Category Archives: Jo’s Diary

150ZK: Truth Telling and the Coming of the Light

Two new exhibitions at Gab Titui Cultural Centre, THURSDAY ISLAND

Nancy Kiwat’s artwork ‘Papa Dabad’, 2016.

On June 17, Gab Titui Cultural Centre opened two new exhibitions to commemorate 150 Years of Coming of the Light. One explores the history and impact of Christianity on the community through an historic timeline. In the other, artists from three Torres Strait Art Centres have created works that represent truth telling: their understanding and response to this particular topic.

EXHIBITION PLANNING

MDOs Jo Wills and Ewen Mcphee worked with staff in March and then again in June to ensure the project was ready for opening. Exhibition training workshops in March included research, object analysis, interpretation and conservation, and ensured that new staff understood and contributed to the exhibition development process. There are multiple perspectives within the TSI community about what ‘Coming of the Light’ has meant, and continues to mean. By using the topic as the basis for the workshop, we were able to deliver applied training and help shape an exhibition plan.

Prior to the MDO workshops, lead curator, Leitha Assan, had already run engagement workshops with the three participating art centre communities (Erub Ewer Meta – Erub Arts; Moa Arts – Ngalmun Lagau Minaral Torres Strait Islander Corporation; Badu Art Centre | Torres Strait Islander Art from Badu Island). Her challenge was to bring all the components together and curate displays that creatively honored diverse viewpoints. Not an easy task, or in such a compressed time frame.

Between March and June, Gab Titui staff were busy with research, planning, community engagement, and content preparation. This included liaising with AIATIS, travelling to the islands to record interviews and collect items from the community for the displays. Staff also had to coordinate the transportation of artworks and production and printing of all material (labels, text panels, decals) back to Thursday Island – no mean feat when you’re living a remote community! MDOs assisted with ongoing advice and purchasing of materials and equipment.

Hands on installation training

When Ewen and Jo returned in June to assist with the installation, they were joined by freelance photographer and exhibition designer, Michael Marzik. Leitha was also keen for artists Jimmy K Thaiday (Erub), Fiona Mosby and Paula Savage (Moa) and Matilda Nona (Badu) to get some exhibition installation experience. With two large projects to install, it was all hands on deck, and wonderful to have additional people working across the two galleries.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Each artist bought their own skills, understanding of materials and expertise to the process, and oversaw the installation of their own works, their colleagues’ works as well as other exhibition components. It was all hands on deck for the installation of decal signage, mannequin dressing and one of the large charcoal pieces from Erub Island.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Opening night at Gab Titui

Exhibition openings at Gab Titui are a special, community event. This year was the first opening for a few years, and people from around the region, and state, were in attendance. This included QM’s Head of Cultures and Histories, Christopher Salter. Openings comprise a curated outdoor program of prayer, speaches, dance and song. After that, the galleries are opened to the community. This year, the Saibai Island Dancers performed took the stage, accompanied by a choir.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

More than just tea towels: the migrants, makers and merchandise of Reef Productions

Reef Productions Exhibition, Cairns Museum, 2021

A new exhibition for Cairns Museum

On Friday 28 May, Cairns Museum opened a new temporary exhibition called Reef Productions: migrants, makers and merchandise.  Timed to coincide with Reconciliation Week, the exhibition explores the story of a Cairns-based screen printing company that began in the 1970s. Running for almost 20 years, the owners hand printed and manufactured souvenirs using licenced designs from established Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. The result is an extraordinary array of works on linen and paper, and a multilayered story that has been a pleasure to explore.

The exhibition showcases only a small selection of works due to the size of the gallery. Featured, however, are items from each era of ownership, and works by as many artists as possible. Also included is a recreated trade stand, based around photographs from the Sydney Trade Fair, and a screen printing interactive based around a previously unseen work by Rosyln Serico (Kemp). The opening was a chance for owners and artists to reconnect.

A chance meeting Leads to ACQUISITION

I first came across the name ‘Reef Productions – Made in Cairns’ on a tea towel in 2015 when I was curating one of the galleries for Cairns Museum’s redevelopment. I can remember being curios but at the time was too busy to delve deeper.

Fast forward four years, however, and it’s a different story. Whilst viewing the Thancoupie “A Legacy of Cultural Power” exhibition at CIAF in 2019 I was introduced to Andy and Joan Csorba while standing in front of a large screen print on fabric. ‘Have you ever heard of a company called Reef Productions’, I asked? ‘Yes’, grinned Andy, ‘we used to own it.’ And so began my, and Cairns Museum’s, Reef Productions journey.

