverend Latu Latai, and we danced the Siva in our puletasis and lava-lavas. It may have been one of the most colourful nights that the Coombs tea room has ever seen. I have spoken to many academics who are enthusiastic about the colour and energy now emanating from the Coombs foyer. Many have spoken of how the warmth of the photos has brightened cold Canberra mornings; but I hope it’s also provoking conversations about the way that we can let the vibrancy of ‘the field’ into our places of study. I hope it might inspire others to see the university (and its strange old buildings) as a space of potential and possibility.

I remember reading an article that argued that while we debate our university’s future, we talk too much about quantifiable material realities: the cost of buildings, the salaries of staff, the fees of students. We forget that the buildings whose value we measure in dollars are named after people who had ideas and whose ideas shaped something. Chifley, Manning Clark, Hancock, Fenner, Coombs. Whilst most of these buildings, just like the Deans portraits in Coombs, commemorate old white men, they represent much more. They are filled with books and conversations that continue to shape the way we experience and understand the world. They are filled with eccentric and wonderful people whose minds transcend the trappings of their physical walls. The Samoa exhibition is a visual representation of how undergraduates can be an active and visible part of this process.

Maea Buhre, Nikki Sloan and I have put together a selection of images from the exhibition that you can view online.If you would like to see the exhibition for yourself, it will be on display for about another month. It’s just up the stairs from the main Coombs entry – I promise you won’t get lost. Keep an eye out for another creative exhibition next year from the students of the 2014 Pacific Islands Field School, who will be travelling to Hawai’i in November. It promises to be just as vibrant.

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  1. […] project has had on academic spaces in an institution like The Australian National University. Both Bianca’s article and a selection of images from the exhibit can be found at The Monsoon Project. This year the Field […]

  2. […] project has had on academic spaces in an institution like The Australian National University. Both Bianca’s article and a selection of images from the exhibit can be found at The Monsoon Project This year the Field […]

  3. […] Building, outside the office of the Dean, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. As Bianca Hennessy wrote, this location is particularly apt as it brings the vibrancy, “colour and energy” of […]

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