Sometimes history feels like it's in the past, and at other times it's as though it is unfolding all around us – and we recognise that we are living in exceptional times. Bushfires, a global pandemic, and the digital revolution of the workforce are just some of the challenges that Australians have faced over the past few years.
The National Museum of Australia is constantly seeking to acquire objects that record lived experiences across the continent. Here, we look at some of the collections and new approaches we have been developing over the past 2 years to record these times of profound change.
In the catastrophic bushfire season of 2019–20 many parts of Australia suffered terrible fires, resulting in devastating losses of lives, homes, wildlife and country.
The Museum has an active collecting project relating to the fires, and has collected several objects and their stories to represent this time.
Curators travelled to the NSW town of Cobargo, which was ravaged by fire on New Year's Eve 2019. The destroyed Telstra payphone from the town's main street, and fire-damaged pottery from local ceramicist Daniel Lafferty's burnt-out studio were assessed and collected for the National Historical Collection.
These objects demonstrate the power and destruction of the fire, as well as the resilience of the people of Cobargo to work together in recovery.
Since early 2020 we have been developing a collection of objects and ephemera relating to the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia.
This collection records Australian experiences during periods of lockdown, hotel quarantine, COVID testing and vaccination, as well as a spectrum of responses, from remote First Nations communities to official government public health advice to rules for spectators at major sporting events.
For many of us today, our lives are now lived partly online, and social media has become a place for us to develop our identities and communities.
From the Museum’s perspective, social media is an archive that records the complex threads of national conversations and a timeline of major events.
In 2020 the Museum began experimenting with collecting digital dialogues, firstly on the social media platform Facebook. Here we launched the Fridge Door Fires Stories, an accessible and participatory site for grassroots storytelling dedicated to the bush fire crisis.
Then, we set up Bridging the Distance: Sharing our COVID-19 Pandemic Experiences. By the end of the year we had developed the independent platform Momentous: Sharing Bushfire and Pandemic Stories.
In all these online places, the Australian public share their individual experiences of the bushfires or the pandemic in real time within a collective, ever expanding group. This enables the Museum to archive cohesive groupings of online reflections.
This mix of physical objects and digital snapshots will help the Museum to record some of the major events over the past few years in Australia.
We are proud to be part of an international network of museum professionals funded by the International Council of Museums which is engaging in international dialogue about the best practices for contemporary collecting, particularly in traumatic circumstances.
We look forward to sharing more information on the outcomes of this collaboration, as well as our developing contemporary collections on Collection Explorer.
In our collection