Jo with Andy Csorba in 2019.

After visiting the Csorba’s farm to view the material, I discussed the collection with Cairns Museum. Museum Manager, Suzanne Gibson, sought funds to undertake a significance assessment and I, along with Indigenous cultural worker, Nerelle Nicol, began a period of detailed research and analysis. As part of the project, I was required to mentor Nerelle and suppport and undertake research. Nerelle worked closely with the Indigenous artists and this was critical to building an understanding of the content, context and personal stories within the artworks and company history. At the same time, I met with former owners and the artists who had worked with them to create designs.

From its beginnings in the front room of a house in Cairns’ northern beaches, Reef Productions produced portable souvenirs that illustrated the tropical charm of Far North Queensland. It also worked on commission, creating items for organisations or special events and anniversaries. When the company changed hands in the mid-1980s, the designs evolved to include Indigenous culture and stories. Andy worked with a range of artists, including Thancoupie, Jenuarrie, Roslyn Serico (Kemp), Connie Rovina (Barker) Heather Walker, Ludij Peden and Joan Boissevain.

Our research uncovered a story and collection with multiple layers and threads. All participants had some sort of migration story to tell – they had all moved to Cairns, be it from areas within Queensland, Australia or from overseas. The Indigenous artists bought a cultural dimension to the business – through their design style, working for Queensland Aboriginal Creations or through their personal experience of mission life an search for identity. Embedded too, were stories of environmental change, tourism and lost heritage places. We found out about the different artists, their work and inspiration, and their relationship with Reef Productions.

Research into other collections showed that some of these works are held by Queensland Museum and many by the State Library of Queensland in the Glenn R. Cooke Souvenir Textiles Collection. Our work contributes detailed provenance knowledge to these collections, and to understandings of souvenir production at this time.

These findings, as well as the extraordinary aesthetics of the collection, are just some of the reasons Cairns Museum decided to acquire it. They then applied for funding to support Nerelle and I to co-curate the Reef Productions Exhibition.

Curating Reef Productions

From the outset we knew we did not have the space to do everything we wanted. We chose to focus on the evolution of the company, in particular the works produced by artists working during the Csorba ownership period. Community engagement continued throughout the production of the exhibition. Artists and owners reviewed all text, and choice of artwork – with the right of veto. 

Generous donations by former owner, Georgie Zeiger, and items by Charters Towers’ artist Jim Arena, and Daintree’s Betty Hinton, were included in the early section of the exhibition. Sadly, we had to leave out one of Jim’s original ‘pencil roughs’ created for his design of Freshwater Station. However, he has generously agree to donate it, and the tea towel, to Cairns Museum.

Staff and volunteers at Cairns Museum worked tirelessly behind the scenes to support the preparation of materials for display. This included doing framing workshops, sewing supports and creating backing boards for the textile works. The exhibition was installed by Michael Marzik.

Although only a small selection of pieces are on show, this project celebrates the work of these artists and entrepreneurs. From a museum perspective, it illustrates the value of contemporary collection, the importance of community engagement, the need for copyright vigilence and the joy of research and discovery. And, as a story, it represents the importance of relationships – for those who were part of Reef Productions and those involved in putting this research and exhibition together.

The exhibition is on at Cairns Museum for three months from 29 May 2021.

 

Djabugay: Nganydji bulmba maminga (we love and care for country)

Bama mara-nyiwul ngurral-na maying Queensland Museum MDO malim.(Six people from the Djabugay region have attended Queensland Museum MDO training in Kuranda to learn more about caring for cultural heritage collections).

“Gloved up” with rain forest sword: Russell Hobbler, Ezekiel Deshong, Jo Wills, Wilma Donahue, Dennis Hunter and Gavin Donahue at the end of the first workshop.
Image: Maria Grauner

Djabugay Aboriginal Corporations have a small collection of cultural objects. In 2019 they contacted the MDO program to find out how to catalogue and store them professionally. After successfully applying for a RADF grant from Mareeba Shire Council, the Corporation engaged Jo to run training sessions and purchase conservation materials.

