Saturday, October 12, 2013

Developing the Fire exhibition

It has been fascinating following the development of our new exhibition in the Museum, "Where There's Smoke: Living with Fire," organized by my colleague J. Hope Amason.  Hope, my wife Ellen and i had initially conceived the exhibition in August 2012, as we were volunteering in the animal rescue initiative (organized by Deborah Barkley, at that time a Museum board member)  at the Kittitas County Fairgrounds during the Taylor Bridge Fire (TBF). Wouldn't it be exciting, we thought, if the Museum could put on a small show about the Taylor Bridge Fire itself?

As we started to research and conceptualize the show, we quickly realized that it was important to put this particular fire in larger historical and environmental contexts. Fire, after all, has shaped the landscape of the inland West for millenia,  As dramatic as the 2012 Taylor Bridge Fire was, it would surely be even more interesting for our visitors if we could help explain why that particular wildland fire so intense and why a particular kind of command structure had directed the fight against it.  We also wanted to demonstrate a point that had been repeatedly brought home to us during the TBF; that fire, for all its destructive force, is also often creative, helping to forge or re-forge the bonds of community.

As we talked with fire professionals and with scientists, we began to realize  that the conventional distinction we had been making, between "structure" firefighting and "wildland" firefighting, didn't entirely make sense in our particular region, living as we do on a wildland-urban interface,  Working with our friends at the Roslyn Historical Museum, we saw we had the opportunity to foreground the Roslyn story, emphasizing that the struggle against fire has been been constitutive of community. Thus, the show starts with a dramatic artifact: the classic hand-pulled firehouse wagon from the Roslyn Museum, juxtaposed with old photographs of the Roslyn volunteer fire force.

We also wanted to illuminate the deep history of fire in the lnland Northwest since the end of the last ice age.  Fortunately, our colleague Megan Walsh in the Geography Department, whose office is just a hallway over from Anthropology, is a noted specialist on the paleo-ecology of fire in this region; she and her students have been gathering data on the past 10,000 years of fire in the inland West. Megan generously shared her research data and her insights, contributing to our opening section, "Ancient Regimes of Fire."

We were able to include a microscope through which visitors can look at petri dishes Megan prepared, allowing visitors to distinguish between different kinds of charcoal, associated with  grass, leaf and wood fire deposits.

And through old and new photographs of the Sinlahekin valley, visitor are able to ponder the long term consequences of an intensive regime of fire suppression across the past century, which has, ironically, rendered our forests much more vulnerable to mass conflagrations.

I developed a small section (named by Lynn, "Lighting the Way") on fire, human evolution, the history of religion and the cultural meanings of fire. I drew in part on the thinking of Richard Wrangham, whose book “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human, will be the subject of our first museum-library book discussion on Dec. 5 at the Ellensburg Public Library. We hope to read each quarter a book related to an exhibition theme, rotating between the Ellesnburg Public Library, the Museum and the university's Brooks Library.

I also summarize the classic discussion of the Culinary Triangle by structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, for whom fire and cooking are a subtle kind of “language” through which people contemplate the relationships between themselves and others and between nature and culture.
Indigenous meanings of fire are also explored in a case on Native American smoking pipes, emphasizing the ways in which precontact smoking help seal diplomatic bonds between different social groups and also opened up spiritual connections between humans and the invisible world. The pipes are lent by Museum staff member, Elizabeth Bollwerk, an archaeologist who authored this section of the exhibition.

Hope and her students had a grand time working with local firefighters and community historians, gathering stories and artifacts related to fire and firefighting, including objects that illustrated the history of the Roslyn all volunteer Fire Department.

As anthropologists we are especially fascinated by the ways in which the carefully managed traditions and nearly sacred objects of the fire department help create an extended system of "fictive" kinship, binding past and present members of the force into deep bonds of family-like connection.

  We both worked closely with our recent museum studies graduate Justin Poole ’13, who through his new company "Curative Sounds" has created a striking soundscape for the exhibition, a two and a half minute loops that starts with a thunderclap and fire crackling, moves into wailing sirens and then whirling sound of a helicopter. A more solemn note is stuck by a bell ringing repeatedly, moving us into a memorial section with human voice, fading back into the sounds of the raging fire before the thunder clap and lightning strike begin the cycle all over again.

