Spend long enough being an MDO and you soon learn that the communities you work in are where you find some of your closest colleagues. In Cairns, where the MDO works in an independent office, this is doubly true, and many of these people also become friends. So, when someone you’ve worked with closely for more than a decade decides to leave, well… it makes a bit of an impact.
Many of you will know Suzanne Gibson at Cairns Historical Society and Museum. For the last year she’s been working as the curator, but her legacy is as the manager who oversaw the building and museum renovation. And for good reason. Driven and determined, she championed change in a volunteer organisation and led the creation of an award-winning museum that has transformed the way people see the value of museums in far north Queensland.
People and relationships have been front and centre to Suzanne’s work. She’s always quick to acknowledge the significant contribution that volunteers, other colleagues and communities can contribute to the organisations development. Her desire to create a safe and inclusive space to explore the region’s diverse stories has succeeded. Since opening in 2017, the temporary exhibition space has staged a variety of exhibitions that reflect her convictions and ethics. This includes strong advocacy for First Nations voices and stories in the museum through collaborative exhibitions like Percy Tresize (2021), Reef Productions (2021) and the Djabu Gilga Yigan Land Sea Sky (2018) exhibition with students from Yarrabah state school. Her interest in Cairns’ Chinese and PNG community is enduring, as is her commitment to using the Cairns Historical Society’s spectacular photographic collection whenever there is a chance.
To make any of this work possible, however, Cairns Historical Society and Museum has undergone significant change. And Ms Gibson has been a key player in that transformation.
Before the refurbishment – the journey to the new museum
I first met Suzanne when she started work at the Cairns Historical Society and Museum in 2009. That was before I became the FNQ MDO – yep, almost a lifetime ago. I was struck by her passion, humour and her ability to speak like a radio host – short, sharp and direct! I also saw a kindred spirit – a lover of history and stories, and someone who was on the right side of crazy too! What we needed, we mused, was place where we could do the type of museum work we wanted to. Not long after this, Suzanne took over as the volunteer manager of Cairns Museum. We would often discuss our ideas for projects, stories we wanted to tell and ponder where the money might come from to do them. When I became MDO in 2012, she’d lead the project and I’d gallop in and provide advice, support or become actively involved – depending on what was needed.
One of our first projects at Cairns Museum was Cairns 1942, an exhibition that explored a critical year in Cairns’ World War Two history. It was the first major change to displays at the museum and I remember Suzanne’s concern about the impact this would have on volunteers as she led the installation of the work.
Team Gibson and Wills followed up with the Where are you from? project, which focused on the types of characters who have migrated to Cairns over time. This small show ended up in the entry foyer windows of Cairns City Library. Daringly, we branched out to pay a local graphic designer and cajoled our partners into helping us install the exhibition. My enduring memory, however, is both of us gasping as we realised, halfway through the project, that we’d asked the wrong question. Another salutary experience, and one that taught us both the value of critical reflection without blame or acrimony.
Suzanne’s application for a sustainability grant from Cairns Regional Council in 2012 was the beginning of significant change. She engaged museum guru, Kylie Winkworth, to develop a collection significance assessment and prepare a strategic plan. Cairns Museum’s vision to present “Cairns as a Tropical City” emerged from this work, and led to Suzanne and I teaming up again to work on concept and interpretation plans for new exhibitions and test our ideas with stakeholders.
Armed with this information, and refusing to take no for an answer, Suzanne played a central role in convincing Cairns Regional Council to support the redevelopment of the School of Arts Building, and upgrade Cairns Historical Society and Museum. And from there the redevelopment project suddenly became real. How that unfolded for Suzanne is, of course, another story entirely – and one for her to tell.
I’ll miss her drive, curiosity, ethics, love of the absurd, and her enduring acceptance of my own shortcomings. I’ll take my cue from the rationale that guided the development of the Changing Cairns gallery in closing. New curators could consider including Suzanne Gibson as a character in that gallery: as a leader, a personality and as a force that initiated significant change.