Workshops were originally planned for March, but COVID 19 put everything on hold. In the interim, Jo undertook research into other collections to locate Djabugay cultural items. Thanks to Kate Wanchap from JCU and Sophie Price from MTQ for providing me with details. Cairns Museum holds a number of items, and Jo arranged for Djabugay Corporation CEO, Nicolas Mills, and Cultural Officer, Dennis Hunter, to meet Cairns Museum’s Collection Manager, Melanie Sorenson, and Manager, Suzanne Gibson. Melanie pulled out a range of artefacts and explained the process of caring for them in the museum, while Suzanne provided a brief overview of the museum displays.

As restrictions eased, workshop planning began. Two separate days of cataloguing and storage training were delivered at Nywarri Estate, just outside of Kuranda. For the first session, Jo created a cataloguing form, cataloguing kit and register to get started. Training involved object analysis and object identification, and ensuring that language names for objects were integrated into the work. The group also took digital images of objects and ensured items were numbered.

Participants practice cataloguing materials during the first workshop. Image: Jo Wills.

The second session continued with hands on cataloguing but also introduced preventative conservation and storage. The funding allowed us to purchase industry standard conservation materials and begin the process of housing the items appropriately. The group worked together to ensure they understood each of the steps required in cataloguing, including taking measurements and photographing the objects. Djabugay’s language dictionary has been included in the cataloguing kit as an essential reference for the cataloguing work. As they worked on objects, participants taught Jo the specific names and words for certain materials and items.

Cataloguing work will now continue for the rest of the collection. Plans to create a database for the information will also ensure it is accessible and preserved.

Thanks to Dennis Hunter for the Djabugay translation, and Nicolas Mills for the additional images.

“The Regional Arts Development Fund is a partnership between the Queensland Government and Mareeba Shire Council to support local arts and culture in regional Queensland.”

Reopening Atherton Chinatown

After four months of closure due to COVID 19, the National Trust of Queensland (NTQ) have been preparing to reopen the Hou Wang Temple and museum displays in the Tableland Regional Council’s Old Post Office Gallery in Atherton. Like other cultural venues across the state, reopening is not as simple as just unlocking the doors and welcoming visitors. Facilities need to be prepared in line with strict regulations and COVID plans, and thoroughly cleaned. An opening date is planned for early August.

For Atherton Chinatown, this has meant addressing the effects of an extended period of rain which had caused mould issues in the gallery and the collection area. To help out, MDOs Ewen McPhee and Dr Jo Wills spent four days helping NTQ workers and volunteers undertake a ‘deep clean’ and refresh of the site. In the process we learnt more about the collection, the temple and Chinese history. We also got to know some of the amazing volunteers who proudly share Atherton Chinatown’s history with visitors throughout the year.

Preparing the Gallery

NTQ representative and archaeologist, Gordon Grimwade, photographed each display section as a reference point for re installation. We then dismantled each display, making sure to link the case, perspex cover and contents by a temporary number. Objects were placed on calico lined trestle tables in their display groupings to avoid any confusion. They were checked for mould or other problems and cleaned with either a dry cloth, a solution of vinegar and water, or lightly vacuumed using a micro attachment. Volunteers removed and cleaned all of the large timber backed images that were mounted on the display (back and front) and the free standing interpretation panels. Ewen and I removed some multimedia items that were no longer working, and cleaned and relined drawers in the display that contained collection items. The empty gallery was then cleaned by professional cleaners.

The installation process involved Ewen rehanging all of the agricultural instruments making sure they were at once secure and accessible. Jo reset each of the display cases and, because of the poor condition of the labels, created new foam core labels for all items (thanks to Tablelands Regional Gallery and Council staff for their help with materials). We also sought opportunities to make the extraordinary portraits in the gallery more accessible for visitors by removing obstacles and creating a clear line of sight. The result is a gallery that looks refreshed and reinvigorated, and that is easy to manage for the volunteers into the future.

Refreshing the Temple

Volunteers cleaning the temple fence.

Atherton’s Hou Wang Temple is an extraordinary and beautiful building made from black bean, red cedar and tin. It is listed on the Queensland Heritage Register and is the only surviving timber and iron temple in Queensland One of the volunteers, Graham, has been taking visitors through it for the past 17 years, and it was a pleasure to listen to him share his knowledge of the history and of Chinese symbolism.

