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Cummeragunja On Country Learning Precinct

posted on 2024-05-28, 04:12 authored by DAVID O'BRIENDAVID O'BRIEN, James Neil, Aunty May Walker, Uncle Col Walker, Uncle Leon Atkinson, Damien CrespDamien Cresp, GEORGE STAVRIAS, JAMES NEILJAMES NEIL
Many indigenous leaders are keen to share their knowledge and stewardship of Country with new generations of indigenous and non-indigenous learners but claim that they lack the support and dedicated space to undertake this role. The Cummeragunja community extends beyond local residents to encompass the wider Yorta Yorta diaspora, many of whom are now living in townships in Victoria and NSW. Maintaining connections with Country is critically important for well-being and to meet cultural obligations. While ceremonies, funerals and informal visits draw extended families together at Cummeragunja there has been no specific focal point to meet while in community. At the heart of this collaboration with community elders has been the creation of a designated place to celebrate culture, co-designed and built by indigenous and non-indigenous students. The indigenous people living at Cummeragunja partnered with the University of Melbourne's ASHE and Bower Studio programs to co-design and co-develop an on country learning (ONCL) precinct where stories can be shared with students and visitors. More than 120 community members and university students have participated in this program following consultations from 2019 and the first stage of the precinct opening in 2022. The Cummeragunja Reserve is located on the Dungala (Murray) River in New South Wales near the Barmah township. Established in 1882 the settlement was designated to rehouse the indigenous residents of the Maloga Mission who rebelled against the authoritarian control of the missionaries. The once thriving Cummeragunja community school, market gardens and store has subsequently suffered under various state government controls. This culminated in the 'walk-off' in 1939, the first mass strike of indigenous Australians, that saw many residents crossing the river to establish new lives in Victoria. Nowadays the Cummeragunja Aboriginal Land Council, under the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, supports the dozen or so families still living in the community. Cummeragunja elders and indigenous people living in larger townships are concerned that indigenous youth are not well supported to engage with traditional knowledge and culture on country and that this has a significantly detrimental effect on their overall wellbeing and capacity to celebrate their indigeneity. Furthermore, it is recognised by elders as well as tertiary educators, that there are accessibility barriers that divide non-indigenous learners from engaging with indigenous people which unfortunately, has traditionally been on the terms of the non-indigenous education providers. This disadvantaging the indigenous communities that seek engagement opportunities that are undertaken in on country settings. Early in the partnership the Cummeragunja residents requested that the ONCL precinct's design respects vernacular typologies and supports elders discussing the natural environment as well as indigenous knowledge systems. Elders identified a store of felled eucalyptus trees as a source of building materials and identified key stories and environmental characteristics they wished to be incorporated into the design thinking and built outcomes. During the consultation process that included the Cummeragunja Aboriginal Land Council, the Cummeragunja Housing and Development Corporation, Bower Studio and Arup, several sketch models were made at 1:10 scale with detailed sections made at 1:1 scale before the construction of the pavilion at the centrepiece of the precinct was started.


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  • Yes

NTRO Output Type

  • Original Creative Work

NTRO Output Category

  • Original Creative Work : Design / architectural Work


Cummeragunja, Australia



NTRO Publisher

Bower Studio, Melbourne School of Design


Co-designing and co-building

Research Statement

An 'action research' program was initiated to assist the Cummeragunja community develop a Cummeragunja On Country Learning Precinct including a pavilion constructed from local materials to act as the focus for community cultural events. This collaborative project included Cummeragunja community members working with Bower Studio to co-design and co-build the facility within the community. The process shifted the usual 'top down' approach commonly used to drive indigenous design projects and introduced an iterative process with each of the completed stages helping inform the next to ensure the process was inclusive and rigorous in its design intent and physical outcomes. This project is located in the University of Melbourne's priority research/collaboration area within the Goulburn Valley. Relationships between the Indigenous communities in the Goulburn Valley and the university had been strained before this collaboration. The co-design, co-build and co-develop processes stemming from this program built the foundations of an ongoing relationship that has now been established to nurture new research projects and collaborations. The project was awarded the University of Melbourne Excellence Award in Placed-based Initiatives in 2022

Size or Duration of Work



David O'Brien, University of Melbourne

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