Author Archives: Dr Melanie Piddocke
On 26 August 1939 Queensland Premier William Forgan Smith officially opened Mackay’s new harbour. The construction had commenced in 1935 and was the largest infrastructure project undertaken in the region to date. But the journey to that point had been long and fraught with difficulty.
Mackay’s original port was situated in the Pioneer River and had been an official port since 1863. Aside from being the only means of importing goods and materials for the budding settlement, Mackay’s port quickly became vital for the rapidly developing sugar industry. The port had a problem, however. The river was shallow and had a large tidal range which restricted the entry of large vessels, and even small craft were left high and dry at low tide. This meant that bagged sugar had to be loaded on to small vessels in the river, which then had to wait for high tide to make their way out to larger ships moored off Flat Top Island (lying about 4 kilometers from the river mouth) and transfer the sugar across. Similarly, passengers would travel out to large steam ships waiting at Flat Top Island and be swung between vessels in canvas bags.
Over the years a number of solutions were proposed in order to provide deep water access to Mackay, but most were discounted due to impracticality or expense. In 1913 work was begun on the construction of a rail viaduct connecting Flat Top Island to the mainland, but after considerable expenditure in the preparation of infrastructure for the project, it was determined that the sandy bottom into which the foundations of the viaduct would be laid were too unstable and the project was abandoned in early 1914.
In 1927 James Love, a member of the Mackay Harbour Board, suggested the construction of two stone breakwalls leading out from the shore north of the river mouth to form a harbour. Love’s scheme had many points in its favour – by this time any improvements to the river were considered impractical, the harbour location was close to Mackay, rock for the walls could be easily obtained from nearby Mt Bassett, and it’s location allowed room for expansion in the future. But at over £800,000 it was extremely costly.
Love’s plan may have remained nothing more than that if Forgan Smith hadn’t been elected Premier of Queensland in 1932. Forgan Smith had served as Member for Mackay since 1915 and was committed to seeing a resolution to the city’s port woes and was a strong supporter of Love’s plan. In 1933 he negotiated a loan from the State Government of £1,000,000 plus an additional £250,000 grant in order to construct the harbour.
Work began in 1935 with the construction of road and rail links between Mt Bassett quarry and the harbour site. A Telpher crane was constructed for the project which was stabilized by two large sea anchors on either side and ran on rails to carry rock along the walls. A serious setback was encountered in early 1938 when wind and waves generated by a nearby cyclone breached the partially constructed walls causing the Telpher crane to collapse into the sea. Most of the crane was salvaged, repairs were made, and work continued. Then, weeks before the planned opening in July 1939, soundings revealed the harbour was still too shallow and extra time was required to allow additional dredging to take place.
On 26 August 1939 the Sydney Star of the Blue Star Line sailed into the new harbour, carrying dignitaries on board for the official opening ceremony. A few weeks later, the first shipment of sugar left the harbour.
As MDO for Central Queensland I recently collaborated with North Queensland Bulk Ports to create a display to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the opening of the harbour. NQBP’s archives hold a significant and beautiful collection of images detailing the construction of the harbour from 1935 to the opening in 1939, a selection of which I scanned for use in the final display. In their collection NQBP also have a number of significant items including souvenirs from the opening ceremony, an original programme from the day, contracts for the work and materials for the construction of the harbour, annual reports through the construction period, and artist’s impressions. Digitized images and text were displayed on a large fabric cube. This, together with some of the original items for the collection, formed part of the celebrations organised by NQBP over the weekend to mark the 80th anniversary of the harbour opening. Over 3000 people attended the event, demonstrating the important role the harbour has played in both the economic and social life of Mackay over the past 80 years.
It has been a long road for the volunteers at Pioneer Valley Museum since a leak during the rain event in February forced them to close and empty their museum (see Water damage at Pioneer Valley Museum). But they have tirelessly persisted, and today they will open their doors to the public for the first time.
