to ponder the wisdom of placing our great galleries, libraries and theaters on the banks of a flood-prone river


As a historian, I spend many hours at the State Library of Queensland looking at the large glass panels overlooking the Brisbane River. Its calm brown waters meander quietly by, providing an ideal spot to watch the CityCat ferries and the occasional rower passing by.

But this weekend the water was raging, rushing past the library, full of pontoons, boats and debris. The river burst its banks, regaining its flood plain and inundating buildings in its path until the tide reached a high of 3.85 meters at the Brisbane Gauge.

Maiwar (Turrbal name for the Brisbane River) has a long history of flooding, as does the Southern Peninsula or Kurilpa, ‘place of the water rat’. This land, once filled with waterholes, streams, and wetlands, provided sustenance for the Turrbal and Jagara peoples for centuries.

Flooded streets of Brisbane in 1893.
Queensland State Archives

When a 8.35 meter flood hit central Brisbane in 1893, the South Bank was an industrial center comprising dockyards, factories, trading companies and the railway line, with housing developments in the nearby West End.

After the flood, trading companies moved to the north side, and between the 1900s and the 1970s the south shore fell into disrepair, being left as largely undeveloped open space.

A new cultural district

In 1969, the Queensland Art Gallery Site Committee selected the south bank of the river as the site for a new state art gallery, whose riverside location was deemed aesthetically pleasing.

By 1974 the state government had acquired more land for a cultural district, unfazed by the 1974 floods, which reached 17 feet (5.45 m) at the Brisbane Gauge.

The flood of 1974 reached a height of 5.45 meters.
Queensland State Archives

Added to this were the Queensland Art Gallery (opened 1982), the Queensland Performing Arts Center (1985), the Queensland Museum (1986) and the Queensland State Library (1988, expanded in 2006). The Cultural District was expanded to include the Playhouse Theater (1998) and the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA, 2006).

By 1987 the Queensland Art Gallery and Queensland Performing Arts Center (both far left) had opened, but most of the South Bank remained undeveloped.
Queensland State Archives

With its riverside forecourts and restaurants and Brisbane’s iconic Eye, the designs took advantage of the location and were intended to make a statement from the north side of the river.

Adjacent land was developed for the ’88 World’s Fair, now South Bank Parklands and home to the Queensland Conservatory (1996) and ABC Studios (2013).

The district stretches 450 meters along the Brisbane River and is now the cultural heart of Brisbane.

In 1988 South Bank was home to the World’s Fair.
Queensland State Archives

The 2011 flood

But South Bank’s watery history is never far away.

In 2011, Brisbane was flooded again, this time to 15 feet (4.46 m) at Brisbane Gauge, and the borough’s vulnerability was exposed. In a matter of hours, the riverside location went from being an asset to being a liability. The parking lots and basements, which housed the electrical, fire and air conditioning systems, were flooded, making the buildings unsafe.

The buildings were all shut down as the basement pumps went into overdrive.

Flooded South Shore
During the 2011 floods, the Brisbane River reached 4.46 metres.
AAP Image/Dave Hunt

Water did not enter the Queensland Art Gallery, but at the Gallery of Modern Art, the lower level of the Children’s Art Centre, the River Café and areas behind the house were damaged. The first floor was well above river level and the ground floor’s rugged design allowed it to be hosed down.

The State Library was forced to move its collection to higher floors — as staff had done in previous wet weeks — and was saved by the 2006 renovation, which had already seen some books moved to higher floors. The Edge, the children’s area on the ground floor, was damaged.

Nearly ten feet of flood water inundated the lower end of the playhouse at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre. It took a month for performances to take place.

The Queensland Theater Company’s headquarters, just a few blocks away on Montague Road, was waist-deep in water.

Thousands of props and costumes were destroyed – years of theater history sent to the dump. The stage floor and lower seating, bar, reception and green spaces were irrevocably damaged.

As the flood waters receded, humidity (the harbinger of mold) rose, and the power outage made humidity monitors and air conditioning impossible. Librarians, museum and art curators watched anxiously.

But after a few weeks, the curtains at the Queensland Performing Arts Center opened again in a spirit of ‘the show must go on’ and these cultural centers went back to business as usual.

The 2022 floods

When the flood waters came back up this year, my fellow historians and I texted each other asking, “What happened to the State Library, is it in trouble?”

Unfortunately it was. The State Library of Queensland, where access has been restricted for months due to COVID-19, is once again closed. The community tool library on the first floor of the library is completely submerged.

The Queensland Theater Company is again inundated with water.

Performances at the Queensland Performing Arts Center are postponed to at least March 7.

The ABC, an essential service during floods, was flooded. News from Brisbane was diverted via Melbourne or Perth, with local journalists reporting on the ground.

In a few weeks I hope to be able to do research at the state library again. Once more I will gaze at the river and enjoy the peaceful reverie of seemingly harmless water rushing by.

But this time, I’ll reflect on the wisdom of placing all of our cultural repositories on the banks of a flood-prone subtropical river.

Read more: Like rivers in the sky: The weather system that brings flooding to Queensland is becoming more likely with climate change


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