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How did the Museum of Fire end up in a Powerhouse in Penrith?

-Story by Bill Rowlings OAM

Deputy President, c. 1984

It was all the doing of the first female to take on a senior role in fire brigade management in NSW.


In 1982, the NSW Minister for Police and Emergency Services, Peter Anderson, appointed Kristine Klugman BA (History) MA (Community Studies) as the first female to serve on the then 98-year-old Board of Fire Commissioners, and made her Deputy President. At the time, she was also the President of the Australian Museum Trust, a voluntary position.


She was a double-certificated nurse, researcher, historian and author who played a key role in opening the opportunity for females in active firefighting in Australia.


Dr Klugman, as she later became, championed the role of women within firefighting. In 1983, as a Board member and 41-year-old mother of three teenage girls, she volunteered to be the first female to formally undertake all the strenuous physical tests faced by new recruits. In passing, she proved to her fellow Board Members that the same opportunity to take the test to become a firefighter should be open equally to both sexes. Women today are an integral part of FRNSW.


Proving that women should be given the opportunity.

In 1984, the NSW Government appointed her to the newly created role full time of Deputy President of the Board of Fire Commissioners NSW (NSW Fire Brigades, today Fire and Rescue NSW). Before then, only the President was full-time. She was a prime mover for modernisation, helping to get rid of a promotion-by-seniority system and turn it into promotion on merit. She motivated a change to the internal culture to value continual learning and education opportunities for firefighters, as well as to putting greater emphasis on public education to help prevent fires and bushfires.


As well as her role as President of the Australian Museum, she was appointed by the Federal Government to the interim council for the National Maritime Museum. Naturally, Dr Klugman took a keen interest in promoting the fire brigade's own museum. It was sited, temporarily, inside an old timber finger wharf across Circular Quay from the Opera House. The location was prime, but the timber was rotten...and the government wanted to sell-off the prime land to developers for accommodation and the high-priced, international restaurants which took over the area later.


With the government very keen to move the museum as quickly as possible, Dr Klugman used the leverage to argue they had to provide an excellent alternative location for the large fire engines, tall ladders and displays of educational materials at a site equally suitable and with good access. Eventually, after a wide range of sites were proposed but rejected as unsuitable, Mr Anderson, who was the Member for Penrith and a former local alderman, suggested the old Penrith Powerhouse.

Board of Fire Commissioners NSW, 1984
"Driving to the site inspection, I had no idea what to expect," Dr Klugman said.
"It turned out to be the smelliest place I've even been in, unused, derelict for decades. The windows were smashed and pigeons in their thousands were the long-term tenants, leaving their droppings many centimetres deep on the floor in places.
"But it had potential, and location in the heart of Penrith, near the station. The height was a huge advantage. And Mr Anderson and the council were keen to transform what was an eyesore.
"With a win-win deal in the offing, negotiations to finalise the Museum of Fire takeover of the site went relatively more smoothly and quickly than these things sometimes do. Though we had to bargain hard to get a 'peppercorn' rental deal, and to get some public help with cleaning up and improving access," she said.
Kristine Klugman inspects the new Museum site in Penrith, 1987

From the organisation's viewpoint, it was serendipity that Kristine Klugman, an experienced museum leader, was in the right place at the right time to ensure establishment of The Museum of Fire in its almost purpose-designed building and perfect location at Penrith. Today she says: "At that first inspection, I could not have envisaged what a wonderful and attractive asset the volunteers and firies have turned the Museum of Fire into at Penrith. It is an enormous credit to the hard work of so many people."


After leaving the Board, she studied for her PhD, and then was joint founder and President for 20 years of Civil Liberties Australia, a national human rights organisation.


Dr. Klugman’s views are immortalised in the Brigade’s ‘Centenary of Fire’ film produced in 1984.

Kristine Klugman, Deputy President, Board of Fire Commissioners, 1984

The Museum's team would like to thank Mr. Bill Rowlings OAM for contributing this story to our heritage collection and blog series. The role Dr. Klugman played in helping make the Museum what it is today cannot be understated and we would like to wish her a very happy 80th Birthday!


The history of the Museum is currently on show as part of the Museum's temporary exhibition "Our Heritage".


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