The volunteers have approached their new display layout with a focus on telling significant regional stories. The result is a well-structured, informative, uncluttered and engaging display space. Every surface has been painstakingly cleaned, and each showcase has been relined using archival blue board and calico giving them a bright crisp look. New labels have been written and produced on foam core.
One of the challenges for the new display was to find a practical solution for the layout of the egg collection. Due to the fragile nature of the items we wanted to create a display that would minimise handling and allow the eggs to easily be transferred to storage if necessary without having to repack them. The solution – a box with two removable layers of foam to allow the eggs to sit clear of the box for display, then be recessed into the box by removing a layer of foam for storage. Each egg had its own foam nest cut for it. This design means the volunteers can also swap out different egg trays for display.
The volunteers at Pioneer Valley Museum have achieved a remarkable amount in a short space of time. They have packed down and stored their entire museum, negotiated cleaning and repairs to their damaged building, spent countless hours and elbow grease cleaning walls and relining showcases, and redesigned and redeveloped their displays. They are all probably too tired to enjoy their success at the moment, but I hope they have the opportunity to savour it as they welcome visitors to their wonderfully refreshed museum in the coming weeks.
While all eyes were on Townsville during the floods at the beginning of the year, the steady rain also occurring in the Mackay region was creating its own style of disaster at the Pioneer Valley Museum west of Mackay.
While the museum was closed over the Christmas/New Year period, the gutters were overwhelmed by the rain, which found its way down the inside of the walls and soaked across the carpet. Fortunately most objects escaped major damage but the volunteers came back to open their building in February to be greeted by a strong smell of mould and carpets that were somewhat furrier than usual.
At the time the damage was discovered, I was busy helping with flood recovery in Townsville, but on my return to Mackay I assisted the volunteers in setting up some damp textiles to dry and to liaise with Mackay Regional Council (who own the building) about what needed to be done. It was clear the entire carpet needed to be pulled up and replaced, as the water had spread over a large area and no amount of cleaning and drying would fully remedy the problem. Without complete replacement, mould and damp would become a recurring issue.
This left the volunteers with the mammoth task of packing down their entire display so that showcases could be moved around to allow removal of the damaged carpet and replacement with a new one. The small but dedicated group of volunteers accomplished this over a few very intense weeks, in time for the scheduled date for furniture removal and carpet replacement.
Last week Sue Valis from the Museum of Tropical Queensland and myself assisted the Pioneer Valley Museum volunteers with the next stage of their recovery. The volunteers have very wisely opted to turn their misfortune to advantage by taking the opportunity to reorganise and rethink their displays to allow some objects to be rested and new stories to be told. With the new carpet in place, I helped them plan a new layout, while Sue demonstrated how to cover archival blue board with calico to make attractive and safe bases for showcases. With many of the showcases previously lined with carpet, this is an effective way to not only enhance the appearance of the showcases but to improve the conditions in which the objects will be displayed.
While this was not a disaster on the scale of Townsville, the situation at the Pioneer Valley Museum is a timely reminder that a seemingly small incident can have long term effects on the operational capacity of museums, to say nothing of the strain they can place on volunteers and financial resources. Pioneer Valley Museum remains closed to visitors while they continue to put their museum back together, but they will open again before long with some beautifully refreshed displays of their significant collection.
Last month four museums in the Mackay region collaborated on an exhibition to mark the 100th anniversary of the cyclone which struck the region on January 20th 1918. The exhibition was valuable in not only gathering together information and objects to commemorate this devastating event, but also in acting as a timely reminder of our continued vulnerability to severe weather events.
The cyclone, considered a category 4 in today’s system, caused widespread devastation from Mackay and down the coast as far as Yeppoon and Rockhampton. It was responsible for substantial losses in the sugar and beef industries, and claimed 30 lives in Mackay. Mackay Museum, Greenmount Homestead, Pioneer Valley Museum, and Sarina District Historical Centre collaborated with the assistance of Mackay Regional Council and the MDO programme to gather together information, photographs and objects to create “In the Path of the Storm”. By combining in this way to produce the exhibition, the museums were able to present a region wide interpretation of the event and its impacts.
