Mountain ash and bushfires

 Baroness Bertha, a giant mountain ash tree in Victoria’s Yarra Ranges, stands almost 60 metres tall, and 15 metres in girth. The tree is hollow at its base, with an arched opening to a cathedral-like space that could fit half a dozen people. Standing inside her towering form, I smell the rich mulch of the leaf litter underfoot, and touch its strangely spongy wood charred black by bushfire. How could such an old and imposing tree still stand firm on such apparently unsound foundations?


Baroness Bertha, near Powelltown, Victoria

I have come to the Yarra Ranges north-east of Melbourne with Senior Curator George Main, to meet with people who live amongst the mountain ash, and discuss our plans for the National Museum of Australia’s new environmental history gallery. Like many people before us, we have been drawn to the Yarra Ranges by the power of the landscape and the majesty of the mountain ash forests.


Mountain ash is the world’s tallest hardwood tree, found in the moist ranges of Victoria and Tasmania. In the Yarra Ranges it has been a source of timber, and a draw for tourists and settlers seeking the peace and beauty of the forest. Dependent on fire for its survival, mountain ash can also be a source of destruction.

We meet big-tree hunter Brett Mifsud, who has made a quest of climbing Victoria’s largest trees to measure them, document them, and campaign for their preservation. He directs us to Baroness Bertha and inspires us with his passion for these giant trees.

The Yarra Ranges Regional Museum in Lilydale is the venue for our meeting with staff from the Yarra Ranges Council working in arts, culture, heritage, emergency response and forest management. The Museum is a thriving hub for the local community and hosts a jewel of an exhibition about the history of the region.

These people know the reality of bushfire. Living in the lush beauty of the forest brings with it the risk of summer fires, last experienced in the region on Black Saturday, 7 February 2009. We hear moving stories of this catastrophic bushfire, and other smaller fires, no less devastating in their impact on communities affected.

How might we tell these stories in the National Museum’s gallery? Not only the terrifying experience of bushfire, but the varied responses of communities impacted and their resilience in preparing for the inevitable fires to come. How might we connect Museum visitors in Canberra with the dynamic relationships in the Yarra Ranges between forests and people, weather patterns and bushfires?

Uncle David Wandin, Wurundjeri elder, introduces us to another perspective on bushfire. Drawing on Indigenous knowledge of fire shared by elders in Cape York, Queensland, Uncle David is working with Emergency Management Victoria to trial fire practices that prepare forests for increasingly frequent and intense bushfires. His team tends forests using targeted, controlled ‘cold burns’, which reduce fuel load while maintaining biodiversity, limiting the intensity and impact of mega-fires and nurturing country back to health.

It is compelling stories like these, about people responding in hopeful and creative ways to the challenges of environmental change, that we hope to tell in the new environmental history gallery.


Uncle David Wandin




Catering for a crowd

Constructed and operating in a newly established capital city, Canberra’s Old Parliament House was designed to be a self-contained building, providing for the needs for members of parliament, staff and visitors. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Refreshment Rooms (CPRR), located in the building’s South Wing, were used to prepare and serve hundreds of meals each day when parliament was sitting, and to cater for grand balls and events for visiting dignitaries. Stories of the ‘silver service’ provided in the building for daily business and special events, are now part of the Old Parliament House exhibit in the National Museum’s Landmarks gallery.

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Seaweed projections at IlluminARTe

On Saturday 29th April, the village of Picton came alive with the annual IlluminARTe Wollondilly Festival. The festival had a family atmosphere and featured market stalls, street musicians, a lantern parade, fireworks and building projections. A number of artists were invited to create projections onto the buildings including Julie Ryder, our artist-in-residence from 2016. Julie chose to use images from our seaweed album and related collections to inform her artwork. Continue reading

Bunya Power

On Thursday morning, as my plane taxied across the tarmac of Canberra airport, thirsty jet engines warming themselves for the flight north, I began reading Ray Kerkhove’s extraordinary document, The Great Bunya Gathering: Early Accounts. This compilation of stories and memories of the bunya trees of southeast Queensland captures and conveys something of the power of these majestic rainforest beings, of their capacities to draw people towards their towering trunks and vast crowns, to feast regularly on their abundant offerings of nutritious and delicious nuts, to celebrate and Continue reading

Freewheeling spins into Canberra

The National Museum of Australia celebrated the history of cycling in Australia with the official launch on the 13th April of its exhibition Freewheeling: Cycling in Australia. The exhibition has been travelling around Australia since November 2014 and this is the final venue of the tour.

It was a privilege to host Michael Milton, paralympic cyclist, and Gillian Helyar from Pedal Power ACT as the guest speakers at the launch. Michael and Gillian enjoyed a preview of the exhibition, along with NMA Director Dr. Mathew Trinca and Curator Catriona Donnelly. Continue reading

A piece of the ‘goodwill rock’

Tonight, a lunar surface fragment from the National Museum’s collection will appear in the Stargazing Live series, hosted by Professor Brian Cox and Julia Zemiro. Broadcast on the ABC from the Siding Spring Observatory, near Coonabarabran, New South Wales, the moon rock fragment will offer stories from the Moon, NASA astronauts and international politics, as leading scientists and personalities tackle astronomy’s most intriguing questions and seek to inspire Australians to explore our solar system. Next week it will be on display in the Museum’s Hall, a chance to see a small piece of the moon that captures a small moment in history.

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Moth-Man prophecies: reflections from the field

On a mild evening in March, distinguished archaeologist Dr Josephine Flood spoke to a full house in the Museum’s Visions Theatre, at an event co-hosted by the Canberra Archaeological Society and the Museum Friends. Best known for her research regarding the region’s Moth Hunters and dating occupation in places like the Birrigai Rock Shelter to 25,000 years, Dr Flood’s work has bestowed significant scientific value on Aboriginal history in the region. Her work continues to influence contemporary archaeological understandings of Aboriginal occupation particularly of Australia’s High Country, triggered in part by annual feasting and ceremony relating to Bogong Moths. It has been this work in particular that has reconnected Dr Flood with the Museum and its collections; our new environmental history gallery will focus on the intersection between people and these magnificent pathways, such as the one forged and activated by the impressive Bogong Moth migration from southern Queensland into the rock crevices across the Australian High Country. The Museum holds an impressive collection of Dr Flood’s research materials, including archaeological samples associated with moth hunting and life in the High Country.

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A new chapter

On Friday, the Namatjira Legacy Trust was officially launched at the National Museum of Australia. The Museum was pleased to host granddaughters of Albert Namatjira and trustees, Lenie Namatjira and Gloria Pannka, Clara Inkamala, musician Shelli Morris, and Big hART’s Director Scott Rankin and Producer Sophia Marinos, with other special guests to celebrate the occasion. The event also marked the official launch of the Museum’s Ntaria (Hermannsburg) exhibit in the Landmarks gallery.

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Continuing connections

One of the joys of working at a museum is the variety of stories you uncover when researching objects. Another is the pleasure of meeting people who can illuminate and elaborate on those stories and objects.

Recently, when developing a display for our Journeys gallery, I was fortunate enough to work with both a wonderful collection and an engaged and very connected individual. The story relates to the experiences of James Taylor, a farrier with the 9th Light Horse stationed in the Middle East during World War One. The collection of material includes Taylor’s ‘coming home’ tunic, slouch hat, kit bag and pay book. The individual is Fran Kirby, Taylor’s grand daughter.

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