The Metal Artwork Narrative


There is a tree by the river where the bees sail lazily through an old long scar, honeying it with their hive. The scar has narrowed over the years, muscled in by the bulk of the tree as it grows and changes around it. The scar was formed when Aboriginal people removed bark to create a canoe or other useful items.

At intervals the tree offers fresh leaves and small branches to the ground. Amid the smoke and bang of the surrounding city, someone might pause, stoop and pick up these quiet offerings.

It is rare to hold in one’s hand such a link to the past. The trees fell quickly in the act of European settlement. Stretching from the Richmond flat to the area originally known as Yallabirrang (the Collingwood flat where you now stand) there was once a great forest of old river red gums.

Some of the trees were probably 500 years old.

Panel 1 Bunjil

WOMINJEKA (Welcome)­­

Collingwood College acknowledges the Wurundjeri people and Elders past and present as the custodians of the land, Yallabirrang, on which this school is built. In the metal artwork the school wishes to pay respect to the land’s story and its changing nature since the devastating impact of European settlement in 1835. The artwork tells Collingwood College’s own story in relationship to this place, and its continued response within a changing landscape.

Panel One

Elders Aunty Gail Smith, Aunty Julieanne Axford and community members from the Wurundjeri Land and Compensation Cultural Heritage Council Aboriginal Corporation were consultants in this artwork. They requested the work include the image of Ancestral Creator Spirit, the Eagle Bunjil, and asked that Bunjil’s wings be drawn outstretched and hovering, watching over the children.

The artwork you view over the 24 metal panels is dedicated to the children.

Panels 2–5 The red gum forest

Panel Two
Panel Four
Panel Three
Panel Five

Amid the leafy light and shadows of the forest, you can see two children dressed in European clothes and with bare feet.

In 1841 the children of the McCrae family, early European settlers to this area, tripped lightly through the trees and scrub to play with the children of the Wurundjeri people. The playground was vast: forest, river, volcanic rock and bush flowers. Are these the McCrae children?

In 1845 one of the earliest Aboriginal schools by the Colonial regime began not far from this site on Merri Creek. Wurundjeri children were dressed in European clothes and taught alien European ways until the school was closed down after successful resistance from their Elders. Are these the children of the Wurundjeri people?

Either way, there is an uneasy tension in the artwork’s portrayal of these children. They are memories from a complex story:  European fixtures in an Aboriginal land.

Panels 6–7 Birrarung

Panel Six
Panel Seven

The nearby Yarra River is an ancient watercourse; carved by the movements of volcanoes.  An even older course of the river lies beneath your feet. In the 1860s a shaft was put down in this place for 40 metres. Ribboning this secret riverbed is gold.

Birrarung, the river’s original name, once teemed with life as rich and diverse as eels, turtles, dolphins and seals, and was a source of spiritual, cultural and material abundance for the Aboriginal people whose traditional lands belonged to it. The flooding of the land fed the river red gums and their gnarly thick roots reached deep to the river during the dry.

European settlement demanded the wood of the forest for fencing, housing and firewood. The river became polluted with the waste from the new factories.

The rainfall in the artwork is a weeping for the things that were lost.

Panels 8–9 The school in the smoke

Panel Eight
Panel Nine

In 1882 a school was built on one of the last pieces of land left vacant on what was now being called the Collingwood flat. Vere Street Primary School (currently Collingwood College) was to cater to the children of the factory workers. Simple three- or two-roomed worker’s cottages now stood by the thousands in tight regimental rows across the treeless flat.  The children of this school played in the shadow of the factory smokestacks.

Industrialisation of the land bought economic strength to some and misery to others. The terms of European settlement compromised the land and now it offered a curse. It was dangerous to live on the flat where the polluted river, constant flooding and terrible drainage threatened the health of an overpopulated area.

Leaking roofs, earth floors at or below ground level despite the damp prone flat, rat infestation and no bathroom or washing facilities, accounted for a good number of these homes well into the 20th century. The rate of infectious diseases and child mortality was the worst in Melbourne.

In panel 8 a tiny cottage, known as the Dolls House, can be seen. It still stands in Islington Street next to the school today. A blacksmith lived there with his wife and their little girl, Lilly May. Around 1888 Lilly May became ill and died. She was six years old.

Panels 10–12 The school for the poor

Panel Ten
Panel Eleven

Doggedly the school persisted to educate the children throughout the poor conditions of the 1880s to the 1950s. Children at this school learnt to read and write beneath the smokestacks of a hard industrial world.

Panel Twelve

When education became threatened, the school was creative. Struggling families needed their boys to leave school and work in the factories, so the school decided to run night classes for them. Sometimes a boy might not arrive for an evening class until very late, his eyes rolling with exhaustion. At times the factories needed the boys to work overtime, but they did not offer them extra pay.

From 1915 the school had two campuses on this site: Collingwood Domestic Arts School (a high school for girls) and Cromwell Street Primary School. During the 1930s economic depression Cromwell Street Primary School gave humanitarian relief to children from this and other schools, including food, firewood and secondhand or repaired boots to those who were going barefoot in winter.