Suzanne finishes at Cairns Historical Society and Museum this week to pursue a curatorial role with the National Museum of Australia.
Ewen and I are coming to the end of our MDO odyssey – while the jokes are getting worse, the welcomes we receive and the sights we are seeing make it all worth it. We departed Eromanga after a quick return to the Natural History Museum for Belinda and Corey’s excellent coffees and hit the road to Windorah. Along the way we stopped at my very first outback sand dune, where I marvelled at the colour and thought I found a wild watermelon. Turns out it’s an invasive species which was very disappointing.
Windorah was abuzz with preparations for the opening of their new display hangar, showcasing one of Windorah’s most beloved families – the Kidds. After having the opportunity to purchase back Sandy Kidd’s Cessna 172 from its most recent owners, Cath and Ross, the Windorah community acquired funding to buy the plane, store it safely while a new display hangar was built, and then move it down the road from the airstrip to the hangar to its final home. The stories the plane can tell are truly amazing – Sandy pioneered aerial mustering in Australia, as well as used this little plane to provide emergency support and transport during flooding events in Windorah and surrounds. The hangar also displays a buggy, the bones of which were found on a local station and then carefully restored by a team of local enthusiasts.
Prior to the official opening ceremony and event on the Saturday, we made a pilgrimage to Sando’s Sandhill, a spectacular series of red sandhills named after Sandy Kidd, where we watched the sunset over this glorious outback landscape. We also befriended the dogs from the local pub and managed not to embarrass ourselves too terribly playing pool!
As the opening event grew nearer we made ourselves useful by giving the Cessna and the buggy a careful clean, which was a real privilege. Jo Wills and I have had the pleasure of putting together the interpretation for both the plane and the buggy, and it was a really lovely experience to be up close and personal with a plane that has so many stories and local memories associated with it, and which shows its history through bumps and marks, dents and bends. We also were able to talk to the plane’s most recent owners, Cath and Ross, who told us of their adventures flying it across Australia with Cath as the pilot. The enormous spider which had taken up residence in the wing was deeply unimpressed as we evicted her and her cobwebs.
The event itself was such a pleasure to attend and we both feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to meet the community who have worked so hard to make this space a reality. Lovely speeches and memories of Sandy and his family were shared, including by Bill who taught Sandy and other locals how to fly! The hospitality was incredible and we were very impressed by the local lads and ladies showing off some amazing dance moves. The MDOs will not be taking questions at this time about their dancing skills.
Many thanks to Amanda, Peta, Matt, the whole Simpson family and the Windorah community for making us so welcome and putting together a wonderful celebration.
From Windorah we started the journey back east, watching the landscape gradually change as we passed through Quilpie. We met with the team at the Charleville Historic House where we were treated to fresh scones with jam and cream on a very, very cold morning! It was lovely to catch up with the team and find out what they have been doing, and were able to provide some thoughts on collection management nitty gritty like loan forms and other important collection tasks. The ABC has also opened a Western Queensland office in Charleville, and along with Gabrielle Wheeler, the Historic House’s Treasurer, we shared our thoughts about museums and heritage in the West. Emus were mentioned, and I’m not sorry.
And now we are in Roma, finishing up what has been a true adventure. We have:
- Covered almost 3,000km
- Eaten 16 sachets of microwave porridge between us
- Visited around 25 museums, heritage places or groups
- Seen at least 40 actual live emus and a real live echidna
- Met some of the most interesting, welcoming and passionate people in the West
- Purchased 8 epic souvenir magnets (Elspeth) and 3 souvenir caps (Ewen)
- Developed opinions on Country Life motel soap
- and…have fallen even more in love with objects, histories and stories.
Many thanks to the communities, volunteers, council members and museum teams who welcomed us in and showed us their places, objects and stories. We are so privileged to do the work we do and the communities we work with make it all possible.
