Memories flood back as Museum of Brisbane reflects on 2011 floods

A decade ago, many southeast Queenslanders were forced to stay indoors after the region was ravaged by its worst floods since 1974 and to observe the milestone, the Museum of Brisbane has created an online exhibition that reflects on the lived experiences of the city’s residents.

Jan 11, 2021, updated Jan 11, 2021

Today marks exactly 10 years since the Brisbane River broke its banks and inundating low-lying parts of the city, with floodwaters peaking at 4.46 metres two days later, damaging 20,000 homes.

Based on individual memories of nine Brisbane residents, the Museum of Brisbane’s exhibition, A City Submerged: The 2011 Floods 10 Years On, features poignant watercolour illustrations from local artist Holly Neilson, which have been brought to life by animator Sai Karlen.

Neilson’s works were created in response to quotes from Queenslanders including then-state coroner Michael Barnes, author and journalist Matthew Condon, poet and novelist Thomas Shapcott, BreakFree Climate Action Group Jo Willans, Tribal Experiences director Shannon Ruska and Brisbane residents Cassie Woolley, Marjorie Cross and Rachel Hoey.

“We commissioned Holly to respond to quotes that we’ve been gathering for quite some time,” Museum of Brisbane director and chief executive Renai Grace told InQueensland.

“During the Museum of Brisbane’s exhibition 100% Brisbane in 2018, we had a major section about the impact of the 2011 floods, so we were able to get a lot of people’s feedback about what they experienced and document it through that process.

“We also had one of our team members generously provide us with a quote and then a couple of others from some research that we’ve done and then so Holly responded and then we had them animated. Because it is online, we thought having something more than just a still image was really important.”

Holly Neilson’s Unusual, part of A City Submerged: The 2011 Floods 10 Years On. (Image: Supplied)

Grace was full of praise for Neilson’s efforts, saying she had managed to convey a range of complex emotions in her works in a manner that could be easily interpreted by both children and adults.

“Artists are able to interpret the emotions of people in different ways and Holly’s works will enable us to share this with someone that mightn’t have experienced it, like a child, and be able to talk through what happened.

“I think it’s provided an excellent online exhibition that’s very accessible, but also sensitive to how people might be feeling particularly at the moment.”

Grace was also quick to compliment Karlen’s understated approach to the animation, saying it accentuated Neilson’s illustrations without detracting from her artistic intentions.

“We see so many things that are so quick and rushed and those subtle movements allow us have that contemplation, and it’s something that people can dwell on when they are looking online.”

The irony of Greater Brisbane residents being in lockdown as the exhibition launches was not lost on Grace and she said the necessity of having to create content for audiences confined to their homes during last year’s lockdown had encouraged curators to ensure online exhibitions remained an ongoing part of the museum’s offerings.

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The Animal that Visits, Holly Neilson, is part of the Museum of Brisbane’s online exhibition. (Image: Supplied)

“We’re looking at content that we can put online because we see that it’s actually a new avenue for us to reach wider audiences and we thought this was a really significant anniversary to commemorate,” she said.

“We thought if people can’t get into the museum, then it was a great way to do it. I think that’s what’s come out of the last 12 months and now online exhibitions are part of our planning, which is really exciting.”

Despite occupying its current, purpose-built space on level three of City Hall for more than seven years, Grace said many the museum had welcomed many first-time visitors over the past year, with the current Storytellers exhibition proving particularly popular.

“We’re really on a major awareness campaign at the moment and we’ve had a lot of first-time visitors, which is really exciting for us, and the Storytellers exhibition is so interactive,” she said.

“We’ve actually programmed an adventure book with a guide for the Storytellers exhibition and last week, actually was so touched I heard this little boy come out of the exhibition and say, ‘oh my God, this is so cool,’ and it made my day.

“Let’s hope things turn around really quickly and we can welcome people back to see Storytellers and also the Bauhaus exhibition and What is Different? – our children’s art exhibition.

“There have been a lot of people out and about prior to this current lockdown and they’re wanting things to do, so we’re very much hoping that we’re a place for people to come and be inspired.”

To view ‘A City Submerged: The 2011 Floods 10 Years On’, visit the Museum of Brisbane website

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