Inside Story

What might, and did, happen

What role should local museums have in remembering events like the Victorian bushfires, asks Ian McShane

Ian McShane 18 May 2009 1084 words

Nyngan Museum in western New South Wales. Roger Allison-Jones

IN A POWERFUL passage in his report on the 1939 Black Friday bushfires in Victoria, Royal Commissioner Leonard Stretton highlighted the failure of public memory to convey the threat posed on that day. “Men who had lived their lives in the bush went their ways in the shadow of dread expectancy,” he wrote. “But though they felt the imminence of danger they could not tell that it was to be far greater than they could imagine. They had not lived long enough. The experience of the past could not guide them to an understanding of what might, and did, happen.”

Stretton recommended a public education campaign to promote awareness of fire prevention and forest protection. Five years later, the Save the Forests Campaign Council was formed, aiming to build a “forest conscience” that focused on revegetation and forest management. But did this essentially bureaucratic response achieve Stretton’s aim of inscribing the lessons of the 1939 fire in public memory?

The desire to learn from events like the 1939 fires has been echoed in a campaign by Melbourne’s Sunday Age for a museum to commemorate the bushfires in February. The campaign reflects the key role that museums play in such a task, and it also signals the changing ways in which we publicly recognise major events.

After the first world war the excesses of Victorian monumentalism gave way to simpler, personalised memorials to represent the local and national sacrifices during that conflict. Architectural modernism and a desire for “useful” structures gave us war memorial town halls, parks and swimming pools after the second world war. The rise of social history from the 1960s brought museums and their focus on lived experience to the fore. The Northern Territory’s Cyclone Tracy display, cited as a model by the Sunday Age, shows how museums can use personal narratives to convey the impact and significance of larger events, especially natural disasters. Canberra’s National Museum of Australia featured the 1939 Victorian bushfires amongst its 2001 opening exhibitions, with the ordinariness of the display’s centrepiece, charred items retrieved from the ashes of a house, providing a poignant reminder of the affective power of museums.

While the bushfire museum is a commendable suggestion, the idea of a single structure based in one of the townships most severely affected by the fires inevitably raises the question of representativeness. Who speaks on whose behalf in recording the terrible events of 2009? This core problem for museums has increasingly been approached through the idea of co-curatorship. Here, museum curators step away from their expert role to provide resources and guidance for communities to tell their own story. But the campaign also raises the less publicised issue of sustainability. The interpretive, educational and research functions sketched for the bushfire museum are ambitious, generally beyond the scope of a local community museum. But building the museum in a “neutral” location, perhaps serviced by existing research resources, runs the risk of disenfranchising local memory.

The role of local museums is to engage with their surrounding histories, cultures and environments. They seek to interpret and reflect on the local past and deepen understanding of the present. They collect and preserve significant aspects of a region’s material and visual culture. They provide a window on the creative talents and cultural expressions of a region. If they are truly connected with their surrounding community, they operate as fora for public debate and reflection.

Their reach and impact, though, may extend well beyond local environs. Studying the local can illuminate global themes. Think of the ceramic peacock saved from the 1878 shipwreck of the Loch Ard, displayed at Warrnambool’s Flagstaff Hill maritime museum. Or the fragment of Eureka flag held by the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery. These objects tell significant stories about local pasts but also highlight themes of trade and democracy that are major currents of nineteenth century history.

The stewardship of collections is a core activity of local community museums. The value and significance of the material heritage held by local museums – the largest museum sector in Australia – is immeasurable. Yet these collections are often kept in substandard and vulnerable conditions. Heightening awareness of local museums’ role in preserving their collections, and providing material assistance to better protect collections from disasters, is an additional response to the 2009 Victorian bushfires. Counter-disaster preparedness is a task that confronts all collecting institutions, whether in fire-prone areas or not. And with predictions that climate change will bring more extreme weather events and new risk factors, it is a task that is becoming more urgent.

The month of May is a particularly appropriate time to reflect on this issue. Blue Shield, the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross, is calling on Australian collecting institutions to conduct a MayDay campaign by enhancing the protection of their collections from disaster. The blue shield is the symbol specified in UNESCO’s 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property to identify cultural sites and protect them from attack in the event of armed conflict. Blue Shield Australia suggests that local museums improve their counter-disaster preparations through measures such as identifying the most significant items in their collections, getting to know local firefighters and police, and finding partner organisations to assist in emergencies. Counter-disaster preparations, ranging from staff and volunteer training through to improved storage facilities, can significantly help to preserve local cultural heritage. They can also make local communities better aware of the value and vulnerability of their museums.

Cultural infrastructure projects in Australia have an unfortunate set-and-forget history. Construction funding can be relatively easy to obtain, especially if state or federal governments are looking for “shovel-ready” projects to stimulate a sluggish economy. Finding funds to pay for recurrent expenses, which can quickly surpass original building costs, can be more difficult. Local councils are often left to pick up the tab for community facilities built through concerted local campaigns, or government partnerships, that have failed to plan for the long term.

It is important for local museums, especially in affected areas, to reflect on the events of 2009 in Victoria in ways that resonate with their local communities. But it is also important to recognise the significance of the 2009 bushfires for all collecting institutions – museums, galleries, libraries. The MayDay initiative provides a decentralised option that can commemorate the bushfires by assisting all museums to better discharge their role as trustees of our cultural heritage. •