Despite its charms, the temple does present ongoing maintenance challenges, particularly regarding mould and pest control. Gordon, along with volunteers Neil and Graham, spent considerable time cleaning mould and residue from the fence. Ewen worked to bring the interior of the temple back to life – mostly with vacuuming and cleaning the floors. In an attempt to reduce vermin access, he and Graham placed steel wool in gaps that were identified – this will hopefully reduce the damage and mess within the temple this while pest control solutions are explored.

A new collection room

The project also gave Gordon and the volunteers a chance to plan how their collection room, located in one of the back rooms of the post office, would operate. Lucy and Terry spent two days painting boards for the new shelving system. The room will be a dedicated collection space for storage, cataloguing and other collection management activities. Items that had to be moved temporarily into the temple meeting room can now be stored more appropriately.

Our thanks and appreciation for the help and good humour to all the volunteers, and to Gordon and Christine Grimwade who coordinated the weeks work.

Back on the road – heading west to Croydon

On the road to Croydon.

Last week, after almost three months working from home, MDOs Jo Wills and Ewen McPhee traveled to Croydon in western Queensland. While it was great to be back on the road, the journey also gave us the chance to see how small towns have been impacted by the COVID 19 upheaval. Lots of hand-washing stations at shops and service stations, and closed businesses and roads. Empty caravan parks really struck a cord – it is unheard of at this time of year in FNQ.

This was the first field trip for MDOs following the COVID 19 travel restrictions. It was organised in accordance with both Council and Queensland Museum risk assessment protocols. Each morning, Ewen and I would meet at the council offices and have our temperatures monitored before we could start work. Social distancing was a given, and we self catered to avoid unnecessary community interaction. Although the caravan sites were empty, the onsite accommodation was full – Croydon relies on contractors coming through to keep things going.

We were in Croydon to continue some of the work I’ve been doing in ‘lockdown’ to help Tourism Officer, Sandrine Gloton. Council is developing new interpretation panels for three goldfields displays in their heritage precinct buildings and while Sandrine has been writing and researching, I have been helping her with the interpretation techniques. As well as improving my knowledge of Croydon’s history, the project gave me a chance to re-engage with images created by one of the town’s (and Queensland’s) notable late 19th century photographers: Alphonse Chargois.

Although I have seen many Chargois photographs from the Gulf region (sample above), I enjoyed discovering a bit more about his life in Croydon. His obituary stated “he resided at Croydon when mining operations were booming and he interested himself in all matters concerning the progress of the district.” (Cairns Post 24 November 1936). This is clearly evident in his images of mines that appeared in many of the Northern Register stories about Croydon’s goldfield.

In addition to running a studio, and undertaking photographic trips around the region, Chargois was also a director of a mining lease, and a prominent member of Croydon’s Salvation Army. The Morning Post from August 1901 listed him as one of four directors of the Golden Gate No.9 South Block Gold Mining Company – I haven’t found out much more about that yet. Tragically, his son Henry, drowned in the Gilbert River in 1906. However Chargois appears to have stayed in Croydon for sometime before moving on to other towns and eventually Cairns.

There are numerous Chargois photographs held at the State Library of Queensland, National Museum of Australia and Cairns Historical Society – no doubt there are many other repositories that hold some of his images.

Gilbert River today – looking towards the single lane bridge.

The mystery of the Quetta Tea Towel

Quetta Tea Towel for Reef Productions. Photograph: Dr Jo Wills, 2019.

“Rarely if ever before has so deep and so general a gloom been cast over the community of this colony as that which has been occasioned by the sad catastrophe which occurred in Torres Straits on the night of the 24th February. The wreck of the R.M.S. Quetta in the vicinity of Adolphus Island with a loss of 173 lives is one of those shocking disasters of the sea which strike nations with sorrow and distress, and leave their painful mark upon the annals of the world’s shipping.”

Source: The Queenslander Saturday 8 March 1890)

I first saw the R.M.S. Quetta tea towel while I was visiting Andy and Joan Csorba, owners of a former Cairns souvenir company in Cairns during the 1980s-1990s called Reef Productions. It was in among a host of other tea towels, napery and linen that I have been assessing for Cairns Museum. Having visited the Quetta Memorial Church on Thursday Island numerous times during my MDO travels, I am familiar with its story and was intrigued by the teatowel and the design.

Initially, I thought my ‘who drew it’ query would be easy to solve. Made from Polish linen, the object has ‘Handprinted by Reef Productions’ printed underneath the image. All I had to do, I reasoned, was ask Andy and Joan. But having had so many designs produced they couldn’t recall who had created the original drawing.

