Seeking Light at the University of Adelaide

Public programs and events


North Terrace

Day two of the History Festival began with a University of Adelaide History & Heritage Tour. I took a few classes at the North Terrace Campus during my undergraduate studies, but had never really explored the whole site. I waited in front of the Mitchell Building for my guide and the rest of the group. The Mitchell Building was the first building on the North Terrace Campus, constructed in 1881 and was the third University in Australia. Originally it housed all University disciplines and was known simply as 'the University Building'. In 1961 it was named in honour of Professor Sir William Mitchell, a renowned philosopher who served as Vice Chancellor (1916-1942) and then Chancellor (1942-1948). Today it holds the office of the Vice Chancellor and Chancellor and this week in particular becomes a dressing room for all staff members involved in graduation processions. Soon my guide, the lovely Rabina, arrived. Rabina has been involved with the University for many years, first as a Librarian at the Barr Smith and then an Alumni members as well as a volunteer for the University Collections team. I turned out to be the only attendee so I was very excited to have a private tour for the morning.

Rabina discussed the beginnings of the University as we strolled through the grounds (which have been opened up to encourage the public to use the beautiful leafy green spaces, it is a public University after all). We pass Elder Hall, a 1900 Gothic Revival style building and a bequest from Sir Thomas Elder to create a Conservatorium of Music. Today public concerts are held in the Conservatorium every Friday afternoon (I made a mental note to add one to my to do list this May!). Directly in front of us was Bonython Hall, which was a gift to the University from Sir Langdon Bonython. It was constructed in 1936 using pre-fabricated slabs, not brick by brick, using Murray Bridge limestone and cast concrete. The Hall is used for University ceremonial events such as graduations, which was the reason we unfortunately could not go inside as the 11am graduation was just beginning. 

We turned South and headed past the Napier Building (which I was very familiar with - basically the only building besides the Library I spent time in during my studies) and continued down towards the river past the Engineering buildings. On the way Rabina pointed out some of the outdoor sculptures that part of the University grounds. Reclining Connected Forms is a sculpture by artist Henry Moore and is located in the Walter Young Garden. Dual, by South Australian artist Greg Johns is located on the Lower Napier Lawn, opposite the Engineering South Building. Our next stop was a closer look at the new Ingkarni Wardli building which houses the faculty of Engineering, Computer and Mathematical Science. The Kaurna name, meaning 'place of learning or enquiry' recognises the special relationship the University of Adelaide shares with the Kaurna people, the original custodians of the land on which the University is situated. The first building on Campus to be given a Kaurna name, it was also awarded Australia's first 6 Star Green Star rating for an education building when it opened in 2010. The building is the largest construction project in the University's extensive redevelopment program.

Rabina led me through Ingkarni onto the Math Lawns which gave me a gorgeous view of the original entrance to the Barr Smith Library. Named after Robert Barr Smith and constructed in 1932 after his son Tom Barr Smith provided the funds, it is the best example of the classical red brick and sandstone style established by University architect Walter H Bagot. It features an imposing front portico and a finely detailed interior with a coffered ceiling. The Barr Smith legacy has ensured an uninterrupted view through to the Botanic Gardens and Frome Road by some fine print in the contract stating that the University is not allowed to construct anything in front of the Library. So far, so good. On the other side of the Math Lawns is the somewhat controversial Braggs Building. It is named after two of its greatest alumni, 1915 Nobel Laureates Sir William Henry Bragg and his son, Sir William Lawrence Bragg, the only father and son team to win a Nobel Prize. Their research determining the molecular structure of crystals using x-rays continues to be used in medicine, chemistry, physics, mining and biology. Sir William Henry Bragg spent 22 years at the University of Adelaide, as Elder Professor of Mathematics and Physics from 1886 to 1908, and his pioneering work with X-rays and radium started at the University of Adelaide. Sir Lawrence Bragg graduated from the University of Adelaide in mathematics in 1908, remains the youngest scientist ever to win the Nobel Prize, at 25. The Braggs has more than 10,000 square metres of research and teaching facilities with unique specialised laboratories including for glass processing, optical fibre fabrication, luminescence dating and atmospheric sensing, as well as a 420-seat lecture theatre, two floors of state-of-the-art teaching laboratories and additional student and staff space - certainly an impressive building.

