Museums and (community) memory

Australia is no stranger to extreme weather, and recently such events seem to be increasing in frequency and intensity. Just in the past few weeks, vast swathes of Queensland have been swamped by flooding. Brisbane, a city which only a few years ago was under severe water restrictions due to drought, was inundated and low-lying suburbs completely submerged. Shortly afterwards the north of Queenland was battered by Cyclone Yasi; while at the same time there was flash flooding in Melbourne and bushfires in Perth.

Living in Australia, the forces and vagaries of nature are a part of life. The effects of punishing droughts, catastrophic floods and devastating fires have all seared themselves into the national consciousness. Or have they?

ABC Radio National’s Rear Vision recently aired a program titled “Deluges that have gone before: floods in Australian history” (transcript available). Drawing upon historic major floods, in particular the 1893 and 1974 Brisbane floods, the program looks at what happens as these events fade from living memory and to the back of the collective consciousness.


Aerial view of the 1974 Brisbane Flood (State Library of Queensland)


Early European settlers ignored the warnings of Aboriginal inhabitants by building towns on flood plains. As historian Emily O’Gorman said:

“It seems to have been listened to with interest, but largely ignored. Later kind of retrospective accounts after a number of floods, people from outside Gundagai who knew about these warnings speculated that there was perhaps an element of racism at work, as well as I think the validity of oral testimony itself was in question, where the records of floods needed a numerical height to be taken seriously at that time.”

But even when prior events have been in the written historical record, and the subject of Government enquiries, lessons have not always been learned. Richard Evans, a historian who has specialised in the aftermath of natural disasters, has found a pattern in the way lessons fade from memory and are eventually lost:

“Reading the reports of various official inquiries . . . they are eerily similar. They will almost inevitably find very similar contributing factors to the severity of the disaster; they will make very similar recommendations, and they will, sad to say, usually be largely ignored in the longer term. In the short term there will be interesting commitment, but it doesn’t last more than a few years, certainly it doesn’t last decades. What really strikes me is how we have the disaster, we have the inquiry, we find out the same painful bitter lesson that too many of the people who live here don’t understand the nature of the place they’re living in, and then they forget it again. And then in the course of a generation or generation-and-a-half, the disaster recurs . . . and again we forget”

The problem, it appears, with enquiries, reports and recommendations is that they lack a permanent presence. Eventually they are retired to a shelf somewhere; there is nothing to keep the experiences and lessons learned fresh in the minds of communities over a period of decades or generations.

So can museums play a role in keeping these memories fresh and ever-present, thus helping us prepare and avert disasters better in the future? This was something that historian Helen Gregory suggested during the program:

“. . . because natural disasters are such a feature in Australia, it struck me that for instance, Victoria could have a museum of the bushfires, Brisbane could have a museum of the floods . . . there is a real, not just a community memory function in having a museum, to cover all the floods . . .because this is very much part of the city’s history and its relationship to the river. Not only is that important for the memory of the whole community, but to give people the opportunity to have their stories recorded . . . I think that Brisbane has a wonderful opportunity for developing a special repository for floods . . .”

Now obviously there are practical issues: museums are a significant capital and operational undertaking, not to be entered into lightly. But if something like this helps us better prepare for disaster in the future (perhaps in the context of an existing museum, if a dedicated museum is not feasible), it would be worthwhile.

In this vein, the theme for 2011’s International Museums Day, which is held around May 18 each year, is  “Museums and Memory”. The purpose of this theme is to highlight the role that museums can play in collecting and preserving the objects and stories which constitute a community’s memory.

Australia’s relationship with its history of natural disasters is a timely example.

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