Category Archives: Ewen’s Diary

Maritime Museum of Townsville

A new permanent exhibition has opened at the Maritime Museum of TownsvilleRise 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.

timeline panels

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.

Egg chairs for virtual reality experience
virtual reality headsets

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.

Port diver Barry Goldsworthy collection
Port diver Barry Goldsworthy collection
Model ships
ship simulators

Still Engaging

The Museum Development Officers (MDOs) are currently engaging with their communities while working at home. This unfortunately means no workshops, display installation, oral histories, conservation, community meetings or any work that does not allow for adequate and safe social distancing. The MDOs will continue to assist by phone, email and depending on resources, video calls.

Although Melanie (Mackay) and Jo (Cairns) are used to working alone, Lydia (Toowoomba), Josh (Ipswich) and Ewen (Townsville) are all based in the Queensland Museum campuses which have now closed their doors to the public and encouraged staff to work from home.

Self and community isolation may be new to many people but the MDOs have all worked with remote communities who are used to isolation either by distance or by natural disasters such as flood. The MDOs have documented School of the Air radios, cleaned Flying Doctor objects, researched stories about Afghan traders servicing isolated pastoral stations, documented rural and remote health practices, researched quarantine stations on islands, and recorded the events of returning First World War soldiers and the Spanish Flu.

These objects and stories show resilience, innovation, adaptation and community spirit. They are in these museums because they are valued by the community and underscore their shared values and their desire to document what to them is often everyday life.

The MDO blog has recently added a new page with links to “how to videos”. Although these are designed as a basic introduction to a topic they may be useful if you need to undertake some work while your museum is closed or you have time at home. Please contact your local MDO if you need further information.

Royal Flying Doctor Service medical chest as used by remote pastoral stations.
Image: John Flynn Place, Cloncurry.
Traeger transceiver type 59SA. These were used specifically by School of the Air pupils.
Source: John Flynn Place, Cloncurry.

Bowen’s rich maritime history

Cyclone Debbie update

Update 03/4/2017   – Proserpine Museum. All volunteers safe. Minor water damage – but mostly ok. Will update as needed.

– Collinsville Coalface. All ok.

The MDO team will be contacting museums across the weather affected areas in central and south east Queensland over the coming days to assess damage and issues arising from the cyclone and associated flooding. Please get in touch with us if you have any information or if your museums and collections have been affected.


Update 30/3/2017   – Bowen Museum and Historical Society are ok.  No structural damage to building, collections and volunteers are all intact!

The Queensland Museum, Museum Development Officer Program is waiting to hear from groups that are located within the region where Cyclone Debbie has caused damage.

This information may take a few days or even up to a week to come through as volunteers and staff stay safe within their own homes and look after families and friends.

As ex Cyclone Debbie follows its path, other risks including flooding may also cause concern for collections throughout Queensland.

Please see a past blog here for some useful information on disaster preparedness.

The Museum Development Officer Program will do a further blog post to let people know of any progress and is working closely with Museums and Galleries Queensland to gather information.

Please take the time to leave a comment if you have heard any news regarding groups in this area or contact


Flying the cyclone flag

Ewen McPhee and Dr Jo Wills recently worked at the Cardwell Bush Telegraph Museum to assist with the rehanging of their cyclone flag.  The red cyclone flag, also called a cyclone pennant, has been displayed at the Bush Telegraph Museum since it opened in 2003.

The museum is housed in the old Cardwell Telegraph and Post Office which was built in 1870 and is one of the oldest buildings in North Queensland. It is on the Queensland Heritage Register, the Register of the National Trust and the Register of the National Estate of the Australian Heritage Commission.

The building itself was prefabricated in Brisbane and shipped to Cardwell where it was erected on the present site. It is considered to be one of the earliest examples of prefabricated post office buildings, reflecting the need to erect substantial Government buildings in remote settlements where structures were otherwise relatively unsophisticated.


original cyclone flag.jpg

Cyclone flag before rehanging


Cyclone flags were used to warn about approaching cyclones.  Murray Massey a member of the Cardwell and District Historical Society, and long time Cardwell resident spoke to Denise Raleigh who worked on the Telephone Exchange from 1955 to 1959.

