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Past, present, future laid out on firestorm anniversary

As a site to mark a horrifying event, the setting and the weather couldn't have been better.

The Mount Stromlo Observatory is one of the enduring symbols of the 2003 fires, and, for the next month at least, it will be the repository of memories and reflections as the site of a new exhibition.

Past Present Future has photos, artworks, footage, personal belongings and individual stories - all stemming from the same unforgettable day, but telling the story in many different ways. And it's a show that will continue to develop as members of the community affected by the fires can add their own mementoes to the collection.

The exhibition - an official Canberra centenary event at Scope, the observatory's cafe and gallery - was launched on Friday under searing blue skies, and many present had chosen this, rather than the official memorial, as the place to mark the 10-year anniversary.

The exhibition is a dynamic and evolving alternative to the memorial that was unveiled later in the day, with news footage, paintings, personal accounts and a motley collection of items salvaged from the wreckage of so many homes.

Speaking at the opening of the exhibition, former ANU vice-chancellor Ian Chubb recalled being told of the devastating damage to the observatory - part of the university's research school of astronomy and astrophysics - the day after the fire.


"I can't ever forget the smell, the ash and the atmosphere," he said.

He also recalled the look on then prime minister John Howard's face as he stepped out of his car, having just driven through some of the suburbs hardest hit by the fires.

"He was shocked, stunned, saddened and worried. He said he'd never seen anything as bad as this," Professor Chubb said.

Brett McNamara, of ACT Parks and Wildlife, said that while the day was about pausing and reflecting, it was impossible to ignore the weather of the past week, frighteningly similar to the conditions that led to the fires.

"Are we better prepared today than we were 10 years ago? To my mind, the answer is yes," he said.

While the words of several poets - Henry Lawson and Sting among them - were evoked during the proceedings, nothing could match the spectacular backdrop of the view from Mount Stromlo, reminding all those present of the beauty of the surrounds.

Simone Hunt, the manager of Scope, said the exhibition had been prepared "with the big picture in mind". "It's a tribute to the past, tells the current story and expresses our hopes for the future," she said.

While there was no smoke or immediate threat of fire, ambulance and fire crews, there to mark 10 years since the 2003 firestorm, were at the ready, handing out water and watching the skyline.

Past Present Future is at Scope at Mount Stromlo until February 18. Entry is free.