Review: Bouncing Back from Disaster, Queensland Museum

The Queensland Museum on South Bank has just re-opened after being closed for refurbishment for a few months. Since I happened to be in town, I thought I’d drop by and have a look. More on the museum as a whole in a later post – for this one I’ll concentrate on the Bouncing Back from Disaster exhibition about the Queensland floods, which devastated many parts of the state just over a year ago.

As the one-year anniversary has only just passed, it is a very recent event that’s still fresh in everyone’s memories. The exhibition focused not just on what happened, but the resilience of the people who picked up the pieces and moved on in the wake of the disaster. Australians who followed the event on the news will remember this resilience embodied in Queensland Premier Anna Bligh’s emotional “We are Queenslanders” speech:

And in the exhibition we get to see a facsimile of her handwritten notes from that day:

Graphic about resilience including Anna Bligh's notes from her famous "We are Queenslanders" speech.

This is very much a story-led, not an object-led exhibition. There is a great selection of images and dramatic footage of rescue efforts. The relatively few objects are everyday items that had been retrieved during the clean-up. I found that there was an understated power to these objects:

A mud-caked record player retrieved from the wreckage

A sizeable portion of the exhibition is dedicated to a space where visitors (many of whom would have been directly affected by the floods) are able to share their stories (I blogged about the role of museums in sharing these kinds of community memories at the time):

Part of the wall that people could stick up their own experiences of the floods. Note the exhibition has only been opened for a couple of days and there are already a considerable number of contributions. The writing table is to the right and the wall continues to the left of this image.

 

A poignant personal story of survival and loss

The design of the exhibition is evocative of the ‘rebuilding’ theme – the exhibition panels are mostly bare plywood attached to vertical timber supports, with construction fencing and plastic sheeting used to enclose certain spaces (see above). The design of the graphics (white text and straight lines on a blue background) looks like it is intended to represent the blueprints of a rebuilding project – but this is just a guess on my part. Overall the design fits in well with the story being told.

However, I found the exhibition sections that attempted to put the flood disaster into broader scientific context (i.e., natural disasters across geological timeframes) a bit out of place. For me this was primarily a story of human experience and this alone was strong enough – it didn’t need to be placed in a planetary context. I wonder what the rationale for including this additional content was:  To show that this was not an extraordinary event in the global scheme of things? That life on Earth has adapted and responded in the face of disaster since time immemorial? Maybe something a little less remote from living memory and human experience may have been a better choice if this was the interpretive intent (e.g., the cleanup of the 1974 floods in Brisbane).

One absent story (assuming I didn’t miss it) was the experience of the museum itself during the flood – the South Bank precinct was certainly affected and the museum presumably had to make efforts to ensure collections weren’t damaged or lost. Perhaps this ‘inside story’ was more of interest to people like me and my visiting companion (another museum person of sorts). But even so, making the museum part of the story (instead of just the reporter of it) may have added another dimension to the exhibition – the museum is as much a part of the community as any other public institution. As such, it shares our achievements and challenges.

 

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