Denise said there was a yellow ‘alert’ flag and a red ‘warning’ flag flown at the Post Office when cyclones approached Cardwell. The decision on when to raise the flags was made locally by the Postmaster, Mr Collins, who was guided by the barograph that measured the changes in atmospheric pressure that can be sudden and dramatic when a cyclone nears.

Murray recalls the face of the barograph was always on public display through a glass panel on the Post Office verandah, and people visited the Post Office to check the barograph to assess the weather outlook. Like Murray, Denise recalls that the alert and warning flags were flown from a flag pole on Victoria Street in the front yard of the Post Office.

Murray believes the need to fly a warning flag publicly in the mid-20th century, is highlighted by the fact that few people had landline telephones in that era, long before mobile phones were invented. Denise recalls that there were only 30 lines available on the Cardwell Telephone Exchange switchboard, and only about 22 of them were connected, when she worked there. This means only 22 homes or businesses in Cardwell had a telephone. There was a public phone at the Post Office. Denise says there were lines from the Cardwell exchange through which customers could be connected with exchanges at Carruchan, Tully, Ingham and Townsville, and that calls to Brisbane and beyond had to be routed through Townsville.

Denise recalls the following occurrences during cyclone Agnes which, unusually, moved northwards along the east coast, buffeting Proserpine, Bowen and the Burdekin before its eye passed over Townsville around 2.00pm on March 6 1956 and continued northwards, swinging inland near Ingham before weakening.

“Mr Collins (Percy Collins) was the Postmaster then and he never called the Telephone Exchange girls by their names: we were all ‘Girlie’ to Mr Collins.

During one cyclone I rode my bicycle to work to begin the morning shift on the exchange at 7.00 am. The wind was blowing very strongly from the direction of Greenwood Hill (inland to the north west) so Mr Collins already had the yellow alert flag flying to warn people of the danger of a cyclone approaching, and he said: ‘Girlie, I’m surprised to see you this morning.’

‘I didn’t have to pedal Mr Collins, because the wind pushed me along Victoria Street,’ I replied. 

I remember though, having to be careful while riding my bicycle, to dodge the metal garbage bins which were flying all around.

By midday Mr Collins had hoisted the red cyclone warning flag. It was unusual to have cyclonic winds coming from the inland. Some homes – I think a couple of the Railway Fettler’s cottages in Bowen Street and Mr’s Bird’s Garage business on the corner of Bowen and Brasenose Streets, were among those that lost roofing.”



Cyclone flag laid out on Perspex to check size

With guidance from Queensland Museum conservators and the support of Helen Pedley from the Cassowary Coast Regional Council the cyclone flag was removed and rehung to ensure its continued conservation.  As with many of the museum development officer jobs, there is a priority to purchase materials locally and to work within a tight budget.

The cyclone flag was carefully measured by Helen  and the Perspex was pre-ordered from Townsville.  Ewen and Jo then purchased all of the rest of the requirements from the local hardware store in Cardwell.


Ewen drilling Perspex for spacers

Marine ply was chosen as the base for the backing board because of its more stable properties.  The ply was then covered with unbleached calico and ironed.


Jo attaching the unbleached calico to the marine ply




Jo ironing calico once attached

A display system was then made using Velcro.  Firstly half of the Velcro was machine sewn on to a strip of unbleached calico.  This strip was then carefully hand sewn directly onto the flag with the Velcro facing out.  The other half of the Velcro was attached to the backing board using a staple gun.  This strong yet detachable system allows for good object support and easy removal for cleaning or in case of an approaching cyclone!

A simple yet effective spacer was then made up using stainless steel bolts, washers and a electrical conduit joiner.  This spacer allows the Perspex to sit away from the cyclone flag and yet still have the protective properties.


