City of Collections? Old Royal Adelaide Hospital site must give the past a future

The old Royal Adelaide Hospital (oRAH) campus presents a chance for Adelaide to be a city of collections: a tourism and research magnet, writes the History Trust of South Australia CEO.

Musing on the future of this very significant location will always invite critique. Passions are strong — as evidenced by the community response to redevelopment options canvassed in recent years.

My interest in the oRAH extends back a decade or so from the first announcement of the intention to build a new 21st century hospital in the west end of the CBD. At that time, I was head of Arts SA (now Arts South Australia) and part of the earliest discussions with SA Health and other agency leaders regarding the future repurposing of the existing hospital campus (oRAH). There has been a consistent desire that the character buildings (now heritagelisted) should be adaptively re-used to achieve a mix of public benefit purposes.

In terms of a whole campus, what we are talking about is successful place-making, and it relies not only on landscape and buildings – it is about ‘peoplescape’. A successful peoplescape needs to create enlivenment (of varying degrees) around 18 hours per day, almost every day of the year. Recent announcements about temporary activation through Adelaide Fringe will get the ball rolling and, for the longer term, new research activity around artificial intelligence in partnership with the university sector is also encouraging.

So too the new secondary school under construction to the north on Frome Road and the imminent introduction of the tram extension along North Terrace, and eventually beyond, are both commendable investments.

Most notable in recent discussions is the proposed Adelaide Contemporary, in a purpose-designed new development at the boundary of the Adelaide Botanic Garden, effectively replacing the ugly former East Wing of the hospital. I have been an enthusiastic advocate for this proposal since it was first mooted by Nick Mitzevich and his Art Gallery of South Australia board. In the medium-to-longer term, there is sufficient room on this site to serve many deserving cultural purposes.

By strengthening the physical links to the Adelaide Botanic Garden via a sculpture park, Adelaide Contemporary could pave the way for a number of other museum and gallery places perfect for the character of the campus. It is the missing link to our otherwise amazing cultural heritage and higher learning boulevard that reaches from Hackney Road in the east to Kintore Avenue.

We should aim for a concert hall for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and for the relocation of Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute. At its current site, Tandanya achieves visitation of less than 25,000 people per annum. If relocated to oRAH, visitation would likely grow to some 500,000 per year and alongside Adelaide Contemporary and Adelaide Botanic Garden, there would be far greater public and tourism benefit for the existing annual funding.

Then there’s the state’s youth arts hub, currently located up at Carclew in North Adelaide, in a heritage building not ideally suited to this purpose and lacking access to public transport. If that were located at oRAH, within easy walking distance of multiple modes of public transport and the rich cultural offerings of the CBD, think of the inspiration for our young people!

Likewise, there is a case for the further enhancement of our city museum mix, and herein my institutional interest. South Australia lacks a museum dedicated to telling its own story. In addition to the existing museums of migration, maritime, motoring and the recently opened Centre of Democracy, the History Trust of South Australia is charged under its Act to hold and develop the State History Collection — some 42,000 objects that tell so much more about our story.

To enable access to this incredible collection, the History Trust has long quietly advocated for what might be described as ‘the Adelaide Museum of South Australia’s History’. Such a museum could well incorporate the Trust’s existing migration and democracy offerings, while creating an exciting new space that tells, in far richer context and detail, the story of our city and state since 1836 and before. It would complement the very fine collecting and research foci of the SA Museum — it is the missing link.

Space is at a premium along North Terrace for worthy public purposes. With some clear thinking and a non-partisan commitment to development of a longer-term strategy, Adelaide could really become a ‘City of Collections’ — a tourism and research magnet. The opportunity that oRAH campus presents to enhance this capacity is ripe for the taking. There is much to be gained when we give the past a future.

Greg Mackie OAM, Founder and Chair, Adelaide Festival of Ideas, and CEO, History Trust of South Australia

Header image: Renewal SA

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