By the very nature of the event the museums were commemorating, objects were going to be hard to come by. But the museums demonstrated what treasure troves community collections can be. Greenmount Homestead contributed a diary kept by Albert Cook at the time of the cyclone as well as an impressive print by Tom Roberts which had been water damaged at the homestead during the cyclone, and which still bore the watermarks. Mackay Museum contributed a model of the brave little Eleanor, the only vessel to survive the cyclone intact and which was crucial in the recovery efforts in the days following the cyclone, when Mackay was completely isolated from the rest of the world. The original vessel is on display at the Mackay Museum. On loan to Mackay Museum from the Queensland Museum collections were the twisted remains of the Brinawarr, a steamship which broke free from its moorings during the cyclone and crashed into the bridge over the Pioneer River, severing communications between north and south Mackay. The remains of the Brinawarr were only rediscovered during the construction of a new bridge in 2009.
The exhibition was held in the Jubilee Community Centre and was the first major exhibition in this new space created from the former library. Community response to the exhibition has been enthusiastic, with many visitors engaging through opportunities to tell their own family’s story of the cyclone. One hundred years on, memories of the event passed down are still painful and vivid.
The exhibition banners have now left the Jubilee Community Centre and begun a tour of the region, first stop Melba House at Marian. So keep a weather eye for the banners coming to a venue near you!
Earlier this month I was lucky enough to travel to Muttaburra to deliver some workshops. Although a (very) small town, Muttaburra boasts two museums – the Dr Arratta Memorial Museum and Cassimatis Store and Cottage – which are managed by a small but dedicated team of volunteers. Keen to learn about how best to care for and interpret their collections, we devised a series of four workshops covering collection policies, interpretation panels, cataloguing, and object labelling.
While we all may know what is exciting and unusual about our own collections, it is worth giving some thought to how we share this with our visitors to make sure we’re providing the best possible experience of what our collections have to offer. During our workshop on interpretation panels, the Muttaburra volunteers thought and talked about how to plan exhibitions and displays (and what’s the difference between the two!), how best to interpret objects to make them accessible and interesting for visitors, and the nuts and bolts of what makes good interpretation panels. Thinking and talking is good, but doing is even better, so the volunteers soon got stuck into making their own interpretation panels. Now armed with the tools of the trade, I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with their new skills!
Writing a Collection Policy may not sound like the most exciting aspect of museum life, but it is really the most important document in helping you manage your collection well. It helps you clearly define all the main aspects of managing your collection, including how you will collect objects, how you will document them, how you will care for them, as well as tackling some of the more tricky issues of deaccessioning and ethical considerations. With two very different collections to manage, some thought had to be given to how to structure the collection policy to best suit their situation, but very quickly the volunteers worked together to painlessly produce a document which will be their first port of call in all important decision making processes.
Another hallmark of a well managed collection is good documentation, but with backlogs common to all museums, it often gets put in the too hard basket. We spent some time in Muttaburra looking at the processes for accessioning items into the collection, followed by the more detailed work of cataloguing. While some useful work has been done in the past at the Hospital Museum, we had to spend some time trying to establish if previous location systems were still practical, and devising new ones for the Cassimatis Store and Cottage. As always, practice makes perfect so getting their own electronic catalogue started was an important component to the workshop.
A good catalogue is of little use if you can’t identify your objects, so applying accession labels to objects was our last topic. Good object labelling, combined with good documentation, is also another weapon in the museum arsenal when confronted with a disaster. There are several options for doing this safely and unobtrusively dependent on the materials of each object, so the volunteers were introduced to a range of techniques. I expect that soon everything that isn’t nailed down will have a number attached to it!
The workshops were funded by the Regional Arts Development Fund through Barcaldine Regional Council. Thanks to the volunteers for being such wonderful hosts and willing students, and also to the volunteers from the Aramac Tramway Museum who made the trip to Muttaburra to take part. It’s great to see small museums and communities working together. I’m looking forward to seeing more of your new skills in action.