Next stop, Toowoomba and Townsville, where Ewen might finally defrost and I might need to buy a new fridge to put my magnets…
With the weather now well and truly glorious, Ewen and I departed Thargomindah for Quilpie, a two hour drive through scenic country, unusually green after so much rain. I was unreasonably excited by many emu sightings including a family group poking about by the side of the road – simple joys for this city slicker.
For our first night in Quilpie we stayed at the Shearer’s Quarters at The Lake, a cattle and goat property. The owners recognised the need to diversify during long-running droughts and set up some truly lovely accommodation, including a top-notch MDO office on the verandah. A little bit chilly in the early mornings but the view was well worth it.
Louise, the owner of the property, and James her son kindly allowed us to feed the orphaned kids and lamb, much to the embarrassing excitement of the aforementioned city MDO. Marilyn the pig was the grateful recipient of our apple and pear cores.
From The Lake we headed into Quilpie proper, where we met with Karen and Jess at the Quilpie Visitor Information Centre. The Quilpie Council manages a number of sites around the Quilpie Shire, including the Railway Museum and Quilpie Museum in town, and the Adavale heritage precinct. They also assist with the Eromanga Living History Museum which we will get to later! Ewen was blown away by the work Jess had done in the Quilpie Museum after he and Mel visited a number of years ago. The space is now arranged by theme, with amazing photographs framed in a way that allows easy changeover, and objects which help to share the local stories from the Shire. While on site we worked with Karen and Jess to move the Railway Museum’s original station bell and lantern into a display case and talked through some options for other projects in the area.
The next day we headed an hour up the road to Adavale. Once a bustling regional town, the extension of the railway to Quilpie rather than Adavale meant the population drastically reduced. On the drive we were treated to sensational views, with deep blue skies making an impressive contrast against the red roads.
Along the way Quilpie Council had developed a star gazing platform with an amazing view – sadly too much sun around to make the best use of it!
In Adavale we explored the Shire Hall and the information panels about the town, and assessed the old police cell with the view to providing some recommendations for preservation and interpretation to Quilpie Shire Council. There are extensive records of the police service in Adavale available with some great quirky stories, as well as some more modern tales as well – Adavale still has its own police officer.
We also assessed the meat safe, the only remaining structure where Adavale town used to stand. The building was likely a part of the Green Gates Hotel which stood next door. Quilpie Council plan to stabilise the building and tell some more stories about both the meat safe specifically, as well as about Adavale’s history more generally, a project I’ll be looking forward to assisting with! We also suggested that the two flood boats displayed outside the meat safe were moved back to shelter at the Shire Hall for their long-term protection. Small plaques illustrate where the town buildings used to stand, including banks, pubs and general stores.
Rather unexpectedly, Adavale is home to a patisserie, the Elegant Emu (does anyone sense a theme?). We enjoyed a very luxurious morning tea on the verandah.
After a restful night in Quilpie, we headed off to Eromanga, home of Australia’s largest recorded dinosaur – Cooper, Australotitan cooperensis, thought to have been 30 metres long! The Eromanga Natural History Museum has been a project a long time in the making, since 14 year old Sandy Mackenzie discovered an unusual rock just outside the town of Eromanga in 2004. The ‘rock’ turned out to be part of a fossilised dinosaur, and since then the team have unearthed many internationally significant dinosaur remains, as well as creating a stunning museum experience for visitors and an incredible laboratory set up for fossil preparation and research work. We were very lucky to hear about the museum’s journey of development from Robyn, Corey and Jo, and loved meeting more of the team as part of the guided tour.
Unfortunately due to ongoing flooding in the Diamantina Shire, our planned visit out to Birdsville wasn’t possible so we’ll have to come back when the waters recede! This did give us an extra day to enjoy the beautiful landscapes around Eromanga, as well as a good look at the Eromanga Living History Centre.
Situated on the main street, the centre explores some of the stories and objects relating to Eromanga’s social history. The object theatre display was a quirky look into some of the stories of people who call this place home, from Indigenous communities to opal miners to pastoralists and more.