The spacer made from everyday off the shelf materials


Final hanging


Jo and Ewen with the completed display mount


Connected Culture

North Queensland Museum Development Officer, Ewen McPhee, has continued to work with the Norfolk Island Museum on a project detailing the material culture from Pitcairn Island.

With the permanent population on Pitcairn Island decreasing, the Norfolk Island Museum decided to start documenting the material culture that is held in the Pitcairn Island communities on Norfolk Island and in New Zealand (Auckland and Wellington).  The Norfolk Island Museum was also interested in looking at collections that were held in other museums to ensure their own collection policy, research and interpretation planning  was well informed and appropriate.

Janelle Blucher,Team Leader of Heritage Management, at the Norfolk Island Museum applied to the Pacific Development and Conservation Trust for funding to undertake this project.  This funding was successful and in February 2016, Ewen joined Janelle on Norfolk Island to start the project.

Initially the aim was to try and identify objects that arrived on Norfolk Island in 1856 when the entire population of Pitcairn Island moved to Norfolk Island.  This trip was undertaken on the vessel Morayshire and has been well documented in historical accounts.  Janelle and Ewen were particularly interested to find out which objects  the Pitcairn Islanders deemed important enough to bring with them on this initial voyage from Pitcairn Island.

Community recording days were held at the Norfolk Island Museum where people were encouraged to bring in their objects and retell their family histories and stories.  Janelle and Ewen developed a standard recording sheet that in time will inform a database of community collections that will be maintained by the museum.

Jeanine photos (1)

Jeanine Snell with her collection of Pitcairn Island objects (Norfolk Island)

hair comb turtle shell two (2)

Turtle shell hair comb, from Pitcairn Island, belonging to Jeanine Snell

The response on Norfolk Island was very positive with Pitcairn Island descendants and other members of the community, including collectors, bringing in their objects to the Museum.  Janelle and Ewen were able to photograph, record and document information about the families and the objects over a number of days.  They were also invited into private homes where they viewed many larger items such as Boston whalers rocking chairs, photograph albums, paintings and souvenirs.  Objects that Norfolk Island community members brought into the museum included yollo stones, baskets, hats, wooden carvings, a signed cricket bat, painted Hatti leaves, photographs, letters, bibles, turtle shell hair combs, and dolls.

Ewen and Janelle then traveled to New Zealand to the cities of Auckland and Wellington where they continued the community recording.  In Auckland they were shown contemporary weaving of baskets, hats and mobile phone covers, along with tapa and print making items.  More yollo stones appeared, along with a whalebone picker used to thatch house roofs with, wooden souvenir boxes, Hattie leaves, painted coconuts, woven fans, baskets and a top hat.  Ewen and Janelle also visited the Auckland Museum where they were shown the collection of over 11000 stone tools that were acquired by the Museum.  All of these items, held in the archaeology collection, pre date the arrival of the HMS Bounty on Pitcairn Island but nevertheless add to the body of knowledge surrounding the occupation of Pitcairn Island.  In Wellington, Janelle and Ewen made contact with Pitcairn Islanders and their descendants as well as visiting the Alexander Turnbull Library and Te Papa Museum to view their Pitcairn Island collections.

Possibly one of the most prized objects brought out from Pitcairn since 1856 is made from stone, a vesicular or aerated basalt stone, fashioned into a functional Polynesian style domestic item known as a ‘yollo’ stone or a food grater. Measuring approximately thirty by twenty centimetres this rectangular shaped stone is scored across its surface and used to grate or ‘yollo’ breadfruit, banana and yams.  This food preparation tool made from Pitcairn Island’s basalt is still used by some, and is highly valued by island families on Norfolk and also by Pitcairn families now living in New Zealand.


Yolla stone top view

Yolla Stone belonging to Jane Rutledge (Norfolk Island)

The  Te Papa collection revealed an exquisite whalebone tapa beater, a wooden candle holder with an inscription of the Bounty story, painted clam shells, a wooden magic box, contemporary tapa, and other souvenir trade items.

