How a comedian's word scam snowballed

Last updated 09:48 12/11/2013
Fairfax Australia

After receiving "tens of thousands of dollars" for a museum to hang words on a wall, satirist Charles Firth is as puzzled as the rest of us.

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When Charles Firth wrote to the Queen asking her to donate a word to the Sydney Museum of Words, Buckingham Palace sent a polite apology saying it would be unfair because Her Majesty received so many requests for donations.

''My wife said the Queen was the only person who picked it as a scam,'' said Firth, who launches his satirical museum on Saturday with an exhibition at a Potts Point art gallery.

The writer, comedian and co-creator of The Chaser and The Roast is astonished at how many people are taking his latest baby seriously.

For love and money: Charles Firth with the word he has donated for a satirical exhibition in Potts Point.

For love and money: Charles Firth with the word he has donated for a satirical exhibition in Potts Point. Photo: Tamara Dean

Printed words hung like artworks include ''perseverance'' from Gina Rinehart, ''consent'' from Julian Assange and Andrew Denton's ''nichodemia'' - the pleasure of anticipating success before doing something. The museum emerged from the Sydney Writers' Room, a non-profit work space in Sydney's Trades Hall set up by Firth and friends that has so far housed 40 writers of books, films and television scripts. But it was losing money and Firth, who believes space is more useful to artists than cash, found no arts organisation would give a grant to pay rent.

''So we thought, OK, how can we scam an arts grant by creating a program? A museum of words was the cheapest thing in the world.''

To his surprise, the City of Sydney granted the museum $20,000 and $10,000 for marketing.

''Now it has snowballed, so I don't know if it's a scam any more,'' Firth said. ''The original idea was to spend $150 on the museum and the rest on booze for the opening-night party.'' Instead Firth and his team asked well-known people to ''donate'' words, which are printed with witty definitions and will hang at 29 Challis Avenue for two weeks, allowing viewers to consider their out-of-context strangeness.

''Everyone wants to contribute a word, which they can't use while it's on loan. Most words are on loan because otherwise they could never use them again,'' said Firth, who chose ''love'' after considering ''the''.

Admission is free but there is, of course, a gift shop selling a T-shirt printed with ''sweatshop'' and a mug bearing ''mug'' and the definition ''the person who bought this''.

Perhaps the City of Sydney did get the joke: banners around town advertise the show with an Aboriginal word from the local Eora people: ''bininggaray (adj.) - something stupid''.


Julian Assange, WikiLeaks activist - Consent

Gina Rinehart, richest Australian - Perseverance

Clover Moore, Lord Mayor - Sustainability

Dr Mehreen Faruqi, Greens MLC - Government

David Hunt, popular historian - Bininggaray

Charles Firth, museum director - Love

Ghassan Hage, academic - White

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Judith Butler, feminist philosopher - Gender

Wayne Blair, writer/actor - Comedy

Paul Livingston, comedian (Flacco) - Magnate

Dan Ilic, filmmaker - Regret

- Sydney Morning Herald


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