Next we will head to Windorah and Charleville – the final leg of this western trip is rapidly approaching! Unfortunately for Ewen my delight at emus appears not to be approaching any sort of finality.
The rain had set in as we departed Cunnamulla for Thargomindah, with road closures and flooding causing havoc for tourists all over the Outback. Luckily for us the highway out was unaffected. It’s been amazing to see the landscape so green and lush – I gather I am seeing the Outback looking very different to the last few years!
After 45 minutes of careful driving we arrived in the little town of Eulo. Our first stop was to the large sculpture of Kenny, the local friendly diprotodon. The largest marsupial to have ever lived, in 2012 scientists including those from Queensland Museum found the fossilized skeletons of up to 40 diprotodons at a site in Eulo. The name means ‘two forward teeth’ and we were both very fond of Kenny’s wee grin.
Eulo is also renowned for a very interesting local – the Eulo Queen, after whom the pub is named. Isabel Grey was a clever businesswoman and a mysterious individual, who may have been born in England but alternatively suggested she was from Mauritius. She was married three times, and her love for locally found opals meant she engaged in all manner of nefarious dealings to obtain these beautiful stones. After a tumultuous life, she died in poverty in Toowoomba, but is fondly remembered in Eulo. We also enjoyed discovering the site of the Eulo lizard races and a rather epic town sign. The local flood truck was also lovely to see – raised high on its axles, it ferried food, supplies, mail and passengers across the Paroo River in flooded conditions between 1990 and 2017.
From Eulo we continued westwards in the rain to Thargomindah, on the banks of the Bulloo River. This little town punches above its weight when it comes to exploring heritage, and we spent a wonderful day in the sunshine exploring the heritage buildings and trails. Thargomindah’s claim to fame was its adoption of hydroelectric power – it was the third place in the world to switch on lights powered by hydroelectricity, after London and Paris! The heritage sites in Thargo are accessed by a swipe card from the visitor’s centre, and connected by lovely walkways through town, making a 5km stroll. Each site – the old hospital, the jail and the hydroelectric plant – contain a mix of photographs, audiovisual content and actors telling quirky and moving stories of each place’s history. We particularly enjoyed some of the stories of the hospital where quick thinking and ingenuity was required to save lives, and of the town bore being used to cook corned beef!
Our final stop was at Leahy House, the oldest house in Thargomindah. Made of local mud brick, the house is open to the public at all hours. After a great chat with the team at the Visitor Information Centre we’re hoping the MDO team will be able to assist with maintaining this iconic Thargo location. We also really enjoyed finding out all the ways the Council are working to make Thargo a wonderful place for locals and tourists alike to live and visit, including new housing, schooling options and lovely leisure activities.
Next up is Quilpie, where we discover a new appreciation for pigs and goats…
Since heading out from Goondiwindi on Wednesday morning, the on-the-road MDOs have headed further west into cotton country, with the first stop Thallon. This little community boasts a supersized art presence, with the grain silos dominating the horizon painted with dazzling murals. William the northern hairy nosed wombat was also popular with one MDO in particular, although she’s still looking out for the real thing…
From Thallon we spent the night in St George, a relaxed town along the mighty Balonne River. The river is running especially high at the moment but as we discovered, that was nothing compared to floods the town has suffered through in earlier years.
After a catch up with the friendly team at the Visitor Information Centre and finding out a bit more about some of the cotton growing that powers this region, we wandered to a St George icon – The Unique Egg. Run by Stavros (Steve) Margaritus and his daughter, The Unique Egg displays Stavros’ incredible emu egg carving skills, which he picked up after moving to St George from Greece in the 1950s. Now in his late 80s we enjoyed meeting the artist himself.
From St George we headed west to Cunnamulla in the Paroo Shire, home to Slim Dusty’s Cunnamulla Fella. Ewen has perfected the layering technique required to stay warm despite the sunshine, sporting the combo of beanie plus sunglasses to fulfill both warmth and glare requirements.
