Fire Station

at the
Canberra Fire Museum

Reflection in the siren of a fire engine

Tim Brook approached the Fire Brigade Historical Society 20 months ago telling us about his project for the Shaping Canberra exhibition and asking if he could be an artist in residence. This was new for the volunteers at the time, but there was no hesitation—we are a very welcoming lot at the Fire Brigade Historical Society! Artists-in-residence in community heritage sites not only interpret the site and collection but can allow those who are invested inthe place, the objects and their history to see more clearly their own relationship to it. Certainly this is what I found.  

It was a really nice moment really early on when a whole lot of the retired firefighters were in the Museum the day that Tim showed us the first set of photos he’d taken of the museum display—it was great—he looked at the objects in a way that those who had been around them much of their working and retired lives couldn’t see—and it was so clear that they enjoyed seeing them—the reflections in the brass of the engines, the details Tim focussed on that had for him a beautiful abstract structure and to the volunteers they were objects they had collected, restored, maintained and were embedded in their personal histories—there was a really nice understanding at that moment through a common affection for the objects.  

Tim was really great to work with in many ways, not least because he understood the value of the museum and because he had his own memories of the building from when it was the working Forrest Fire Station. As a volunteer organisation, we are limited in time and resources—and Tim was patient and generous. He never hesitated in offering the expertise and resources he had available to help the Museum in any way his could. Another great aspect of how Tim went about this was that everything he scanned and all the photos he took, he was rigorous about saving onto the museum computer. Noone asked him to and noone was going to have the time to check, but he did it anyway! He took great photographic portraits of the old fire engines when we needed high resolution pictures for the Canberra Centenary guide. Tim’s obvious respect for and commitment to the museum was apparent from the first and embraced by everyone. For the Centenary Open Day in June this year—he arranged to print some of the photos and scans he had taken for his piece and exhibited them in the Engine Bay at the Museum.

One critical thing I wanted to highlight though was the success of Tim’s approach, which in hindsight seemed incredibly clever in terms of how he was able to construct the work—but at the time seemed the most normal thing in the world. Tim’s approach was to spend time at the Museum—to be there, with the people, objects and the building—he joined as a member and would turn up on a Saturday morning, have a cup of tea and a chat—because this is part of being in a community organisation—Tim was able to translate, capture and celebrate it in his work.

Tim understood that observing and getting a true sense of the community of the Canberra Fire Museum was important—communities and buildings they all have rhythms and routines and a kind of ceremony to them that is reassuring, settling and fulfilling in a completely intangible way that relates people now to the people, objects and places of the past. I had experienced this myself without being aware of it. I could never understand why on a Saturday morning grumpy, stressed trying to do both fulltime work and uni, hung-over, I would haul myself out of bed, pedal my bike down to the museum a bit past ten and then by 12.30 or 1pm I would cycle back home andI would realise I wasn’t feeling grumpy any more and really things felt good, sunnier, somehow so much better. I noticed this, but didn’t really understand it until I saw the part of Tim’s work that shows Greg Buscombe AFSM and past president of the historical society opening up the museum and I realised then… that is why I felt good by Saturday afternoon, it is committing to something outside oneself, something that links with the past and with a sense of continuing community, a grace that transcends the individuals but links to their humanity.

When I saw the full digital art piece that Tim had created I saw that through this approach of simply being about, Tim had captured the intangible heritage of the building and the collection: given the number of national and international bodies constantly wrestling with this concept over hundreds of thousands of words in report after report… Maybe what they need is fewer lawyers and more artists (I say this as an ex-lawyer who works in an gallery). Happily this trend is on the rise in the heritage world—more heritage places are hosting artists and exhibits: I hope that this trend continues. I have to say, until I experienced this first hand I think I thought that having and artist in residence at a community museum sounded like a good idea but without truly understanding why. But now,through Tim’s work with the fire museum, I understand a little bit more about what lies behind this.

I would like to finish just by thanking Tim for his work with the Fire Museum—it has been such a pleasure—and congratulate him for producing such an insightful and beautiful work in the Shaping Canberra exhibition.