Reef Productions was a souvenir company which started in Cairns in 1970s and ran, under multiple owners, until the late 1990s. Initially, the company produced drawings of local industries, heritage buildings and tourism spots. But when Andy and Joan took over, they diversified and started to work with Indigenous artists and produced cultural designs for screen printing by artists like Thancoupie, Jenuarrie, Heather Walker, Roslyn Kemp and Enoch Tramby.

Given the subject of the tea towel, I wondered whether or not one of these artists had created the piece, or perhaps a Torres Strait Islander living in Cairns. Wrong on all counts. So I continued to research the history of the company, and liaise with other former owners and artists who produced artwork for the prints. Another artist, Jim Arena, shared pictures of all his designs with me so I have a catalogue of his creations. But there was no Quetta on his list.

Discussions with previous owners uncovered the stories behind some of the different commissions that Reef Productions asked the artists to produce. One of these was a line drawing of the new parliament house in Canberra by Dutch-born Ludij Peden. I was thrilled when I found her website and a small video which featured a photo of Ludij with Jenuarrie, Thancoupie, Roslyn and Joan Bouissevain (all of who created work with the Csorbas). It’s the only photograph I’ve ever seen of artists from Reef Productions together. There was also one of Ludij and Andy with the parliament tea towel. Naturally, I made contact. Like Jim, Ludij generously gave me a list of all of her work for Reef Productions. Bingo!

In a follow up email she wrote:
I was commissioned, via Andy, to do the tea towel design of the Quetta sinking for the ladies’ guild of the Anglican Church – for a fundraiser …  They wanted the tea towel to look like the stained glass window in the church – depicting the ship sinking in the storm.

With this mystery solved, I’m now working with staff at Cairns Museum to develop an exhibition of Reef Productions objects and about the people who were involved. Stay tuned for more information. There are examples of Reef Productions items held in both Queensland Museum and the State Library of Queensland. No doubt the information uncovered in this project will contribute additional knowledge to these collections into the future.

Stained glass window in the Quetta Memorial Anglican Church on Thursday Island.
Image: Queensland Historical Atlas.

Valuing shared learning at Herberton Mining Museum

Community collaboration has always been central to my work as a MDO. And, in our current climate, with the restrictions that COVID-19 is placing upon travel and gatherings, I thought I’d tell you about a recent training series I ran at Herberton Mining Museum,

Creating workshops for collection policies and collection management procedures aren’t the easiest topics to be creative with. Just how much fun can you have with a Deed of Gift or a Loans form?  And how do you convince volunteers wary of change that a bit more paperwork and process is a good thing? My challenge was to develop comprehensive AND accessible workshops that made sense to the participants.

Funded through a Community Heritage Grant from the National Library of Australia, the workshops bought together a total of 12 people from six different museum groups: Herberton Mining Museum, Loudoun House Museum, Tolga Museum, Millaa Millaa Museum, Malanda Dairy Centre and Ravenshoe Visitor Information Centre.

Participants in the CHG training at Herberton Mining Museum. (Two missing from Tolga).
Photo: Sherrie-Ann Cockell, Herberton Mining Museum.

Participants congregated (yes, face to face) at Herberton Mining Museum for three weeks of two day training sessions. The first day of each week involved an overview of the principles and examples from the industry. The second day was dedicated to practical reinforcement, and the challenge of adapting perfect museology principles into day to day reality.

The value of people being able to articulate their experience of managing the museum, and outline their successes and frustrations regarding donations, acquisitions and procedures in a collaborative environment is immeasurable. We heard stories about wayward items appearing on museum doorsteps, anonymous donations, lost databases, misplaced loans and cataloguing triumphs.  These helped create a sense of inclusion and camaraderie, and injected a bit of humour into the discussion. Some of the comments on the workshop evaluation forms highlighted the ‘priceless’ nature of shared learning experiences, and the opportunity of hearing from groups struggling with similar issues.

Jo Wills revving up one of the cataloging groups during the training.
Photo: Sherrie-Ann Cockell, Herberton Mining Museum.

Some said the chance to come together helped them ‘regain their mojo’ as they felt cataloguing and some of the processes had been overwhelming them until they heard from others. Benefits were also gleaned from spending time with people they don’t normally work with.