Te Papa (139).JPG

Ewen McPhee at Te Papa

Also in Wellington, Janelle and Ewen met with the donor of a collection of glass plate negatives taken in 1928 and now in the Alexander Turnbull library.  These photographs clearly show what life was like on Pitcairn Island in 1928 and are an important snapshot in time for further family history and documentary work.  The Library also contained an 1814 account by Royal Navy Lieutenant Willis on approaching Pitcairn Island complete with a narrative and paintings.  Other objects included newspaper cuttings, photographs, and souvenirs.


Janelle Blucher with the Willis account


Janelle and her team at the Norfolk Island Museum are continuing to collect information and developing the database. The Norfolk Island Museum facebook page has been used to connect with the Pitcairn community and shows more photographs from the project.


Camouflaged Socks

Museum Development Officer Ewen McPhee and Queensland Museum Conservator Sue Valis recently made an interesting discovery when working on the First World War bound socks held in the Zara Clark Museum in Charters Towers.

Ewen and Sue had prioritised the rehousing of the socks, knitting needles, calico bag and letter when working as part of a Queensland Anzac Centenary grants program exhibition at the Museum.  When they were  approached by National Trust Queensland to assist with upcoming media, showcasing further research into the First World War Soldier who was to receive the socks, it was a good opportunity to remove them from their original frame and condition report them.

Socks, knitting needles, balls of wool, calico bag and letter in original frame

The media and personal interest generated by the socks also means that they will be viewed, photographed, filmed and documented by various media and family members in the coming months. Therefore once the socks were removed it was decided to temporarily rehouse them in archival storage materials, allowing for best practice handling, storage and ease of access.

The initial opening of the frame revealed some evidence of insect activity although this did not appear to be currently active. Dust had also penetrated the display case and removing the items showed presence of black mould at the base of the frame. The socks and the balls of wool were brush vacuumed to remove dust and the underside of the calico bag, which was most affected by the black mould, was carefully brush-vacuumed under a fume hood. Luckily the mould was dry and was successfully removed.

An interesting discovery was made when the socks were removed from the frame. What we first thought were khaki green socks, turned out to be in fact made of brown wool. As seen in the images, all the exposed areas of the wool had faded and turned a khaki green colour, while the unexposed parts of the wool were the original brown colour. This fading was due to the combination of exposure to light levels, in particular the ultra-violet component, as well as the wool being dyed by natural, as opposed to synthetic dyes. This is most evident in the images below, particularly on the ball of wool on the top left hand side.


note the colour change from brown to green

Note the colour change from brown to green


Detail of the ball of wool showing most fading.

Detail of the ball of wool showing most fading

Even though the socks were framed and housed inside the museum, in a relatively dark area, it is a good example of damage caused by exposure to high light levels.  It also shows how care should be taken when describing objects for research, collection databases and for the media.

Wedding Dresses of the north

MDOs Ewen McPhee and Jo Wills recently visited Cardwell to update their Disaster Plan and start planning for their Anzac Centenary Exhibition – Re-Honouring Cardwell.

In between visits, the historical society members, led by Stephanie Berger, developed and opened a new exhibition featuring wedding dresses and accouterments over time.  Stephanie, who is a well known dressmaker in north Queensland has also been actively involved in leading the 150 year celebrations for Cardwell and the Cassowary Coast Region through the making of period costumes.

The wedding dresses  on display at the Cardwell Museum range from the years of 1892, 1915, 1927, 1947, 1948, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.



