I've kept this blog, on and off, since 2006. In 2015 I used it to chart daily encounters, images, thoughts and feelings about volcanic basalt/bluestone in Melbourne and Victoria, especially in the first part of the year. I plan to write a book provisionally titled Bluestone: An Emotional History, about human uses of and feelings for bluestone. But I am also working on quite a few other projects and a big grant application, especially now I am on research leave. I'm working mostly from home, then, for six months, and will need online sociability for company!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: What It's Like Doing Emotions Research

Yesterday we spent an amazing couple of hours at the Melbourne Museum, talking with one of the curators about the Museum's bushfire collections. I'm writing an essay about the life of material objects after fire. Liza had some terrific stories to tell and images to show me and Helen of items in their collection. I'm thinking, for an essay I'm writing, about the kinds of objects people want to protect from the fire, but also the things that survive from fires when houses burn down around them (some are miraculously preserved unchanged; others are utterly transfigured by fire) and most particularly, the things that people want to give to museums: the things they keep for themselves, and the things they give to museums so someone else will do the keeping for them.

This is one of the most beautiful objects in the collection. The catalogue entry reads:

This mass of fused glass, ceramic and metal was found in the ruins of a home in Skyline Road, Yarra Glen, which was destroyed by fire on Black Saturday, 7 February 2009. It contains the remnants of household objects, including clear and pink glassware and shards of blue-and-white ceramics, and a metal fitting believed to have been a ring which suspended a water pipe from the house's underfloor bearers. 

It was part of an exhibition at Healesville, held between March and May of the same year: this urgent desire to tell and show what happened.

I asked Liza if she had observed any gendered differences in the way people curated these objects, and she told me one story of a couple who did not stay to fight the fires and lost everything when their house burned down. Because of police road blocks, they couldn't get back into the area for ages, and eventually decided to buy an apartment in the city, even temporarily. But they struggled, and never made it back (either physically or emotionally) into the community they had left. The man was devastated, having lost all the paperwork (mortgages, bank statements, passport, certificates) that proved who he was. The woman was devastated by the loss of friends and community. He had lost individual identity; she had lost social identity.

One of the things that became very clear was the emotional work a museum curator does with fire survivors. Some people were contacting the museum within a week of Black Saturday, in 2009, offering to give objects to the museum, even after their own houses had been destroyed. So Liza was working right at the front line.

There was much to think about and process, and after two hours the three of us were wrung out, I think. As we were leaving, though, I mentioned my bluestone project, and picked up some great leads about the resources the Museum can offer. And then Liza recalled that when she moved from her house in Yarraville (in the Western suburbs, built on the basalt lava flow) to Elsternwick (in the Eastern suburbs, in the sandbelt region of the city), she took with her a bluestone cob as a reminder of home.

It wasn't just that my two projects came together in the same room, though it was one of those amazing meetings where ideas and suggestions came so thick and fast it was hard to keep track of them all. It was that my interest in the personal and emotional aspect of the fires project had found an extremely sympathetic interlocutor; and then that somehow her own connection with her own home and its bluestone foundations — the thing that she would retrieve from leaving her home — bubbled its way up to the surface.

No surprise, of course, that emotions research will be emotional; or that a curator will have to manage emotions of fire survivors; but a kind of wonder, that of all the possibilities, this little bluestone cob had the final word of the afternoon.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

I love the idea that museums are emotional curators. I am struggling with my volunteer museum committee to get de-accessioning happening, but many of the items I personally feel need to go provoke strong sentimentality and nostalgia. If I can remember the emotion aspect not only for the committee, but the community, hopefully that will help me guide our museum through the process!