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Collecting Fire: A new kind of practice

“While museums have traditionally aspired to collect “the real thing” and to create repositories of tangible evidence of our collective past, the essence of this project and its emerging collection was in making real the intangible through personal stories, symbols, and metaphors – giving form to matters of the heart. A new kind of museum practice was therefore needed.” - Sites of Trauma: Contemporary Collecting and Natural Disaster

The fires of February 2009 left an indelible mark on the histories of Victoria’s community collecting organisations; whether through blackened ashes or by the absence of once cherished objects. This exploration of Victoria’s collecting response to the Black Saturday bushfires is inspired by Liza Dale‐Hallett, Rebecca Carland and Peg Fraser’s reflections on the Victorian Bushfires Collection project, in Sites of Trauma: Contemporary Collecting and Natural Disaster.

Photograph, Beating out a bush fire in Kalorama, Jan 1932, Mt Dandenong & District Historical Society collection.

Mt Dandenong & District Historical Society Inc.

The Black Saturday fires were preceded by centuries of devastating blazes, yet a dearth of material culture survives from these events. Already considered the worst natural disaster in our history, killing 173 Victorians and injuring 414, the recent fires of February 2009 sparked a determined foray into contemporary collecting for many of Victoria’s large and small collectors. Major agencies such as Museums Victoria set about ‘rescue collecting’ as part of the Victorian Bushfires Collection project, sourcing ephemera and oral histories from survivors.

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Crockery, 1900-1920, United Kingdom, Anglesea & District Historical Society collection.

Anglesea and District Historical Society

Blackened crockery such as that from Anglesea and District Historical Society forms a genre of souvenir that is typical to the rescue collecting effort. Rescue collecting is challenged not only by the emotional toll of revisiting sites of trauma but by the logistics of collection. Fire-damaged objects are inherently fragile and can be further damaged by handling, driving harmful soot further into textile and paper surfaces.

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Skink, 2009, Glenburn, Victoria, Yarra Ranges Regional Museum collection.

Yarra Ranges Regional Museum

Although many animals were affected by the bushfires, few specimens were collected and preserved owing once again to the logistical complications of rescue collecting fire affected objects. One of few complete surviving specimens, this skink was found on a property in Glenburn and now forms part of the Yarra Ranges Regional Museum collection. Though macabre, these faunal fatalities have become important symbols of the diverse loss of life and habitat, and of not only our cultural but natural heritage.

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Photograph, Big Ben, 1917, Kinglake, Victoria, Eltham District Historical Society collection.

Eltham District Historical Society Inc

The loss of natural heritage landscapes in the Black Saturday fires was immense. Almost 430,000 hectares of land were directly affected in the fires, including 70 national parks and reserves; more than 1 million wildlife were killed. This photographs depicts Big Ben, a significant heritage tree in the Kinglake region that was lost to the bushfires of 1926. Though Big Ben lives on only in photos, the stories of our most recent wildlife victims have been mobilised for good through contemporary rescue collecting. Sam, the famed koala rescued from the burnt bush land of Mirboo North, also now resides in the collection of Museums Victoria and her story is drawn on to educate visitors about bush fire impact and habitat loss for koala populations. Collecting from sites of trauma, though challenging, can become an important resource for our communities to learn and grow.

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Painting, Marysville Bush Landscape on gumleaf, c 1908, Marysville, Victoria, Marysville & District Historical Society collection.

Marysville and District Historical Society

In the months and years after the Black Saturday bushfires, recovery collecting replaced the initial attempts to salvage. What was salvageable was carefully collected and preserved, yet much of the regions’ material history was lost forever. Community collecting organisations were forced to reimagine their collecting practice, now that “the real thing” no longer existed.

Following the devastating loss of their entire collection, the Marysville Historical Society wasted no time in recovering their past. Donations from both local and international well-wishers slowly rebuilt the collection. This hand-painted gum leaf was donated by the Castles family, who had held the century-old family heirloom since it was purchased on a honeymoon in Marysville. Buoyed by the generosity of private collectors, the Marysville Historical Society collection is slowly replenishing its tangible record of the region.

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Public Art, Lasting Memories Mosaic Seat, 2012 St. Andrews, Victoria, Nillumbik Shire Council collection.

Nillumbik Shire Council

Other groups have looked beyond historic objects as the vehicles of their local history. The Lasting Memories Mosaic Seat stands outside St Andrews Hall in Nillumbik Shire and represents a cognitive shift in Victoria’s collecting practices following the events of 2009. Taking remnants of crockery, glass, tiles and bricks collected from their own properties, the community creators gave physical form to their experience of the landscape before and after the fires, taking objects we might consider ‘lost’ and capturing the intangibility of memory, experience – their history – in physical form.

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Public Art, Memorial Fountain Tree, Anton Hasell, 2009, Daylesford, Victoria, Hepburn Shire Council Art and Heritage collection.

Hepburn Shire Council Art and Heritage Collection

As years passed, collecting practices turned once more from rescue and recovery to reflection. These experiences are reflected primarily in art collections across the State. As Dale-Hallet, Carland and Fraser suggest, “the place of the intangible and symbolic becomes central to a story where lives have been lost or forever changed and where belongings have been reduced to ashes or altered beyond all recognition.” Public art and sculpture was utilised as a powerful vehicle through which public reflection and memorial could occur. The ghost gum sculpture in Daylesford bears poems and text from local writers and community members in addition to integrated drinking fountains which reflects, in the words of the artist, “the regrowth that nature shows in its rebound from such terrible events.”

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Sculpture, The Embrace, Peter Wegner, 2011, Nillumbik Shire Council collection.

Nillumbik Shire Council

Peter Wegner’s Black Saturday series reflects on the devastation of the fires, even years later. Nillumbik Shire Council describe the series as "a challenging work, but one that encourages healing, connection and empathy." Though our collecting practices have changed markedly in the decade since the Black Saturday fires, the landscape and affected communities are still in the early stages of rebuilding and recovering from the loss brought on by February 7 2009.

The fires challenged our Victorian collecting organisations not just in their logistical and emotional response, but in their perception of history and memory. As Dale-Hallett, Carland and Fraser suggest, the loss caused by the fires necessitated a new approach to collecting; a means of collecting the intangible, of finding ways to tell histories thought to be lost and emotions that cannot be put into words. Undoubtedly we will see another era of collecting following the fires; once rescue, then recovery and reflection, and now renewal.

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