Wedding Dress Display

Wedding Dress Display


wedding dress display - note the photographers skill of also getting in the reflection of the sea

wedding dress display – note the photographers skill of also getting in the reflection of the sea


Wedding Dress Display

Wedding Dress Display


Stephanie recounts her history as a dressmaker

“dressmaking stems from my early childhood and of necessity my Mother taught me all kinds of sewing as we literally made everything for ourselves…..when my cousin and I were off to St Patricks College in Townsville as boarders Mum was laid up in bed with a very bad back so we made all our clothes for school including bras, panties uniforms, day dresses, pyjamas, detached collars and cuffs … the only things Mum bought at Carrolls in Townsville were Blazer, Uniform Hats, gloves, stockings, and ties.  It was a very good grounding as you can imagine… all sewn on a treadle machine.. and you sewed carefully because Mum made us unpick if we did it wrong!!   That was the start of a long association with dressmaking and both my sister and my Deb and Wedding dresses , bridesmaids, flowergirls etc were all home made.  After moving to Ingham when Harry, my husband was posted to the Hinchinbrook Shire Council, I continued making all of our clothes and of course that led to making Ball dresses, Deb Dresses and Wedding ensembles, & children’s dancing costumes for many friends and people in the area, as well as school uniforms for all 3 schools, both primary and secondary…As a matter of fact I was very close to starting a business in making readymade school uniforms for sale in my own shop… It wasn’t till later that readymade uniforms became available to buy. Even after I went into my own business of Interior Decorating, I still was involved in making in making Deb, Wedding dress and bridesmaids  ensembles for my own children and their friends. I still absolutely love the intricate work and styling involved with that more lavish dressmaking. For the ball gown I recently sewed for the C150 Gala Costume  Ball as part of the Fabric of Time project, I loved the creation of a costume from the simple use of a pattern and lengths of beautiful fabrics and the skill of putting it all together… like magic!!”
Dresses in the exhibition include the Hubinger dress from 1892, which is a quite simple skirt and blouse as was the fashion of the time.  The dress from 1915 is a much more detailed dress with definite French styling in lace and figured crepe.  The Hubinger dress from 1927 has been in the Museum since before Cyclone Yasi and was painstakingly salvaged and cared for.


Museum devastation after Cyclone Yasi

Museum devastation after Cyclone Yasi

Salvaging of the 1927 Wedding Dress after Yasi

Salvaging of the 1927 Wedding Dress after Yasi

The most gorgeous dress in the whole collection in Stephanie’s opinion is  the 1947 dress featuring a long train with inserted bands of lace in the skirt,   and the bride of 92 yrs told us that the dress cost 100 pounds when it was made in Brisbane.


Stephanie Berger arranging the 1947 wedding dress worn by Mrs Von Brennan, married in Brisbane and costing 100 pounds.

Stephanie Berger arranging the 1947 wedding dress worn by Mrs Von Brennan, married in Brisbane and costing 100 pounds.


1947 dress with banded inserts of laceand the cut of the fabric  to achieve the drape and fall of the train

1947 dress with banded inserts of laceand the cut of the fabric to achieve the drape and fall of the train

The 1948 dress is lace. Rations after the war meant that lace didn’t require any coupons where other fabrics did. The dress from the 1950’s  is a mini in all over guipere lace, quite tailored and worn with a short veil. As the following years showed the fabrics changed and the dresses became more ornate and the later years all featured beading.


right - Vivian Stafford's 1950s guipere lace mini, Left - Edna Jesse's dress of figured organza featuring classic lines and covered buttons

right – Vivian Stafford’s 1950s guipere lace mini, Left – Edna Jesse’s dress of figured organza featuring classic lines and covered buttons


For those who are interested in other wedding dress displays, have a look at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition here.

Heritage North – bringing local museum communities together

Ewen McPhee demonstrates display techniques at the Heritage North workshop in Gordonvale. Photo: Robyn Smith, Cairns Museum.

Ewen McPhee demonstrates display techniques at the Heritage North workshop in Gordonvale. Photo: Robyn Smith, Cairns Museum.

Heritage North is an association of museums and historical societies from north and far north Queensland that meets quarterly to discuss issues affecting the region. When the organisation meets, members have the opportunity to share ideas and stories about the region’s history and their museum collections.

