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As a modern, designed, self-consciously experimental national capital, Canberra poses distinct questions, and problems, for public history. Famously derided as lacking community – ‘a city without a soul’; ‘a good sheep station spoiled’ – it has also been shaped by a succession of planning practices, phases of immigration, and service provision, which have fostered their own models and experiences of community. On the one hand, as Ruth Atkins observed in 1978, the concept and function of ‘the public’ in Canberra has been defined essentially by those of ‘the public servant’; on the other, a population characterised by relatively high levels of education and affluence has proved remarkably innovative in working with and around the structures of centralised government with which they are so often closely associated. This paper explores these inter-relationships, assessing the ways in which the history of Canberra – in its official, community and experiential dimensions – reflects processes of actively creating such narratives and identities rather than seeing them in opposition to each other.
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