Author Archives: Dr Jo Wills
Yesterday, Mulgrave Settlers Museum in Gordonvale opened a new exhibition called ‘Beetles, Grubs and other Bugs’. Developed to commemorate the 100th year of sugar research at nearby Meringa Research Station (part of the Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations) and highlight the importance of cane to the region’s identity, it featured the work of the station’s entomologists as they battled to help cane farmers overcome pests and diseases in the early 20th century.
Central to the exhibition are the display cases created by Edmund Jarvis between 1922 and 1932. A science communicator pioneer, Jarvis created educational cases to help farmers better understand and manage issues affecting their crops. He crafted the displays using specimens, hand drawn diagrams, typed labels and early black and white images and held information days at the station.
You might recall an earlier post from May 2015 outlining details of the cases at the time I was approached by staff at Meringa seeking advice on preservation and storage. Since then I contacted the Mulgrave Settlers Museum about acquiring the cases – there is a strong link between Gordonvale and Meringa, with the first research station being located on Thumm Street just near the present day museum. Thanks to a Regional Arts Development Grant (RADF) from Cairns Regional Council, the cases have also undergone conservation treatment and made ready for this new exhibition. Thanks to conservator Sue Valis at MTQ for her meticulous cleaning and attention to detail.
The RADF grant allowed the museum to purchase a large format scanner to digitise hundreds of images and glass plate negatives that were also part of the donation. These images also feature in the new exhibition, as do a number of other significant artefacts including a lantern used in breeding programs, injectors and sugar refractors (which help to measure sugar content in cane) as well as a microscope belonging to James Buzzacott (on loan from the Australian Industry Sugar Museum in Mourilyan).
Council support also meant that the museum could work with the MDO to create a new exhibition, install a new hanging system, reline cases and rearrange the displays to showcase the research they had undertaken into the cases and the work of Meringa. An exhibition development workshop was held early in the year to set out the parameters. Lead by Travis Teske, the volunteers collaborated with Meringa Station staff and each other to pull the project together. One built timber easels to display the cases, and all hands were on deck for the installation and rearrangement.
The exhibition is open for 6 months. The museum is located near the Mulgrave Mill at 60 Gordon Street, Gordonvale
Today, volunteers at Proserpine Museum opened the doors for business for the first time since Cyclone Debbie. With many local businesses still closed and undergoing repairs, this reopening is great news for Proserpine.
Volunteers report that the building held strong during the cyclone. Although a small of amount of water got into one of the displays, there was very little damage – most of their collection was raised off the floor and this helped it to stay safe. Volunteers held a working bee to remove wet carpet and received assistance from the army to clean up the front of the building.
This means that the museum can now focus on preparing for it’s annual book bonanza in May, an event that has been running for over 20 years. Money raised goes towards the cost of maintaining the museum.
Visit the Proserpine Museum website for more information.
As many museum followers know, Cairns is home to a nationally significant collection of Chinese artefacts known as the Lit Sung Goong temple collection. Cared for by the Heritage Group at Cairns and District Chinese Association Inc. (CADCAI), this collection tells the story of early migration and settlement, of business connections and acumen, religious practices and artistic skill and craftsmanship.
What many do not know, however, is that CADCAI is seeking support to build a new Chinese Cultural Centre. A new facility would support CADCAI’s vast array of activities, and be a place to preserve and display the Lit Sung Goong collection and explore Chinese-Australian history. Development plans and concepts are already underway, but there is still much to do before their vision can be realised.
Over the past two months, CADCAI volunteers have been working with Dr Jo Wills, MDO in Cairns, to develop display panels and banners that can be used in both temporary exhibitions and to promote CADCAI’s activities throughout the year. Following a successful RADF application to Cairns Regional Council, the group has undertaken exhibition concept development training with the MDO, text writing activities and worked with a local graphic designer. They are grateful to Cairns Historical Society and Museum for lending them showcases to display some of the collection.