The early hours of Saturday July 18th will mark the first anniversary of the fire which claimed the Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton. It has been a long hard road for the volunteers of the Winton District Historical Society so it is timely to reflect on the enormous amount they have achieved since the devastating impact of the fire. Previous blogs have detailed the remarkable results achieved by conservators on a number of significant objects (Winton Fire response – Waltzing Matilda Centre, Winton Fire Response – the next phase of recovery, Phoenix objects from Winton, The conservation of a fire damaged print), but the work hasn’t stopped there.
Since March 21st the volunteers have opened those areas of the complex unaffected by the fire on a daily basis, and have welcomed over 1800 visitors. Although displays in the main Waltzing Matilda Centre were impacted by the fire, there’s still plenty for visitors to see in the museum complex with a fascinating range of cultural and natural history objects from the region on display. Visitors can also see objects salvaged from the fire and the ongoing work of volunteers in conserving them.
The Waltzing Matilda Story, which previously formed part of the Billabong Show in the Centre, was saved from the fire and can be viewed in the Sarah Riley Theatre, which has also played host to a variety of community activities since the fire, including Waltzing Matilda Day, a famil tour and smoko for interstate journalists, and a free talk on overshots in Western Queensland by historian Sandi Robb.
In amongst all this activity, the volunteers have continued to work steadily through the objects still requiring attention. Locals and visitors have also donated their time and expertise in the ongoing cleaning process, and the Winton Creative Arts Group have achieved stunning results with some of the collection, reading room, and storage furniture, with 11 large items and 12 chairs restored.
With all these achievements it’s easy for outsiders to forget the physical and emotional toll a disaster such as this takes on those who face loss and damage of their treasured collections. But the images below demonstrate just what a huge accomplishment the successes of the past year have been. The Winton District Historical Society are collaborating with Council, architects and the curatorial team on plans for the new Waltzing Matilda Centre, incorporating the museum precinct, and we can’t wait to see what they’ll do next.
Follow the new Centre’s progress at Waltzing Matilda Centre
After months of research and preparation, the exhibition on the Fryer brothers and the medical history of the war opened at the Springsure Hospital Museum on April 24th. Two of my previous posts, The Legacy of War and Dear Mother… dealt with the experiences of four of the Fryer brothers of Springsure during the First World War and the impact this had on their lives, and that of their family, following the war.
While researching the exhibition I had found, despite the terrible tragedies which had befallen the family during and after the war, the Fryer brothers were still survived by children, grand children, great grandchildren, nieces and nephews. The family have contributed to the research and followed the journey of discovery, and to have so many attend the exhibition opening to remember the lives of these young men made the event thoroughly unforgettable. Family had travelled from as far afield as Darwin and Tasmania to be at the event, and the opening was attended by around 80 family members and invited guests.
Another special guest at the opening was the Manager of the Fryer Library, Simon Farley. Simon and his team have been extraordinarily generous in allowing me access to the Fryer material and providing images for the exhibition. As the custodian of so much of significance to the family and researchers, Simon’s presence was greatly appreciated by everyone. The Fryer Library have honoured their namesake with their own online exhibition JD Fryer: Student and Soldier Also attending the opening were local veterans from WWII and Afghanistan, which gave the content of the exhibition added relevance.
The heritage listed 1868 Springsure Hospital Museum provided a beautifully intimate setting, given added weight by the Fryer family’s connection to the building. The exhibition was funded by the Central Highlands Regional Council Regional Arts Development Fund. Cr Kerry Hayes, Central Highlands Regional Council Mayor opened the event and other Council representatives attended, with many having worked behind the scenes to help make the day a success.
With Remembrance Day just around the corner, I thought it timely to revisit the story of the Fryer brothers and share some of their letters and postcards which are representative of the humanity and filial affection of these four young men. To remind yourself of their story, revisit my blog from September 30th, “The legacy of war”.