One of the most salient lessons from the training was the need for organisations to have clear volunteer induction procedures. It is reasonable, we decided as a group, that new volunteers understand that volunteering in a museum means you engage with objects and that this has certain responsibilities and requirements.

Groups are now working on developing up policies and procedures, adapting some of the templates I provided as part of the workshops, and reflecting on their induction processes. They are also enjoying the archival and collection management materials that were made possible as part of the grant.

Rob and Helen Fuller and Stacee Hillyard receive archival supplies as part of the training.
Photo: Sherrie-Ann Cockell.

Thanks to Herberton Mining Museum for hosting the training and making everyone feel welcome.

Pause, reflect, learn: FNQ MDO at the SLQ Heritage Leaders Workshop

To be honest I thought I was ‘done’ with First World War projects. But when I was asked to speak about the Anzac Treasures Program at the Heritage Leaders Workshop at State Library Queensland I felt it was recognition for the communities involved and the variety of other projects that happened along the way.

With only ten minutes to talk, there was no time to be expansive. So I chose to focus on the benefits of collaboration and the types of outcomes that emerged or which were connected to the project in some way:

  • collection items that were uncovered or discovered
  • projects that groups undertook either simultaneously or afterwards
  • follow up Anzac Trails projects by Cairns, Tablelands and Mareeba Shire Councils that utilised the graphic identity we created for the exhibition
  • the delivery of the Railways 1914-1918 temporary travelling and production of the Railway Ready: War Ready exhibition that went on display in the Atherton Post Office Gallery a few years later.

It is always good to speak, but sometimes it is even better to listen. And in doing so, I found that I wasn’t quite ‘done’ with the topic after all. I heard representatives from Cherbourg discuss their app and how students are using it, the story of researching nurses in Central Queensland and the importance of remembering and honoring Indigenous soldiers who fought in the war.

I was fascinated, too, to hear about some of the work undertaken internationally. The key note presentation by Jennifer Waldman, Director at the 14-18 Now program in the UK, highlighted innovation, creativity and participation. This program was driven by artist interpretation, clever marketing and, most critically, a very strong sense of identity and audience definition. While the scale of this sort of project is much bigger than some of the things we do in FNQ, there are still some critical take home messages. Planning for, understanding and identifying audiences is such an important part of what we do when we create programs. A great refresher for us all, I think, as we go about our work in the industry after this commemorative odyssey.

Below are some links to a couple of the 14-18 Now projects – I recommend you have a quick look as they were thought provoking and bold. Behind the works there is of course was a plethora of research and details that come from organisations like many of our museums and collecting groups who continue to preserve these stories:†

We’re here because we’re here: a poignant commemoration
of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme
Dazzle Ships
Recoloured/edited film footage by Sir Peter Jackson
Letter from an unknown soldier

Discovering Jack Wilkie’s orchid specimen at Cairns Museum

Earlier this week, I was contacted by Don Lawie, one of the volunteers at Gordonvale’s Mulgrave Settlers Museum. His email contained a link to a newsletter he had recently prepared for the Society for Growing Australian Plants. Don drew my attention to the piece called “Beautiful Plants of the Tropics”, one that he had written following his visit to Cairns Museum for the opening of the latest temporary exhibition. 

I first met Don in my capacity as MDO for FNQ and have always been aware of his knowledge and love of local history and the region, despite his struggles with Parkinson’s Disease. But I didn’t know about Don’s interest in Australian plants, and his article’s closing sentence stopped me in my tracks:

“I will never see D. fleckeri alive, but thanks to Cairns Museum I have seen a lasting specimen collected and mounted by one of my heroes.”

Don Lawie, 2019

Here in a single sentence, Don captures the value of museums: the joy that a single artefact can bring to a visitor, the wonder of ‘the real thing’, the importance of preserving collections, the significance of local collections and the value of sharing knowledge across the community. As a museum worker, this shows me the different ways people access and read the items on display, and it validates my interest in interpreting our environment as part of a region’s social history, and the importance of national history collections and herbariums.

The display corner in Cairns Museum that caught Don’s eye.

Don’s email inspired me to go back into the museum and seek out the display, and to see what it is that captured his imagination. I also got online to find out more about the specimen, dendrobium fleckeri and found that its common name is the apricot cane orchid. I hope to work with Don and use his memories of Babinda’s orchidologist, and former Babinda Mill worker, Jack Wilkie as part of a larger story as we develop Babinda’s new museum. For now, however, I’m just going to share Don’s article (with permission), and the delight of his discovery.