Using the history of the temple, the Chinese history of Cairns and the preservation of the collection as a starting point, the banners, panels and object cases illustrate the exquisite beauty of this collection, and highlight the role played by Chinese settlers to the region. They also highlight the work that has already gone into preserving these items, and the passion of those involved. This background research and work with the collection has been so important for developing these exhibition materials. Follow this link to see a few of CADCAI’s short videos that feature the collection and volunteers.
For those based in Cairns, make sure you visit the updated CADCAI display on Grafton Street this Saturday as part of the Chinese New Year street festival and visit the festival website to find out what else is on. 恭喜發財 – Gong Xi Fa Cai – Happy Chinese New Year. 2017 is the Year of the Rooster!
Earlier this year I was contacted by a woman who was wondering whether a cloth that had belonged to her husband’s grandmother held any interest to the collecting organisations in far north Queensland. The description of the item reminded me at once of the autographed signature cloths that we have featured previously on this blog from Croydon and Cloncurry so I quickly asked for some details. She replied:
My Grandmother-in-law, Clementine Manning, gave me an Autograph Cloth. In the centre of the cloth it says: “KINGSBOROUGH AUTOGRAPH CLOTH – IN AID OF BELGIANS – OCTOBER 9th 1915” It is surrounded by appliqued signatures of the children at the school in 1915. One of them, Vincent Manning, is my husband’s great uncle.
To say I was interested was an understatement! What a treasure! And so the process of research and object analysis begins.
Of course, it was Germany’s invasion of Belgium on 4 August 1914 that prompted Britain to declare war on the Germans and, thus triggered Australia’s involvement. Historian Peter Stanely noted:
Reports of atrocities committed against Belgian civilians—actual, exaggerated and invented by British propaganda—flooded newspapers around the world.
Australians responded powerfully to reports of ‘poor little Belgium’. Its own soldiers saw almost no action until April 1915. In the meantime, many Australians devoted themselves to supporting war charities that were directing relief supplies and money to Belgian refugees in Britain and France. Until their own troops entered battle, Belgium became the focus of many Australian civilians’ patriotic fundraising…
I found specific postcards were generated to support this, particularly in Britain. I also found a number of collections with specific material about the Belgian Relief Fund, in the State Library of New South Wales, the State Library of South Australian and the National Library of Australia.
But what of Kingsborough, and Queensland? In 1915, Kingsborough was a small mining town on the Hodgkinson goldfield in the hills behind Cairns and Port Douglas. Pugh’s Almanac reports it had a baker, blacksmith, butcher, aerated water manufacturer and two hotels – the Federal and the Kingsborough. Children were taught at Kingsborough State School No 359 by the teacher Ms Amelia Boyns.
It is through Amelia Boyns that we start to uncover more about the story and fundraising in the region. In January 15, The Telegraph reported that Amelia donated the proceeds of an autograph cloth (1 16 shillings) to the Belgian fund which were disposed of by the art union. It also notes she ran a guessing competition for a doll, raising 16 shillings and putting that towards wounded soldiers. In September 1915 the Cairns Post reports that she sold a boy’s hat for 1 eight shillings and six pence and put that towards the Belgian Fund as well.
I’d love to spend more time researching Amelia’s history. She appears to have been a motivated and passionate supporter of the war effort, and another example of the type of activities that women undertook on the home front. She left Kingsborough in 1916 and moved to Edge Hill in Cairns to teach. Unfortunately, however, that is as much time as I could sneak away from other projects and indulge in a bit of research. I can report, however, that the cloth will be donated to the Historical Society of Mareeba.