On our way to Cunnamulla we stopped in the small community of Bollon, where we very unexpectedly had French crepes and eclairs for lunch, made by two French chefs living in the town! We also were able to visit the Bollon Heritage Centre and discover a bit more about this beautiful part of the world, in particular the importance of bush nurses to these rural communities.
We also marvelled at the increasingly spectacular landscape, including some picture postcard-level stock mustering happening along the highway!
Once in Cunnamulla we headed to the Cunnamulla Fella Visitor Information Centre, where we met the lovely Carmel who showed us the features of their facility. The VIC also includes the town’s museum, which was a brilliant mix of thematic displays, local stories and audiovisual experiences. We loved some of the moving and quirky stories behind the collections, including the town band who came out and played at the railway station for every returning serviceperson in World War Two, and the stories of the local boxing gym and legendary coach Bill Johnstone, complete with miniature boxing ring. The museum also included an audiovisual experience exploring the artesian basin and opal mining, with associated audiovisual experiences looking at shearing and wool, and the largest cattle station in Australia – Tinnenburra. The collection of king plates from local First Nations leaders were also special to see.
Of particular interest was the original starting gate for the Cunnamulla & Eulo Festival of Opals Lizard Race, complete with winner’s sash and medal. We will return to lizard racing once we get to Eulo as Elspeth may have discovered a new curatorial passion…
We had a really great meeting with the Paroo Shire Council team, looking at ways the MDO programme might be able to assist with new heritage developments and with managing this amazing Cunnamulla collection. From there it was time for a wander around the centre of town, a couple of Cunnamulla Fella photos, and a camel burger for the road.
Next stop Eulo and on to Thargomindah – tune in next time for more giant animal sculptures, reptilian tales and why the tagline for Thargo is London, Paris, Thargomindah…
As part of the MDO role, every so often we hit the road to reconnect with some of the more far-flung communities in our region and get to know the places and people throughout Queensland. As I’m the newest member of the MDO team, as well as not a Queensland local, it was definitely time for me to get to know a bit more of the Southern Inland Queensland region. So with Ewen as co-pilot, this week I set out on a three week journey to meet the people caring for heritage and telling community stories as far west as Birdsville. As we go I’ll share some of the tales we’re lucky enough to be told, as we head from Toowoomba via the Gonndiwindi region, Balonne, Paroo, Quilpie, Diamantina, Murweh and Maranoa.
Our first stop was the little rural town of Texas, right on the border of New South Wales. The town got its iconic name from early pastoral runs, and when a holding was disputed the owner was inspired to name the station Texas, apparently a reference to land disputes common in the American range lands. While in town we were welcomed to the Rabbit Works, an amazing brick building on the edge of town which was a lifeline for the community during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It’s also the only remaining Rabbit Works building in the country, making it extra special! Queensland, like much of Australia, had been overrun by rabbits who decimated feed and ruined the landscape. The Rabbit Works provided work for locals, and supplied meat and fur to the United Kingdom and the USA, as well as to Akubra to make their famous hats. We were both absolutely amazed by some of the information shared about the rabbit economy for Australia, including more than four BILLION rabbits – skins and meat – being exported from Australia between 1904 and 1947. The Texas community including the dedicated team of volunteers who manage the site have done an incredible job in bringing this site to life, assisted by the work of the Goondiwindi Regional Council.
Unfortunately this time around we weren’t able to visit the Texas Heritage Centre and Tobacco Museum as they’re closed for renovation works – we’ll be back when they’re open again to see what they’ve been up to!
After a chilly night in Texas we headed further west to Goondiwindi, with a quick stop at Yelarbon to marvel at the towering silo art.
Goondiwindi is the home of Gunsynd the Grey, a racehorse renowned for his humble beginnings and incredible racing prowess. We stopped in at the Civic Centre to find out more about this beloved horse, and enjoyed some of the lovely photos and stories of this local legend. Previous MDO Lydia Egunnike put together this display alongside the Goondiwindi Council so it was great to see some of her work in the wild!