The Fryer’s mother Rosina and sister Liz were the most frequent recipients of letters and cards, but William and Jack in particular were solicitous in writing to their youngest brother, Walter. Walter was only nine years old when Will and Jack enlisted, and their cards home to him are characteristically light and jolly, and signed with a long line of kisses. They frequently express an optimism about an early termination to the war and return home. While still in Egypt for Christmas 1915, William wrote to Walter, “Dear Walter, Just a PC to let you know that we had a merry Christmas & I hope it will be a happy new year & will see us all back in Australia again. I hope you had a merry Christmas with plenty of presents & plum pudding with money in it. I suppose you will be getting ready for school again when you get this so you will not have much time to write but I will send you a PC as often as I can. Love & kisses from Will”
The letters demonstrate the deep love and respect the brothers held for their mother and sister, and their communications betray a concern for their welfare, particularly in respect to money. The departure of four contributors to the family income must have been noticeable, but all four brothers elected for part of their army pay to be sent directly to their mother, who apparently carefully kept it aside for them. In September of 1916, Charlie wrote to her, “Mother never bother about keeping my money for me, use the lot of it because I will not want it when I get back. I will be satisfied to get home.” In response to news that Liz had collected a prize for most popular woman, presumably at a local event, Charlie replied, “I am glad you took the prize for most popular woman but if Mother had been there you would have had to take a back seat I am afraid. Do not think I am against you, never that.”
One of the most touching items in the collection is a rare postcard from Rosina Fryer to her eldest son William. Most of the correspondence in the Fryer collection is from the brothers to family at home – very few letters travelling in the other direction have survived. The practicalities of carrying and keeping personal belongings in the trenches make surviving letters from home much more of a rarity. This postcard captures a poignant suggestion of how every day family life was constantly overshadowed by anxiety for those fighting abroad. “My Dear Will. This card stuck me as how you wrote to take me on your knee and torment me so I thought I would send it along to greet you as we were laughing the other day about how you used to tease and tell Bob how I used to teach you all these tricks. I often wonder if we will ever have the good jolly times again but we must hope so. Good bye with love to you all three over there. Mother”
On November 11th, the Fryer Library will launch an online exhibition featuring the papers in the John Denis Fryer Collection. Watch the Fryer Library homepage for news of the exhibition launch https://www.library.uq.edu.au/fryer-library/
Before the serious heat of summer struck, MDO Josh Tarrant and I travelled to Ilfracombe to undertake a conservation clean of the objects and interior of Langenbaker House. I have previously blogged about the history of this remarkable piece of Western Queensland history – moved to Ilfracombe from Barcaldine in about 1899, it was occupied continuously by the Langenbaker family for over 90 years. On the death of the last family member, the house and all its contents were acquired by the local council in order to preserve this increasingly vanishing part of Queensland’s heritage.
Situated in dry, dusty, drought-stricken Ilfracombe, keeping the house and contents clean will always be a challenge. The design of the house – timber frame with corrugated iron walls – would have allowed plenty of breeze to flow through, keeping the Langenbakers cool, but has also let in dust and pests now the house is unoccupied and not receiving the regular housekeeping attention of Mrs Langenbaker. The dust had built up over some years, so it was time to arm ourselves with vacuum cleaners and set to work.
Not only does dirt and dust detract from the appearance of objects, it also creates food and habitation for pests, which may further damage collection items. As the aim of our conservation clean was to remove these harmful agents in order to safeguard the items for the future, normal household cleaners were off the agenda, as these are often just as harmful to objects as the dirt and pests themselves. Our primary cleaning tools were vacuums with adjustable suction and micro-attachments, soft brushes, with the occasional sparing use of distilled water and cotton buds. But even these simple tools produced dramatic results. Colours became more vibrant (or even visible!), and the house took on a more lived-in feel. Mrs Langenbaker had a reputation as a meticulous housekeeper, so the appearance of the house is now more in keeping with how it was maintained during her lifetime.
Annual deep cleans are an excellent way of extending your weekly or monthly collection cleaning schedule, getting in to those hard to reach places, and giving your collection a good health check. But be prepared to put in some time – our conservation clean of Langenbaker House took five full days! Click on the images below to see some of the results.