“Take off your boots and carry them home,” the school urged the children when the rains fell on the Collingwood flat, “or they will be ruined by the water.”

The Collingwood Domestic Arts School retained 230 girls during the 1930s depression, saving them from unemployment. There was hope that with the skills learnt the girls could be trained for jobs when the economy improved. These girls could set a table “as if the Queen were coming.”

Panel 13 The school for the migrant

Panel Thirteen

In the 1950s a campaign for slum removal ushered in the age of the high-rise housing estates. You can see one directly to your right. The high-rise estates offered affordable housing for all, including for newly arrived migrant and refugee families.

Many families in Collingwood lamented bitterly the end of the slum as they knew it on the flat. The houses may have been poor and dirty compared to the clean design of the new high-rise estates, but at least they had small backyards for the children to play in. At least they were a place where the children could touch the earth.

 Since the end of the Second World War and continuing today, migrant and refugee families have steadily arrived to the Collingwood flat, seeking a chance for their children to thrive. The school reflects the multicultural richness of these migration trends. With migration waves from Greece, Yugoslavia, Macedonia, Turkey, Italy, Vietnam, East Timor and most recently from the Horn of Africa, Middle East and Asia, the ongoing story of the children of the world coming to the Collingwood flat is one of hope, resilience, community strength and creativity.

By telling the story of the land in the metal artwork, the School offers a strengthening sense of place to the children of new arrivals and celebrates the contribution of all diverse cultural groups to the land’s ongoing story.

Panels 14-16 A non-traditional school

Panel Fourteen
Panel Fifteen

Collingwood College in its present incarnation was built in the 1970s. Despite enlarged grounds and cutting design, enrolments dropped precariously by the 1990s. One factor in this was the Office of Housing’s decision to vacate all families from the nearby high-rise housing estate. For a time the children there were vulnerable amid an adult world of escalating social problems.

Panel Sixteen

But in a twist of the Pied Piper tale, two extraordinary educational pedagogies brought the children back to Collingwood College: the Austrian Rudolf Steiner education (2000), and the Italian Reggio Emilia inspired education (2003), both non-traditional pedagogies with a strong committed following.

Today the School also enjoys a vibrant 7-10 main program, shared VCE education, and an exceptional music and arts program and is enriched by its cultural diversity and relationships.

From its simple beginnings on the flat, Collingwood College now offers a world of choices.

Panels 17–20 The return to the soil – the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden

Panel Seventeen
Panel Eighteen

The Collingwood flat today is conspicuous for the concrete that lies thickly over the land, as well as the traffic of a restless, anxious city. Hoddle Street, where you are standing now, has more than 330,000 drivers rushing down it each day. The industrial heritage of the Collingwood flat has left its legacy in smoke, fumes and mechanical haste.

Panel Nineteen
Panel Twenty

In 2002 a celebrated chef by the name of Stephanie Alexander contacted the Office of Housing, seeking an inner city school with a high percentage of lower economic background families. She hoped to trial her first kitchen garden program there.

So, with the Collingwood Town Hall as their backdrop, the children of Collingwood College proceeded to plant the very first Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden; a program now acknowledged as important in hundreds of schools for the physical and spiritual benefits of raising healthy children.

As a monumental return to a gentle productivity of land instead of its exploitation or neglect, the kitchen garden program at Collingwood College is especially significant because of this land’s story.

It is the children who will reap the harvest.

Panels 21–24 The red gum forest

Panel Twenty-One
Panel Twenty-Two
Panel Twenty-Three
Panel Twenty-Four

The Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act 2017 has now been passed in the Victorian Parliament.  In recent times a seal was seen in the waters of the river not far from this site. The Act’s focus on the centrality of the traditional owners suggests a restoration of Birrarung may now be possible.

As if in a dream, we wander into a forest where the trees shift and sigh and the wind sings low. From the Smith Street ridge, where the rains fall down towards the flat land of Yallabirrang and beyond, we can follow the water as it plunges from rock and tussock grass to surround the solid steady forms of the old river red gums, like a magnificent calm sea.

We are a speck in time. The impact of European settlement and its consequences are surprisingly recent compared to the older memory of the land. The smokestacks will one day crumble and fade. Yet if we plant the trees, the children will always play in them.

Beneath the concrete the land lives on. As our future, the children will show us the way.


© Artwork and Narrative by S.A. Nansen 2018

With thanks to Dale Perichon, Craig Bradley, Yukima Cameron, Aunty Julieanne Axford, Aunty Gail Smith, Kayla Wandin-Collina, Campbell Gome, Cath Smith, Maria Cameron, BES Committee, School Council, Trevor Andrews, Simon Andrews, David Pisasale of A.B.C. Cutting and all the Collingwood College staff and community for holding the vision of this artwork.

Special thanks to John Young for his fabulous history of Collingwood College; ‘A School on the Flat: Collingwood College 1882-2007’ (2007).

Grateful and humble thanks to the Wurundjeri people and their Elders for the gift of the long lost place name, Yallabirrang.

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