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The Australian National University

Acton campus

Acton, 1912 showing Acton Homestead, Commonwealth Offices and early cottages and residences. (Source: National Library of Australia)
Construction of the Old Administration Area, 1952 (Source: ANU Archives)
John Curtin School of Medical Research, 1959 (Source: ANU Archives)

Aboriginal history

The area on, and surrounding, the Acton campus is of major importance to the local Aboriginal people. Historical and archaeological evidence has shown extensive use of this area. Consultation undertaken with the four Representative Aboriginal Organisations (RAO) of the ACT region has revealed the cultural significance of this place. Sullivan's Creek was used as a pathway to the larger Molonglo River, and was also an important source of food. The land was carefully managed by Aboriginal people using 'cool burning' to support the growth of new vegetation, which would attract kangaroos for hunting. Black Mountain is a significant ceremonial and meeting place.

Historical evidence indicates that the Molonglo River Flats, Black Mountain and its spur, now known as the Acton Peninsula, were areas that are believed to have been favoured as meeting places by the Aboriginal people of the region (Gillespie 1979; Bluett 1954; Sydney Morning Herald 21st May 1927). The Canberra region was occupied by the Ngunawal/Ngunnawal; the Ngambri; and the Ngarigu people.

The timbered areas would have provided ample stocks of possum, kangaroo and wallaby whilst the Molonglo River was rich in Murray Cod. Proximity to water and protection from the prevailing winds would also have made the area at the base of Black Mountain (Black Mountain Peninsula) attractive for Aboriginal occupation. Material culture remains for the region include stone artefacts, spears and possum and kangaroo skin cloaks. The arrival of European settlers markedly decreased the local Aboriginal populations, displacing them from their traditional lands.

More information about the indigenous significance of this campus can be found on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Trail.

Pastoral settlement

Following European settlement in Australia, the area was largely transformed by heavy pastoralisation from the 1820s, with two properties - Springbank and Acton occupying the site. Livestock and cropping markedly changed the open grassland character of the site, and the first modern buildings appeared in the area in the form of homesteads and pastoral outbuildings.

The National Capital

Following the resumption of the land by the Commonwealth in 1911/12 - the site was earmarked as the early administrative hub of the newly proclaimed Federal Capital Territory - encompassing offices and residences of the fledgling Commonwealth Public Service, the residence of the Administrator and the Canberra Community Hospital (1914). However the site was always envisioned as an educational precinct. In the original design competition for Canberra (1911) - Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin's winning competition entry designated the site for tertiary learning, even going as far as plotting the locations of individual disciplines.

A national university

The idea of a national university for Australia has been discussed as early as the 1870s when educationalist Edward Morris proposed the idea to remove competition between the state-based institutions. In 1900, journalist Alexander Sutherland stated his support for a 'University of Australia', and these discussions continued upon the establishment of the new Capital in 1913, with the focus being on the need for postgraduate study. By 1930, the combined efforts of the University of Melbourne and the Australian federal government saw the establishment of forerunner to the ANU - the Canberra University College (CUC). The CUC was established to accommodate public servants who would attend the university as part-time students in undergraduate studies.

After a 1934 refusal of the proposal by then Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, it was Prime Minister Joseph Benedict Chifley who finally passed an Act of Parliament in 1946 to establish the ANU as a research university. This was an Australian first. By 1960, Australian National University incorporated the Canberra University College and began offering undergraduate study on the campus.

The campus today

The Acton Campus is well renowned for its landscape setting, with many remnant and planted trees and an obvious commitment to maintenance of open space. ANU maintains over 10,000 trees, including over 500 considered to be of exceptional significance because of their age, history or species and over 300 remnant trees predating European occupation of the area. The areas of Sullivan's Creek and University Avenue are key features of the Acton Campus providing major avenues across the campus that contribute to its 'park like' nature and are also nationally and internationally recognised features of the Acton campus.

There are eight buildings or complexes of buildings currently listed on the Commonwealth Heritage List (CHL) and following the ANU Heritage Study (2012) over 60 more buildings/complexes have been identified as meeting the threshold for listing on the Commonwealth Heritage List.

Updated:  26 May 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Facilities & Services Division/Page Contact:  Systems & Information Technology