Craig Middleton of the National Museum of Australia talks about … Documenting Australia’s 2019/2020 bushfires

Today’s Guest Post is by Craig Middleton, Assistant Manager, Exhibitions, at the National Museum of Australia.

This month we are highlighting articles from a special issue on ‘Museums and Climate Action’ published as Volume 35, Issue #6 of the journal Museum Management and Curatorship. Many thanks to both the Journal and the authors for allowing free access to this work. A link to the article by George Main, Craig Middleton, Martha Sear & Libby Stewart follows.

The Australian continent has a long history with fire, from the ongoing cultural practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities through to contemporary fire management systems and organisations. The following article, Documenting Australia’s 2019/2020 bushfires, highlights the work of the National Museum of Australia in engaging with and documenting the 2019/2020 bushfire season, which was the longest and most intense season in Australia’s recorded history. The impact of the bushfire season is still being felt by Australians and has been compounded by the Covid-19 global pandemic.  

As its starting point the article highlights the border work of the Museum in engaging with the Anthropocene – a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. Investigation of this epoch will be a key feature of the redevelopment of the Museum’s environmental history galleries, the first major gallery redevelopment since the Museum opened in 2001. Through the discussion we highlight how fire and its impacts are intertwined with how we understand the Australian continent through the critical lens of the Anthropocene.  

Craig Middleton with Claire and Scott Hooper inspecting the Bungendore ‘Firies’ Fridge. National Museum of Australia.

The article then zooms in on the impact of the 2019/2020 bushfire season in Australia. We explain the specific approach to contemporary collecting that the Museum adopted in the early days of the season including examples of the acquisition of two key objects in the National Historical Collection – the Bungendore ‘Firies’ Fridge and the Cobargo payphone. Both objects required deep community engagement and consultation between the communities involved and the Museum to meet community expectations and respect the inherent trauma experienced by members of those communities.  

Cobargo payphone before it was transported to the Museum. National Museum of Australia.

Since publishing this paper the Museum has extended on the work and launched Momentous: sharing bushfire and pandemic stories. This new initiative invites members of the Australian public to share their experiences of both the 2019/2020 bushfire season and the Covid-19 global pandemic to explore how Australians respond to crisis and profound change.

You can explore Momentous here. We encourage you to engage with Momentous as an example of contemporary collecting and an extension of collecting practices described in the article.

ARTICLE ABSTRACT & LINK

Vast, and unprecedented, bushfires swept across the Australian continent in 2019/2020 signalling a traumatic transition into the Anthropocene. As global heating and other dimensions of this new epoch transform our physical and emotional environments, how might museums empower people to face, accept and respond to the great emotional, cultural and technical challenges of our times? Framed within the museum’s broader thinking about the Anthropocene and imminent redevelopment of its environmental history gallery, this paper reflects on challenges and opportunities in the process of connecting with Australian communities to document the 2019/2020 bushfire season. It includes discussions of the acquisition of the Bungendore Firies’ Fridge and the community engagement work that surrounds the acquisition of a payphone – the only public payphone in the town of Cobargo in regional New South Wales – that was charred by the deadly fires. Museums, we argue, can and often do provide important spaces to collectively acknowledge and honour the material, ecological and social connectivities that hold our communities together and thereby empower people to respond with dedication.


Craig Middleton

Craig Middleton is Assistant Manager, Exhibitions at the National Museum of Australia. He is responsible for project management of temporary exhibitions including stakeholder management and audience engagement strategies. Prior to this he was a Curator in the Museum’s Defining Moments in Australian History Curatorial Centre. In that role he was responsible for research, content, and collections development. Before moving to Canberra he worked for the History Trust of South Australia in a range of roles across visitor services, marketing, community engagement, curatorial and management. His research interests are in Australian social and political history, specifically histories of LGBTIQ+ identified communities and critical museology. His book, co-authored with Dr Nikki Sullivan, Queering the Museum was published by Routledge in November 2019. Craig tweets at @_museumguy

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