Members work closely with the MDOs from north and far north Queensland. Last Saturday, Jo Wills and Ewen McPhee ran a workshop for Heritage North members at the Mulgrave Settlers Museum in Gordonvale.

Noel Weare from the Douglas Shire Historical Society presents his object to the Heritage North Workshop. Photo: Robyn Smith, Cairns Museum.

Noel Weare from the Douglas Shire Historical Society presents his object to the Heritage North Workshop. Photo: Robyn Smith, Cairns Museum.

Representatives from Cairns Museum, CADCAI, El Arish Museum, Innisfail Historical Society, Loudoun House Museum, Douglas Shire Historical Society, Mareeba Historical Society, Eacham Historical Society and Mulgrave Settlers Museum bought along objects from their collections to work on as part of the workshop.

Objects ranged from a walking cane, bricks, stone decorative items from CADCAI’s temple collection, to medals, a surveyor’s instrument, a branding iron and archival and photographic material. Ewen and Jo provided the group with curatorial advice regarding display planning and implementation. The focus of discussions was on object choice and stories, the value of labels, different display techniques and conservation suggestions.

Defending the Pacific – North Queensland and the First World War

First troops leaving Townsville in August 1914. State Library of Queensland, Negative No: 25536

First troops leaving Townsville in August 1914. State Library of Queensland, Negative No: 25536

MDOs from North Queensland, Ewen McPhee, and Far North Queensland, Dr Jo Wills, have curated Defending the Pacific, an exhibition that commemorates Australia’s (and North Queensland’s) first action in the First World War.

Using material drawn from collections from the Cairns Historical Society, Zara Clark Museum, Army Museum of North Queensland, Hinchinbrook Library, Townsville City Library, State Library of Queensland and the Australian War Memorial, the exhibition explores the special nature of North Queenslanders involvement in the First World War: of the rifle clubs, the Kennedy Regiment, their journey to Thursday Island and to New Guinea, and their subsequent early return to Australia without having seen active service.

Ewen McPhee and Michael Castrisos, Manager, Horn Island Airport.

Ewen McPhee and Michael Castrisos, Manager, Horn Island Airport.

Jo Wills installing the exhibition in Seisa Holiday Park.

Jo Wills installing the exhibition in Seisa Holiday Park.

Ewen McPhee and Vanessa Seekee from the Torres Strait Heritage Museum on Horn Island.

Ewen McPhee and Vanessa Seekee from the Torres Strait Heritage Museum on Horn Island.

Ewen McPhee at Poruma Cultural Centre.

Ewen McPhee at Poruma Cultural Centre.










Sponsored by the Queensland Anzac Centenary Committee, the MDOs worked with communities throughout north and far north Queensland, and on Cape York and Torres Strait, to secure venues and participation. The exhibition banners are on display at Bowen Museum, Zara Clark Museum in Charters Towers, Hinchinbrook Library in Ingham, Atherton Library, Cairns Library, Mareeba Library, Seisa Holiday Park, Torres Strait Heritage Museum on Horn Island, Horn Island Airport, Peddell’s Ferry on Thursday Island and at the Indigenous Knowledge Centre on Poruma. A special photographic exhibition that explores the rifle clubs of North Queensland accompanies the banners at the Army Museum of North Queensland  in Townsville, and there is a photographic display at Green Hill Fort, Thursday Island. Ewen and Jo have recently traveled to the Torres Strait to install the exhibitions in different venues and liaise with communities.

Photographic exhibition at Army Museum of North Queensland, Townsville.

Photographic exhibition at Army Museum of North Queensland, Townsville.

Given the strength of the visual material and story, Jo Wills also worked with ABC Open Far North Producer, Gemma Deavin, to create a digital story which is now available online.

Particular thanks to the Army Museum of North Queensland, Hinchinbrook Library, Cairns Historical Society and Tyler Wellenseik from the State Library of Queensland for their assistance in pulling together this exhibition.