After a short stroll along the Macintyre River, waving hello at New South Wales on the opposite bank, we made our way to the Customs House Museum. Manned by a team of dedicated volunteers, this collection of heritage buildings from the Goondiwindi region showcases stories of local ingenuity, times of crisis and celebration, and gives visitors a great sense of what makes Goondiwindi tick. We both particularly liked the two flood boats, one of which was used in the devastating 1956 flood to mark the high water lines on trees along the riverbank. The town engineer then used these markings to design the levee, which has been so successful Goondwindi hasn’t flooded since!
After defrosting Ewen from tropical Townsville in the sun along the Macintyre River (walking along the flood-prevention levees!), it was time to head back to rest and regroup. Next we are headed to Thallon and St George – adventures ahead!
Mapoon Aboriginal Shire Council holds a piece of tapa (bark cloth) that is believed to date from the 1900s. It was one of several items bought back to Mapoon in 2015 by Mrs Liz Ashton, granddaughter of Mapoon missionary, Reverend Nicholas Hey. Although the exact provenance of the cloth is unknown, it was thought to have been made by South Sea Islanders living in the area, and was a gift to Reverend Hey’s wife, Minnie. The Heys, along with Superintendent Reverend James Gibson Ward and Mrs Matilda Hall Ward, were the founding missionaries of the Batavia River Presbyterian Mission at Mapoon.
The tapa will soon be exhibited at Mapoon’s new Cultural Keeping Place which is part of a new cultural facility scheduled to open later this year.
In April, Queensland Museum’s northern MDOs, Dr Jo Wills and Ewen McPhee, traveled to Mapoon to work with Cultural Heritage Officer, Jason Jia, and provide hands on assistance and advice for collections and displays.
Relaxing the tapa
One of the tasks was to help ‘relax’ the tapa after it had been folded for a number of years. Following advice from QM conservators, a table was lined with paper towels and these were moistened with water. These were then covered with pH neutral blotting paper and the tapa was placed on top. Another layer of dry blotting paper was then placed over the tapa and, finally, another layer of moistened paper towels. This ‘sandwich’ effect allowed the moisture to ‘relax the folds’ without overtly impacting on the item and the dyes.
After a few days, the folds ‘relaxed’ sufficiently for the tapa to be rolled for storage. The cloth was placed between sheets of acid free tissue and then rolled onto a tissue covered tube. It will be transported to Cairns where it will be carefully framed in readiness for the new display. Thanks to QM conservators for their professional advice and interest.
Preparing for displays and collections
The new Keeping Place will house displays, a community database and a secure storage room. An overall layout plan was developed, taking into consideration visitor access, staff operations, cultural requirements and database access. This database allows users to explore the region’s resources, wildlife, flora, culture and language and is an important part of the centres cultural work.
To ensure new displays help visitors understand the history and culture of the region, key themes and events were identified. Banners will explore these themes, and make use of the photographic and archival collections held by the council, Cape York Collection in Weipa and at State Library of Queensland. They will explore culture and country, maritime exploration, the missionary era, the 1963 removals and the return to community. Objects, where available, will accompany these displays.
Contemporary cultural artefacts and stories will also be displayed to acknowledge the ongoing nature of cultural production. This means items such as the delightful ghostnet magpie geese created by local artist and resident, Zoe de Jersey and her husband Stan, can be included and exhibited. Follow this link to find out how they created these scultures from ghostnets collected from the region’s beaches.
The keeping place is just one part of Mapoon’s new cultural facility that recognises the importance of culture and identity: it also includes an arts studio, a gallery and coffee shop and an Indigenous Knowledge Centre/ library.
