Creating Things of Fire & Ash: Working with Vulnerable Communities

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When a group of young people affected by the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires were asked to tell their stories for an exhibition at the Victoria Police Museum it created an organic process of healing for both them and their families that was unexpected and deeply meaningful.

This paper, which was presented at the 2014 Victorian Museums & Galleries Conference held in Warrnambool,(Victoria, Australia), describes the development of the project from initial contact with staff and young people from the Wominjeka Youth Centre in Kinglake to the final reveal when young people and their families saw the exhibition for the first time.

Discussion covers the collaborative process, curatorial approach, practical decisions making, dealing with sensitive and confronting issues and maintaining an ongoing relationship with members of the community.

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Creating Things of Fire & Ash: Working with Vulnerable Communities

  1. 1. Copy of paper presented at the Museums Australia (Victoria), Victorian Museums and Galleries Conference 2014. Warrnambool, Victoria 3-4 April. Author: Kate Spinks Public Program Curator Victoria Police Museum Katherine.spinks@police.vic.gov.au www.policemuseum.vic.gov.au Creating Things from Fire and Ash: Working with Vulnerable Communities ABSTRACT When a group of young people affected by the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, were asked to tell their stories for an exhibition at the Victoria Police Museum it created an organic process of healing for both them and their families that was unexpected and deeply meaningful. This presentation will take you through the development of the project from initial contact with staff and young people from the Wominjeka Youth Centre in Kinglake to the final reveal when young people and their families saw the exhibition for the first time. Discussion will cover the collaborative process, curatorial approach, practical decisions making, dealing with sensitive and confronting issues and maintaining an ongoing relationship with members of the community.
  2. 2. In February 2013, the Victoria Police Museum created the exhibition, Things of Fire and Ash. The exhibition consisted of photographic portraits and personal stories of 11 young people from the Kinglake region who experienced the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. The exhibition was conceived as a way of connecting with young people impacted by the fires; of celebrating their strength and resilience and commemorating the anniversary of Black Saturday: a day when 173 Victorian’s lost their lives in the worst bushfires in the nation’s history. Kinglake was one of the worst affected regions with 120 of the 173 deaths occurring in communities in that district. Immediately after the fires, the Wominjeka Youth Centre was set up to provide support for children in the area. These young people experienced trauma that many adults have found difficult to cope with, but in the aftermath of the tragedy there has been very little space for their voices and experiences to be heard. The exhibition, Things of Fire and Ash, in a very small way, aimed to provide a space for these young people to express their ideas and emotions and create an experience for them to feel proud of. The initial idea for the exhibition came to me when I was having a lazy Sunday afternoon watching an episode of Poh’s Kitchen of all things! They had a special feature where they visited the Kinglake Youth Centre to look at the recovery work they were doing there. Like all Victorian’s, Black Saturday is deeply etched in my memory. After watching the program and hearing about the ongoing recovery efforts four years after the disaster I was inspired to look at a way for the Police Museum to play a part in this. Victoria Police were of course heavily involved in the state emergency caused by the bushfires, both on the day itself and in the long aftermath that included the dismal task of victim identification. The Museum also acquired a collection relating to the event that includes items such as the remnants of a burnt Australian flag that was flying outside the Marysville Police Station: another town badly impacted by the fires. It was with this in mind that I decided to contact Lesley Bebbington, who was the Co-ordinator of the Kinglake Youth Centre to see if they would like to work together to create an exhibition. Lesley was immediately behind the idea. I think her enthusiasm for the project stemmed from her recognition that it was not only a project that celebrated the strength and resilience of these young people but that it had the potential to have a therapeutic outcome for those involved.
  3. 3. After getting Lesley’s nod of approval I began the initial research phase of the exhibition development. Because we were dealing with a group of people who had experienced significant trauma and we were in a sense asking them to tell the whole world about it, I felt quite anxious about how we approached the process. In preparation I decided to seek out other exhibitions that focused on either: young people, personal stories or trauma. SLIDE – OBJECT STORIES Two of the most useful exhibitions I found were the Story Pods at the Jewish Holocaust Centre and an online community exhibition called Object Stories from the Portland Art Museum. These helped frame the approach in terms of the kind of tone I wanted the exhibition to take and highlighted the importance of a very limited curatorial voice and visibility that I felt was important to achieve. I decided that the only element of the exhibition where the curatorial voice should be included was in the main banner introducing the exhibition. I felt some kind of introduction was necessary to describe Black Saturday for anyone, particularly international visitors, who were not aware of the scale and significance of the disaster. SLIDE – MAIN BANNER The main banner provided basic facts about the bushfires and the impact they had on communities and contextualised the reason for the exhibition. I made sure that Lesley and her colleagues felt comfortable with the content of the banner, given it was quite explicit and had the potential to cause some distress, it was important to have their input. I also made the deliberate decision not to include items from the Museum’s existing Black Saturday collection in Things of Fire and Ash. The reason for this was that I thought these would take away from the focus of the exhibition, which was the young people and their stories. I didn’t want these physical remnants to compete with their stories. The only objects included in the exhibition were a box of household odds and ends that Lesley had collected from the ashes of her own home after the fires. SLIDE – LESLEY’S THINGS Lesley wrote her own label for these items, describing the poignancy of these burnt and disfigured objects that although no longer useful, she cannot bare to throw away.