At the recent Q ANZAC 100 Heritage Leaders Workshop held at the State Library in Brisbane, I was asked to participate in a forum about community involvement in First World War Projects with three other speakers. This gave me the opportunity to discuss a few of the projects I have worked on as the MDO for far north Queensland:
Portraits of the North (Mareeba Historical Society)
Cooktown at War (James Cook Museum, Cooktown)
HistoryPin Project (Australian Sugar Industry Museum, Mourilyan)
Re-Honouring Cardwell (Cardwell and District Historical Society)
But as we sat and discussed the projects and their merits, I wish, in hindsight, that I had reflected a little more on what aspects of the projects didn’t go to plan or experienced hiccups. I am the first confess that the delivery of some of my projects encountered speed humps and that we had to make changes and deviations along the way. It’s rare that we speak publically about mistakes or hiccups – but I find these are the very things that provide invaluable learning. If we shared these experiences more readily with some of the other groups undertaking projects we might help them avoid some of the issues we have encountered.
I was also aware that the projects I discussed are but a few of those that have been produced locally, and that one of the legacies of this extraordinarily busy period of history making was the skills and contributions of museum and historical society volunteers. In far north Queensland, Cairns Historical Society, Mareeba Historical Society, Mareeba Shire Council, Cairns Regional Council, Douglas Shire Historical Society, Loudoun House Museum, Mount Garnet Visitor Information centre, Cooktown History Centre, to name just a few, have all delivered a range of exhibitions and events that provide a distinctive far north Queensland take on the First World War and involved people in undertaking historical and museum based work.
Fortunately, the Heritage Leaders Workshop gave participants an opportunity to see projects from across the region, and also appreciate the different sort of people involved. Far north Queensland was represented by volunteers from Mareeba Heritage Centre, Douglas Shire Historical Society, Atherton Library and Mulgrave Settlers Museum. Ken Keith spoke about the Douglas Shire Historical Society’s Douglas Diggers WWI Project. During one of the workshops, Don Lawrie from the Mulgrave Settlers Museum took the stage and entertained the audience with his storytelling and object based remembrances. I think it is this personal involvement, and the satisfaction that people glean from it, that lies at the heart of these projects’ success.
Like many museums across Queensland, James Cook Museum received funding from the Anzac Centenary Local Grants Program. Designed to showcase the museum’s First World War collections, the grant also included time for Ewen and I to provide onsite advice, reconfigure the gallery space and install the exhibition.
When Kate Eastick took over the reins as the museums new curator, however, she decided to refocus the exhibition to tell stories from the home front and the local community, and identified a different space for the exhibition. This change responded, in part, to some of the stories and objects Kate uncovered during her research. An unexpected find, for example, was a hand crocheted square (pictured below). She was also keenly aware of Cooktown History Centre’s Behind the Lines Exhibition, which provides detailed biographies of Cooktown’s soldiers and their wartime experiences.
Cooktown’s War creates an additional narrative layer to Cooktown’s war stories and reveals the impact of the First World War on Cooktown residents. And by working with members of the History Centre, the exhibition demonstrates the benefits of two of Cooktown’s premier collecting organisations pooling resources and knowledge. Shared photos and research have meant that details about rifle clubs, and Chinese business owners and war loans have been placed on display. Difficulties surrounding Indigenous enlistment are explored through archives and portraits of Charles and Norman Baird, brothers who were among Queensland’s Indigenous soldiers from the region. Stories of Red Cross fundraising initiatives and women’s patriotic activities have been woven into the exhibition framework through evocative photographs (see below). Kate also included a contemporary story using a uniform and images from the 100 years commemorative march held in Cooktown this year.
Changes to the project meant that Ewen and I also had to make adjustments. The alternative gallery space meant Ewen had to install a new hanging system and different types of framing mounts and matts were required. By coincidence, Cooktown’s timber honour board, already on the display, is located outside the gallery. This, and a poster created to promote the exhibition, created a nice entry to the gallery. I had to remove some photos and posters from damaged frames for conservation and display purposes. I also made a range of different mounts and object supports, and generally extended my sewing skills! Of course, label making is always a feature for this type of project, but I can advise that the degree of difficulty definitely increases as the temperature and humidity rises!
MDOs have to be fairly versatile and responsive whilst in the field. As James Cook Museum had recently had a serious pest issue in its Indigenous display cabinets, we took time out from the exhibition to reline the cases with unbleached calico and then reinstall all the objects that had been treated prior to our arrival.