Acknowledgement: The Cape York Collection in Weipa holds a significant collection of Mapoon-related material, including photographs, and missionary diaries and archives. The collection’s honorary curator, Geoff Wharton OAM, has generously shared his knowledge and information with the MDOs and Jason as they work on this project.
Last year I wrote about the Eleanor, the 22 foot motor launch built in 1913 by Henry Charles Rose and now on display at the Mackay Museum. The Eleanor’s story continues to evolve, with the identification of further items relating to her sister ships, Rosebud and Rosebud II, also held in the collection at Mackay Museum.
Rosebud was the first vessel built by Henry Rose, probably around 1907. Rosebud was an active participant in Mackay Regatta Club races, and in 1908 won the Ainslie Cup. Rose also sailed the 18ft open vessel to Bowen to participate in regattas there. But in 1909 one of these cruises caused considerable anxiety when the boat failed to arrive in Bowen when expected. Search parties were making ready to depart Mackay when Rosebud was sighted still making her way to Bowen, having been delayed by contrary currents. The return trip to Mackay caused even more problems, with strong headwinds forcing Rosebud and her crew to shelter at Repulse Island for three days. Rosebud was eventually spotted by the Harbour Master, who happened to be working in the area on overhauling navigation marks, and taken aboard the steamer Relief for transport back to Mackay.
The following year Henry Rose dismantled Rosebud and used her copper fastenings and fittings to make a new 18 foot skiff, Rosebud II. Launched in 1911, Rosebud II’s maiden sail was an eventful one. Caught in breakers and a sudden squall at the mouth of the Pioneer River, the boat capsized and, with her crew clinging to the upturned hull, drifted out to sea. After nearly an hour in the water the exhausted crew were rescued, but weather conditions prevented retrieval of Rosebud II. She was towed back to shore the following day and during the retrieval operation her mast was broken. Fitted with a new mast, Rosebud II continued to compete in Mackay Regatta Club races, and won the Andrew Cup in 1913.
In investigating some sail bags stored with the Eleanor at the Mackay Museum recently, we discovered a set of sails which correspond to a photograph of a sailing skiff believed to be either Rosebud or Rosebud II. The distinctive kangaroo emblem is evident in the photograph and on the surviving mainsail, which also has the remnants of a sail number ‘6’ visible. Whether the sails belong to Rosebud or Rosebud II, or were possibly used on both vessels, is not yet clear.
Exposed to the elements and pushed to their limits to coax every bit of speed from a craft, sails have a hard life and surviving historic examples are rare. To therefore have sails from the first decade of the 20th century, associated with a well-documented vessel, builder, and crew, and complemented with photographs and other associated items make the Rosebud sails in the collection something of a museum jackpot. This collection of maritime objects at Mackay Museum continues to enhance our understanding of recreational boating in early 20th century Mackay, and the people who enjoyed it.
Sometimes I fall head over heels in love with the objects and collections I work with in far north Queensland. I remember them. I seek them out on site visits to make sure they are still there. I undertake research on them in my spare time, and try to understand their value and why they might be special to others.
So what triggers this attachment? At a recent workshop with the Tableland Heritage Network in Atherton I I returned to museum basics and linked provenance and research to a love of objects. We talked about what inspires us to learn more about particular objects and how this helps us to create engaging interpretation. We discussed the art of looking at objects and how this builds our understanding and commitment to them, and then listened to people talk about some of the items they had brought in to discuss.
I also decided to examine what triggers my own emotional engagement with particular items and found a number of recurring key themes. It’s not just the collections I work with that I admire, it’s those I encounter as a museum visitor myself as well.
Blood ties and birthplace: identity
Where you’re from, who you’re related to, who your mob are. For some, family and place trigger an immediate sense of connection. I was born in a small town called Poole in SW England, a seaside town with a strong tradition of ceramics. I found this 1930s ceramic tile panel depicting Poole High Street and Quay while visiting Poole Museum. I was mesmerized by it. The picture illustrates the high street and waterfront that formed part of my childhood, and shows the area where my family worked as fishermen and ran a local pub. The ceramic tiles were made at Carters Tiles, which went on to become a well known local business called Poole Pottery. You might have seen their tiles lining the walls of the London Underground.