After circling around the grounds past Union House (originally used for student services and study areas), Rabina led me up to her favourite place on Campus - the Barr Smith Library. It has certainly changed since I navigated the stairwells into the depths trying to find books about classical archaeology! The Library has been revitalised with the construction of the Hub. Much of the reference material has been digitised and moved off site to University archives (which are still accessible to students who need the hard copy version!). The Library has opened up rooms for meetings, lectures, pilates and study; and the traditional service desk has gone replaced by staff equipped with iPads able to answer questions and point lost and overwhelmed first year students in the right direction. Rabina led me into the pièce de résistance, the Barr Smith Library Reading Room. The Reading Room was planned to hold 15,000 volumes and provide seating for 200 readers.  A ground-level book stack provided capacity for 135,000 volumes, and a proposed stack extension (eventually begun in 1958 to a new design) was projected to bring total accommodation to 500,000 volumes, quoted at the opening ceremony by the mathematician, Professor John Wilton as "ample for one hundred years to come."  In fact, the Library grew much faster, both in area and in its collections.  It took just 37 years to reach 500,000 volumes, a further twenty years to reach one million volumes, with two million volumes exceeded in 1999. The room is still used for quiet study and for other functions (Rabina mentioned she was lucky enough to have a significant birthday party in the space a few years ago!).

After winding our way through the maze that is the Library, we popped out into The Hub. In 2009, the University embarked on discussion with reference groups, online surveys and social media, and found that students expressed a desire for an immersive learning environment where they could study at their own pace, either in groups or individually, whilst also having access to the resources they require, when they require them (such as good coffee and snacks!). Located in the heart of the North Terrace Campus it has become a place for students to meet study and unwind. It has 3 levels with shops, food and drink, independent study spaces, computer spaces, project rooms and much more. 

We walked back up towards the Mitchell Building where Rabina assured me that we would be able go inside now that the staff would have vacated their dressing rooms. With a smile and a wave at security, she led me through the doors and into the foyer. I was not prepared for the interior of this building! In front of me was a grand staircase complete with mezzanine landing, stained glass windows (providing most of the natural light) and a hammer beam roof. Lining the walls were portraits of Chancellors past, the portraits are not hung until the Chancellor has left office. Rabina led me back down the stairs and through a corridor which connects to the Kenneth Willis Building and Old Classics Wing where the offices of the University Collections team are situated. There are over 40 collections across the University, each revealing facets of the University's illustrious history. A team of dedicated museum professionals looks after and promotes these collections, running a public lecture series to showcase the creativity and scholarship of the academic masses over the years to the present day.

My tour had come full circle as we finished back in front of the Mitchell Building. Rabina finished by telling me more about the University Collections and their Museums. The offer tours of the three Museums by special appointment: Museum of Classical Archaeology (Mitchell Building), the Tate Museum (Mawson Laboratories) and the Roseworthy Agricultural Museum (Roseworthy Campus). The History and Heritage Tours are run from March through to November on Tuesdays at 10.30am and Thursdays at 2pm. You can contact University Collections for further information on their tours or public lecture series by emailing'; // -->  or by visiting their website There are several other History Festival events and exhibitions hosted by or held in the University and its campuses across Adelaide. 

Seek Light is the theme for the University's rebranding campaign launched in 2013. The concept of light is synonymous with the University through its original motto Sub Cruce Lumen (meaning Light under the [Southern] Cross). The new motto draws on the theme of light and the search for new knowledge, the campaign reflects a new era for the University with an emphasis on a unique student experience centred on small-group learning and a research agenda committed to tackling global challenges. It is certainly a place that delivers a fantastic History Festival tour!

Add new comment