People’s desire to see beneath the surface of the sea has inspired a myriad of underwater viewing objects and inventions. From hollow reeds to Leonardo Da Vinci’s early diving apparatus, there has been a whole raft of weird and wonderful creations inspired by our fascination with coral and the reef.
I’ve been exploring the way people have viewed coral recreationally on the Great Barrier Reef and around Cairns as part of my research for Cairns Museum’s new exhibitions. Drawing on material culture and academic research, I’ve found we can make some interesting observations about north Queensland’s contribution to the evolution of coral viewing.
Early visitors to the reef used hand held viewing devises known as coralscopes, waterscopes or glass bottom floats. Made from aluminum and a clear Perspex or glass, these were either boxes or tubes that were held over the side of the boat and provided the user with a stable viewing lens.
“The exclusion of surface turbulence meant that the scene through a waterscope was sometimes in stark contrast to the surface of the water … The waterscope thus opened up, not only fear, but a delight in the other that constituted the underwater world.” (Celmara Pocock, (2003). Romancing the Reef: history, heritage and the hyper-real. PhD thesis, James Cook University, p. 231).
Queensland Museum holds one example in its collection (see below). Cairns Museum and the State Library of Queensland hold a range of photographs that illustrate people viewing coral over the side of the boat. Does anyone know of other examples in other collections around the state or country?
Glass bottom boats were another early form of coral viewing. In 1937, the Hayles family launched the worlds first glass bottom boat at Green Island. Accompanied by music, these boats were ‘allowed to drift over deep channels so that passengers can view the teeming waterlife through the glass in the bottom.'(Tourism Guide book) Adapted later in the 1940s, these vessels continue to be used on the reef today, providing access to the underwater world for those who prefer not to immerse themselves.
Local entrepreneurs Lloyd Grigg and Vince Vlassof, were involved in creating another underwater viewing first for the region. In 1954, they opened the Green Island Underwater Observatory, a 10m chamber with 22 port holes, situated at the end of the jetty. Bought for 400 pounds, it was converted from an underwater diving chamber used in WW2 to erect pylons, and taken out to the island and sunk into position. A shop and residence were erected above it and coral formations bought in from other reefs to attract fish. The underwater observatory remains on the jetty but is no longer open to the public.
New innovations, like the Scubadoo – an underwater scooter – and more advanced diving equipment have revolutionised the way we interact with and view the reef. But these three objects provide special insight into the innovations the region has used to make the Great Barrier Reef’s underwater gardens more accessible to visitors and enthusiasts.
Stay tuned – there are many more fascinating stories being uncovered as the research for Cairns Museum’s redevelopment continues.
Apart from the disaster recovery work in Winton, the MDOs have been working on numerous other projects. One of these, “Evolution: Torres Strait Masks”, has been with staff from Gab Titui Cultural Centre on Thursday Island.
At the end of last year, Jo Wills and Ewen McPhee traveled up to Torres Strait to train and work with the staff to develop a new exhibition for their cultural maintenance gallery. The theme was chosen to recognise the cultural significance of masks in Torres Strait culture, their influence on contemporary art forms, and to revive the art form itself.
The special challenge for this project was the procurement of objects – so many of these items are held in international institutions and other Australian museums. To address this, the exhibition concept was planned around a contemporary arts component which involved commissioning local artists to create masks for the exhibition.
After undertaking applied training with the MDOs, Gab Titui staff got down to the task of researching and curating the exhibition. Working with renowned artist Alick Tipoti as co-curator, Leitha Assan and Aven Noah developed the overall look and feel for the exhibition and prepared all exhibition text and content. They identified eight different artists, based on islands where masks were traditionally made, to design masks for the exhibition: Andrew Passi, Eddie Nona, Vincent Babia, Kapua Gutchen Snr, Alick Tipoti, Torrens Gizu and Yessie Mosby.