Emotional reaction: compassion
Some objects leave a lasting impression on us. Menmuny Museum at Yarrabah has an embroidered cloth that was made during the 1930s by residents of the girls dormitory at Yarrabah Mission. Individual hand stitched pieces have been combined to create a kind of ‘memory cloth’ or quilt. The panels illustrate the impact of mission life and removals, of government policies and their impact on families.
For me, this object represents a learning point in my career – it is an item that I have thought about many times and which moves me profoundly. Who made it, how and when? Where did they come from and how did they get to be at Yarrabah? When were the pieces joined together and what sort of lives did the makers have living under the Act? It takes me outside of my lived experience and addresses the truth of First Nation’s history – one that was that was never discussed at school.
Physical attraction: aesthetics
Some objects sweep you off your feet through their good looks, material and textures. Two, in particular, vie for my attention. Popa Dabad, the award winning ghostnet piece by Erub Arts Centre’s Nancy Kiwat, was made in 2016. The colours, materials and inquiring angle of his head always make stop me in my tracks and spend an extra minute in contemplation.
Equally enchanting, for me, is a 1920s photograph album one of the volunteers uncovered while we were working on the Cairns Museum redevelopment. Each page is a visual delight. Some are decorated with line drawings, quotes and graphic titles, and many of the photos are hand coloured. I cannot resist a visit when I stop into the museum stop and gaze at the facsimile that is part of the museum’s display.
Intrigue and curiosity
How does that work? It is a question that people often ask when they see old equipment in museums. When I first visited Millaa Millaa Museum on the Tablelands I became intrigued by the story of migrant Swedish healer, Ernst Kjellberg, and the electric light bath he used that was stashed under the museum. How did it work? Where did the bulbs go? Where did you sit? Lots of questions that the individual pieces struggled to convey. But when the group arranged an exhibition to commemorate 100th anniversary of Kjellbergs arrival in the district, they reassembled the bath. It was fantastic to see it come back to life and to understand how it operated.
Becoming friends: understanding
Objects and collections can be like good friends – the more you get to know them, the more you admire them. When I started to work on the Reef Productions collection for Cairns Museum last year, I had no idea how much detail we would be able to uncover. Slowly, with the help of colleagues and community, we started to piece together a history of owners, an organization and a community through a collection of objects.
Attracted to the diversity and style of the artwork, I was inspired to get to know the different artists who created them, the different subjects they depicted and the motivations behind their work. In doing so, a whole new understanding about the tourism history and community Cairns emerged. I have learned about the burgeoning arts scene in Cairns during the 1970s and 1980s, and been able to explore the different works of art more deeply. And although my work on the collection and exhibition is now finished, I remain interested in the works and what they tell us.
In understanding my own motivation better, I feel I am better placed to help volunteers and museum workers in the region sustain their interest in their history and collections. That’s my hope, anyway.
A new permanent exhibition has opened at the Maritime Museum of Townsville – Rise of the Port City.
The exhibition showcases the Port’s contribution to the development of North Queensland through a series of interpretive panels detailing events by using a timeline approach.
There are also a series of virtual reality experiences that were developed especially for the exhibition that tell the story of how the Port operates.
The exhibition also has a large touch and play table, a ship simulator that allows users to navigate ships around the world, a live vessel tracker providing information about ships arriving at the port, videos and model ships, artefacts, and objects.
The MDO for North Queensland, Ewen McPhee, worked with the Museum and the Port of Townsville to plan, develop and install the new exhibition. The Seafarer Gallery was repainted by volunteers and the original exhibition was moved to other galleries and exhibition furniture put into storage.
The Maritime Museum has had record visitation last financial year and continues to break all records in the second half of 2021. The Museum has a strong link to local schools and the exhibition has been popular with both primary and secondary schools.