  4. 4. These objects had a more personal resonance than the objects in our collection and I felt they illustrated the domestic, everyday, life-changing impact of the disaster. They spoke to a world turned upside-down for the kids involved - of family dislocation and a loss of the familiar. I liaised closely with Lesley about the process of getting a group of participants together and how best to facilitate the story-writing part of the project. This aspect of the exhibition development was particularly sensitive. Many of the young people in areas affected by the bushfires have suffered from a myriad of health issues including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, disengagement from school, work, family and friendship groups. Even the youngest children in the area who were pre-verbal during the disaster have exhibited behaviours potentially linked to the stress of what they experienced. The importance of getting it right in terms of encouraging these young people to open up about their thoughts and feelings without being too confronted by the process was paramount. Initially, I wrote a letter to the potential participants and their families about the project. I outlined the inspiration for the project, the aims and intended outcomes and the steps involved. I worded the letter in a fairly informal way as I wanted it to come across as quite personal but at the same time I included all the information they needed to make the decision as to whether it was something they wanted to be involved in. SLIDE – RECORDING AUTHORISATION FORM The key document I included with this letter was a Recording Authorisation Form to be signed by parents or guardians. In preparation I had contacted the State Library Education Unit for a template permission form as I was aware that they frequently photograph and record school students for advertising and programming. I was keen to ensure we covered all the relevant permissions and copyright information and sought their advice as to what should be included. Apart from getting signed permission to take the young person’s photograph, acknowledging ownership and copyright of the images by Victoria Police was important. It was also crucial to explain to participants that the Museum could continue to use the images, including posting them online, at any time without further consent being required. This has turned out to be very important clause in the permission form, as an online version of the exhibition has been requested for a fundraising and support organisation involved in bushfire recovery. If we had not covered this aspect of reproduction and copyright in the initial permission form we would be faced with contacting the families all over again.
  5. 5. Although my details were always made available, it was decided from the outset that Lesley be the main point of contact for the participants and their families. SLIDE - LESLEY BEBBINGTON She is a trusted member of the community, the children all respond to her in a very positive way and she and her colleagues at the Youth Centre were best placed to take control of certain elements of the exhibition development process – particularly the story writing. Her understanding of each individual’s personal experience was crucial. As was her understanding of the personal issues each young person was facing. For example, one of the participants has dyslexia. This was managed by Lesley, who offered extra support to the young person; getting them to dictate their story to her, in private, so that she could record it on their behalf. Another participant suffered an emotional breakdown during the period the exhibition was being put together- something that although not precipitated by the project itself was an issue that needed to be monitored closely in terms of assessing whether they were up to sharing their story. As it turned out in the cases of both these young people, what they eventually shared with us in the exhibition was really significant to their journey of recovery. The sensitivity and background knowledge required in both these cases was incredibly important and the Museum relied on Lesley for her expertise in this area. She and I also discussed the fact that there needed to be a certain amount of flexibility built into the project. We knew that some people might drop out of the project along the way because of the confronting nature of what they were being asked to do – which did occur – but because we had that possibility covered from the onset, it did not cause any difficulties. SLIDE – LIST OF OBJECTS As a way of getting participants to open up, they were asked to select a meaningful object that they could use as inspiration for telling their story. Their object could be a person, place or thing. This approach seemed to work well as it gave participants a starting point for their stories and got them to centre their discussion around the important elements of their experience. For example, Tim chose his IPod. SLIEDE – TIM’S IPOD He and his mother had been trapped in their home after being turned back by CFA when they tried to flee at the last minute. Like many of the participants directly caught up in the fires on the day, they did not know whether they would live or die. In the twelve months after the fires, Tim barely left his house. To take
