Critical Companions Series

The Critical Companions Series celebrates innovative and rich thinking. The series aims to traverse disciplinary silos to provoke different perspectives and invite new conversations.

‘Critical Companions’ are individuals within the Sydney Environment Institute’s network that inspire others with their unique methodology to stretch horizons and strengthen thinking. This brand new initiative aims to gather and encourage scholars across campus to experience thinking in a contemporary way.

This series was presented online from October - December 2020.

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The series

The inaugural lecture will be given by Nicole Larkin, University of Sydney Masters of Architecture graduate and affiliate of the Sydney Environment Institute. Larkin’s research is based on capturing ocean pools in New South Wales and looks to publish a best practice design guideline for ocean pools as a resource for professionals and the community.

The presentation gives an overview of the Wild Edge, a project which documents NSW’s ocean pools. Set against sublime headlands and tucked into sweeping beaches, ocean pools are understated turquoise sanctuaries. Concrete walls meld with natural rock and are engulfed by the surf twice a day. If our surroundings speak to us of who we are, ocean pools tell of our love affair with the water’s edge. Practising architect and designer Nicole Larkin has traversed NSW capturing these pools through 3D models and scale drawings of each. This presentation is an overview of the project and details its application in a design and planning context.


Nicole Larkin is a practising architect and designer. Her body of work on ocean pools has been fundamental in fostering value and understanding for design and architecture in NSW. Nicole graduated from a Masters of Architecture from the University of Sydney Faculty of Architecture in 2013. Most recently for her work on ocean pools, Nicole was Awarded a USYD Alumni Excellence award for her significant contribution to the built environment and community. Nicole continues to undertake research on ocean pools in NSW and looks to publish a best practice design guideline for ocean pools as a resource for professionals and the community.


Abbas El-Zein is a Professor of Environmental Engineering at the School of Civil Engineering of the University of Sydney where he runs the GeoEnvironmental Laboratory. 

Ethnographic museums across Europe are full of objects with a troubled past. The interests of early collectors rarely extended to detailed provenance and the often-colonial context of early collecting left such material tainted by unpalatable histories, not easily rescued even by the new taxonomy of ‘world culture’. But these collections have lives beyond their historic problems. As archives of shell, fibre, hair, tendon, feather, leather and wood, they also offer environmental snapshots of the place and time of their origin, some more than a century old.

Through a case study of an Australian shell ornament held in Stockholm’s National Ethnographic Museum, this project explores the opportunity to reconceive such collections as baseline environmental data. Collected in 1911, the riji – incised pearl shell – carries the shame of its collection by the grave robbing Swedish explorer Eric Mjöberg; the ceremonial power attributed to it by the Baardi people of northern Western Australia; and environmental information dating back a hundred years. Today, the tropical Leeuwin Current, the birthplace of this Pinctada maxima, is warming, slowing and acidifying. The descendant bivalves of the riji, unable to move, are increasingly dying before maturation. Now more than a century old, this ethnographic curiosity carries the stories of its origins, both scientific and cultural, into the changing climate-future: a hundred years of data and story is captured in its crust.

Reconfiguring ethnographic collections as both scientific and cultural not only invites western biodiversity scientists into museum storehouses, it shines a light on non-western knowledge systems in communities of origin, born of deep ties to more-than-human life-worlds. In this exchange, new environmental understandings are advanced and new relevance is given to objects stranded in European collections.


Christine Hansen is a historian with cross-disciplinary interests in critical heritage studies and the environmental humanities. She has an Honours degree in Aboriginal Studies from UWS and completed her PhD in History at the Australian National University in 2010. She has been a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Centre for Environmental History at the Australian National University and a Post-Doctoral Researcher in Critical Heritage Studies at Gothenburg University. Her current research project in Gothenburg, funded by Formas – the Swedish Research Council, focuses on Aboriginal knowledge systems in relation to fire in south-eastern Australia. She also has an active research interest in Australian Aboriginal collections held by European ethnographic museums. Christine is currently the manager of knowledge and content at QVMAG, Tasmania.


Rebecca Lawrence is a Senior Research Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute where she joined in 2020 after her time at the Department of Political Science, Stockholm University as Research Fellow. 

In the third instalment of the series, Miguel Loyola from the Institute of Transport and Logistic Studies at the Business School will discuss his research on the adoption of sustainable mobility practices in different urban areas. Focusing specifically on bicycle lanes, Miguel uses the Narrative Policy Framework (NPF) to explore the variability of bicycle lane implementation over time and space and the implications of this. In addition to the varying approaches implemented across different cities and locations, he also demonstrates how the narrative of bicycle lane implementation shifts over time as they become part of the identity of its users, and provides suggestions as to how a policy perspective can be applied to address this.


Miguel Loyola is a PhD Candidate at the Institute of Transport and Logistic Studies at the University of Sydney Business School. Miguel’s research focuses on policy transfer in the transportation field, and specifically the conditions required for “best practices” to be implemented. He is specifically looking at the cultural traits, public opinion and archival research in a cross-cultural comparative study.


Jennifer Kent is a Robinson and DECRA Fellow in the Urbanism program at the Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning. Jennifer’s research interests are at the intersections between urban planning, transport and human health. 

Header image: drone photo of Mahon Ocean Pool by Nicole Larkin.