From left: Prof. Hope Amason, Casey Demory, Justin Poole, Hanna Person (not shown: intern Mariel Brodsky)

Our interns (Hanna Person and Mariel Brodsky) and former students  (Casey Demory '13 and Justin Poole '13) worked tirelessly on the show, overseen by museum collections manager Lynn Bethke.  Sara Baer '15, undergraduate rep to the Museum Advisory Council, has been advising us on making the exhibition safer and more accessible to those with disabilities, including adding braille, audio components and touchable objects into the gallery.

Our most interactive section is a wall devoted to the sixteen days of the Taylor Bridge Fire in late summer 2012, illustrated by the photographs of firefighter Steve Bisig. Visitors are invited to pen their reminiscences of the fire on yellow sticky "Post-Its" affixed to a long timeline, which marks notable events of that dramatic period, hour by hour. We hope this segments will continue to grow as more of our neighbors share their memories.

A final section consists of artistic mediations on the fire, showcasing two new poems by local poets Joe Powell and Mark Halperin.
Given the deeply personal nature of these poems we tried for a more intimate installation than our previous poetry displays, which have tended towards large format presentation on white walls. Instead, we placed these poems within recessed cases, presented on a black field framed with black cloth to evoke the scorched earth aftermath of a forest fire.  Viewers need to lean in close to each poem, which seems appropriate given the linkages each work establishes between external fired landscapes and interior psychic topographies.
We also display a painting of local artist Don Brontsema on one of the striking sunsets of Taylor Bridge Fire week. The painting evokes an irony often noted by county residents during the fire, that amidst all the terrible destruction and danger, the fire also gave us the gift of magnificent sunsets.   An adjacent powerpoint display highlights oral history research by the students of Lene Pedersen (Anthropology) and Kathy Whitcomb (English) on the fire’s impact: especially moving is a section on Robert, interviewed by Museum Studies student Courtney Jones and our desk monitor Megan Epperson, as Robert reflects on the loss of his cabin. We also project film footage from Roslyn's oldtime fires and from modern firefighting air support, courtesy of the Roslyn Fire Department and Roslyn Museum president Scott Templin.

Tom Craven DJ Hall of Fame, KCWU
The show concludes with a memorial section, dedicated to all those who had lost their lives as firefighters, including the four victims of the 2001 Thirtymile fire, among them CWU alumnus Tom Craven, warmly remembered here as a campus DJ and football player.  (Tom Craven is memoriaized at our campus radio station KCWU through a memorial plaque award.)

We showcase the beautiful memorial at Mt. Olivet cemetery in Roslyn, honoring the four victims through an environmental installation, incorporating charred logs and sculpted animals, that reminds visitors of a peaceful forest glade.

Our opening this past Thursday, organized by Museum Graduate Fellow Bethany Oliver, was delightful.  Native American artist and wildland fire fighter Jim Baugh held many visitors spellbound as he demonstrated indigenous fire-making techniques (lots of people tried their hands at the task, creating a good deal of smoke though not much fire.)  We'd also like to thank the Lunch Box Cafe for catering the event with delicious pizza (appropriately wood-fired in a portable clay oven made from local clays.)

The exhibition continues to develop, even after our official opening. People keep on coming in with new ideas and stories, which we treasure.

Finally, special thanks to one of our front desk monitors, Erin (an artist and Anthropology major) and her roommate Ariana, for  creating a crepe paper montage evoking multicolored fire flames on the museum's front window panes.   This should warm us through the winter nights ahead!

We look forward in winter quarter to developing new exhibition components, including sections on Animal Rescue during the fire and on Native American firefighters.   Please stop by the museum and share your memories and reflections on fire in our region and in our lives.

Please note that audio tour segments for this exhibition may be downloaded from:


  1. This is such a thoughtful discussion of the exhibition--thank you so much for it! In particular I appreciate your observation that the white-on-black letters for the poetry section evoke scorched earth. The soundscape developed by Justin Poole of Curative Sounds creates an ambience that is at once unsettling and soothing, reverent and alarming. Just the right tone for this exhibition! FYI I have some suggestions for educational programs involving the culinary triangle!

    Erin and Ariana's fire motif is amazing!

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