  6. 6. his mind off the harrowing experience, he constantly listened to music on his IPod, wearing out several pairs of earphones. One of the practical aspects of coordinating the project was carefully planning an achievable time frame for each step of the exhibition development. Time-frames are always important for developing any exhibition, but when you throw 11 young people into the mix, it becomes a much greater challenge! Once again Lesley’s support in this was essential. Her contact with the kids through the Youth Centre meant we had to rely on her ability to coordinate them for certain tasks – particularly when the time came to have their photograph taken. Lesley was so dedicated the project that she even went out of her way to collect some of the participants from school or home so that they were there for their scheduled date with our photographer Lilli. Again, we had to be very flexible with dates and there were a couple of false starts, but managing the time schedules of museum staff, the photographer, Lesley and the 11 participants was no mean feat! During the initial development phase, I had gone in search of an appropriate artist to take the photographic portraits. SLIDE – MUSEUM SEEKS ARTIST I wanted the portraits to be very striking and atmospheric and I also wanted the process of having their photograph taken to be quite creative for the young people and for it to be a special experience where they got enjoyment out of being the centre of attention for the day. I discovered the work of Melbourne based photographer Lilli Waters. I thought that her aesthetic would be perfect for the project. Lilli was very keen to be involved in the exhibition and after a couple of meetings to discuss the look and feel she proved to be the perfect person for the task: producing the perfect image of each of the young people that shows a combination of strength, beauty, individuality and vulnerability. SLIDE – CREATING THE PORTRAITS Having their portrait taken by an artist, as we had hoped, was a unique experience for all the young people. They really embraced the process and did all sorts of crazy things like trekking through the forests to find the perfect location, lying down in long fields of grass and were even happy to potentially have a bucket of water chucked over them for the sake of art! SLIDE – EXHIBITION OPENS: AYDEN When the day came for them all to see their portraits hanging in the Museum for the first time there were smiles and tears and a very palpable sense of pride amongst the participants. The Museum organised a bus to collect the participants, their families and friends for a private opening of the exhibition. We
  7. 7. very much wanted them to have the opportunity to see the exhibition first, as a group. SLIDE – EXHIBITION OPENS: GROUP IMAGE It was a great evening – albeit an emotional one. We arranged for each participant to take home their own framed copy of their portrait and had the Chief Commissioner, Ken Lay officially open the exhibition. SLIDE – EXHIBITION OPENS: BEAU & GIRLFRIEND During the evening I got a real sense of how much the exhibition meant to those involved. I had three parents come and speak to each with a similar story about how being involved in the project had been quite emotionally profound for them and their children. They each said that in the four years since the fires, their child had not expressed these thoughts and feelings to counsellors let alone family members. Yet, here they were laid bare for everyone to read the exhibition. It may have been the fact that writing their story for the exhibition was a bit like writing a page in their diary in that the audience was unknown or even invisible: making it easier to share their inner thoughts. Or perhaps it was the fact that a group of peers all took up the scary challenge together to open up about a shared trauma…I’m not sure, but the fact that each of these young people did, is a really wonderful thing. One mother wrote me an email during the exhibition development. In it she said: I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for not only my son but for our youth up here. When I heard about the exhibition and read your letter about the project, I did not know what impact it would have for me until Leslie showed me the photo. I don’t know if you understand how proud my son actually is of it. What you are doing here is something that must be commended. Thank you for taking the time to show that our youth are excellent, but we already knew that. SLIDES X 10 – THE PORTRAITS Annie & Olivia with their waterpistols Ayden and his CFA uniform Lewis and his artwork Michael standing on the property where he and his family sought refuge during the fires Bec and her dog Goldie Emily and CDs of her favourite bands
  8. 8. Beau and his drumsticks Mikey and his mobile phone Oscar and his skateboard Tim and his Ipod In the period since the exhibition, myself and colleagues have remained in contact with Lesley. It has been important to me and the whole nature of the project that there be some kind of ongoing relationship between the community and the Museum in some way. This has included a fundraiser by my colleague Monica Cronin. She was inspired by the plight of the Youth Centre who have struggled to attract continued funding to support these vulnerable young people. She organised an exhibition of donated artworks with 100% of sales going to the Kinglake Youth Centre. In February this year we took Things of Fire and Ash to Kinglake for display at an event held for the fifth-year anniversary of Black Saturday; and more recently we have been involved in developing an online version of the exhibition for a fundraising and awareness organisation called Smouldering Stump that is dedicated to community bushfire recovery and in particular raising awareness about mental health issues caused by natural disaster trauma. We also have a project bubbling away in the background that involves the permanent display of the portraits and stories in the yet to be built Kinglake Cultural Centre – in our view the perfect home for the exhibition. Some final facts about the exhibition: all up the exhibition cost under $5,000 to produce. It was a simple exhibition and very cost effective but it had a big impact. The costs included: Photographer’s fees Printing of artworks Printing of text labels and main banner Framing of portraits Printing of promotional postcards SLIDE - TIPS/THINGS LEARNED…WORKING WITH COMMUNITY GROUPS > Keep the project simple. > Having one main contact for a community project is important – too many channels of communication can create complications. > Make sure you have clear processes, timelines and responsibilities outlined. > Cover everything in writing: emails are good. > Delegate tasks to the most appropriate people. This includes those within the community group.
  9. 9. > Check with key people in the community group you are working with on aspects of content and interpretation – make sure they are happy with content and tone. You are telling their story, it’s really important you do that in a way that they feel comfortable with. > Be flexible and be open to change at every turn!

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