Treasures in the rubble: materialised memory and the traumatic loss of belongings in bushfire

Dr Scott McKinnon1, Dr Christine Eriksen2

1University of Wollongong, Wollongong, Australia

2University of Wollongong, Wollongong, Australia


This paper explores the significance of lost belongings and discovered ‘treasures’ in the burnt out rubble of homes destroyed by bushfire. Drawing on interviews with bushfire survivors, the paper argues that, among risks to life and livelihood, disasters also place at risk the memories of individuals and families. For many interviewees, the destruction of household items represented the destruction of a treasured past.

While examining the traumatising potential of such loss, the paper will also explore new forms of memory produced by the disaster. Among ashen ruins were found small objects, often melted and unusable but salvaged for their value as commemorative artefacts. These objects became invested with complex layers of memory, representing both the fire itself and the life that existed before the fire struck.

Disasters reveal the importance attributed to everyday objects as materialised forms of memory. For many survivors, the destruction of these memories produced a destabilising form of ontological precarity.  We argue for the value in attending to threats to memory as a significant element of disaster recovery processes.


Scott McKinnon is a Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Australian Centre for Culture Environment Society and Space (ACCESS) at the University of Wollongong. His current project investigates memories of disaster in Australia.


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