Jo and Ewen returned to Gab Titui to help install the exhibition. Cultural protocols dictate the way masks can be handled – only men are able to touch the masks. For installation, this meant Ewen worked with Aven and Kailu to hang the masks, while Jo worked with Leitha and Elsie to hang panels, create object mounts for other items, line the cases and prepare the labels.
The end result is stunning, and a testament to their hard work. The masks are extraordinary and powerful objects in their own right, and together represent a significant body of work. The black lined cases create a sense of mystery and dark magic to echo the spirituality of the objects. The labels tell the artists stories, while the text panels provide an insight into the background of the mask in TI culture.
“Evolution” opened in conjunction with the 2015 Gab Titui Arts Awards and will be on display for a year. Jo traveled back to Thursday Island to attend the opening, see the final exhibition, and was lucky enough to see performances by the Aibai Sagulau Buai Dance Team from Badu Island.
Thank you to George Serras from the National Museum of Australia for allowing me to use some images from the opening in this post.
It’s not often I get called to look at natural history or entomological collections. And, when I was contacted by staff at Meringa Research Station near Gordonvale to come and assess the condition of some old display cases, I must confess to being a little skeptical. Imagine my surprise, then, when a little bit of research into their creator, Dr Edmund Jarvis, revealed that these cases were going to contain more than your average cane beetle displays.
Dr Jarvis was an entomologist from the early 20th century. He ended his career as the Chief Entomologist to Queensland’s Bureau of Sugar Experiment Station, and specialised in cane beetle research. Prior to this, however, he had a museological career. After moving from Devon, England to Australia, his first job was a Acting Assistant Entomologist, National Museum, Melbourne in 1903 (now, Museum Victoria). In addition to his scientific training, he was well known for his skills in line drawings and water colours.
On site, it was immediately clear that the displays had been arranged by someone with a museological eye. Seven timber framed cases, which date between 1922-1932, had been ‘curated’ to ensure that information is conveyed in an educational manner. They contain a mixture of specimens, line drawings, photographs and labels – all laid out to make the subject matter as accessible as possible. The cases illustrate the research undertaken into pests impacting the sugar industry during the 1920s by the Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations.
Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations were, established under The Sugar Experiment Stations Act of 1900 and were initially administered by Queensland’s Department of Agriculture. Employees undertook research to assist growers and millers improve the breeding, planting, growing, harvesting and milling of sugar cane. The focus on the cane beetle, and other cane related pests, demonstrates the importance of the research stations, the work they were conducting, and of the value placed upon the cane industry in Queensland in general.
In valuing these cases, I have come to think of them as more than just the work of a scientist, but as the work of a fellow museum worker with a passion for conveying information to different audiences. I am hoping to secure funds to assist with the conservation of the cases, and a way to interpret them further – in consultation with staff at Meringa.
After two weeks of watching and waiting as Cyclone Nathan carved an erratic path back and forth across the Coral Sea, it finally passed over the FNQ coast on Friday/Saturday between Cape Flattery and Cape Melville. This more northerly crossing meant that the museums in Cooktown were spared the worst of the severe winds, and the museum at Coen did not experience adverse weather. A number of these organisations are housed in heritage buildings. During cyclone season, we always reflect on the vulnerability of these buildings to heavy rain and cyclonic weather, particularly if they have sustained damage from previous weather events.
As usual, MDOs worked with groups in the immediate vicinity pre and post cyclone to discuss their preparations and contingencies, and to offer advice and support. We are pleased to advise that none of the organisations sustained significant damage or impact. Staff and volunteers at James Cook Museum, Nature’s Powerhouse, Cooktown History Centre and Cape York Heritage House all did a fantastic job during the lead up phase to ensure that collections, data and buildings were as prepared and protected as they could be.
Cyclone preparation and clean up can be an exhausting process – at work and at home. And it always disrupts work on other projects. For Cooktown History Centre, Cyclone Nathan meant putting on hold their research and preparations for the new exhibition they plan to open for Anzac Day. Spare a thought for these groups now as they clean up, reopen and get back to the business (and pleasure) of running museums.