Beautiful plants of the tropics: Dendrobium fleckeri
Don Lawie, 2019

The refurbished Cairns Museum is filled with treasures that recall the past of our part of the world. On a recent visit I was excited to find a treasure that made my heart beat faster and my tremors go into overdrive. There, on the first floor, in an unremarkable corner, was a dried and mounted specimen of a Dendrobium orchid. I found this fascinating since the expertly mounted specimen comprised the entire plant – leaves, rooted stem and inflorescences. I have long understood that such a mounted specimen is impractical due to the general features of a Dendrobium orchid. This specimen was collected on Mount Bartle Frere in 1947 and is still in good condition – good enough for an I.D.

Why does this specimen excite me? The collector was Babinda’s Jack Wilkie. Jack was an indefatigable explorer of the mountains and rivers in the vicinity of Babinda; he found and named a number of orchid species previously unknown to Australia , and several were named in his honour (unfortunately, they had been previously described overseas and so the original name had to supercede the wilkiei name).

I knew Mr Wilkie when I was a boy and he was a loco driver for Babinda Mill. He used to give my brother and me a ride in the steam loco cab when he went down the spur line to our farm at Fig Tree Creek, letting us toss coal into the roaring maw of the fire box. Many years later Pauline and I had the honour of being present when Orchidologist Bill Lavarack presented the Australian Orchid Foundation’s Award of Honour to Jack Wilkie in acknowledgement of his immense contribution to the orchid world. And not many years later I was proud to be able to scatter some home-grown orchid flowers on his grave.

Dendrobium fleckeri occurs mostly on the higher mountains such as Bartle Frere, Bellenden Ker and Mount Lewis at altitudes above 900 metres. It prefers to grow on exposed rocks and can flower at any time of the year. The plant is small – the stems about 30 centimetres long – and the flowers are also small. Common name is Apricot Orchid and it is not found in cultivation since it will only grow in the weather conditions of our highest mountains. So, I will never see D. fleckeri alive, but thanks to Cairns Museum I have seen a lasting specimen collected and mounted by one of my heroes.


‘Dressed to Impress’: Cairns’ museums collaborate to showcase fabulous frocks from the far north

What do you get when you bring together a wedding gown, a ‘fashions on the field’ racing dress, a kaftan, a Chinese silk skirt panel, a debutante gown and a fancy dress costume on International Women’s Day? A window into the lives and creativity of local women from the far north, and a chance to explore their stories!

Following on from the textile training run by Dr Michael Marendy in Cairns last year, museums in the Cairns region have recently celebrated the opening of ‘Dressed to Impress’ at Cairns Museum,  a collaborative exhibition that explored the wearers and makers of  some of the region’s textile treasures. This is the first time the groups have worked in this way and, if the level of participation and the attendance at the opening are anything to go by, it won’t be the last!

Each organisation was asked to choose one garment for inclusion in the show, to undertake research into the history and provenance, and to consider how they want it to be displayed.  Volunteers have contributed considerable time and work to prepare the displays. By combining their own sewing skills with the training from the workshops, they have adapted petticoats to fit the fuller dresses, made textile mounts, designed a full length slip to go under the wedding dress, padded mannequins and created supports for hats. 

Mulgrave Settler’s Museum shortlisted two pieces – and each was so strong we ended up including both. Volunteers contacted both dress donors and arranged for me to meet with them in Gordonvale so that we could find out more.  Owner of the wedding dress, Marlene Moss reminisced about her mother-in-law, renowned local seamstress, Kath Moss. We perused the photographic album that was part of the collection and looked at Kath’s notebooks that held the measurements of women from across the region.

Marlene Moss on her wedding day; one of Kath Moss’ measurement notebooks; the dress on display after hours of preparation.

Carol Lavelle, former owner and wearer of the Cairns Post costume, took the dress to the nursing home to show her mother who had made it in 1956.  Although her mother’s memory is fading, seeing the dress briefly stirred some recognition, a treasured moment for Carol and her family. For me, this illustrates the power of objects and the important role museums can play in reminiscence programs and community well being.  

Carol Lavelle: in the newspaper dress in 1956; with her mum, Callie at the nursing home (Image: Jenny Verrall); at the exhibition opening (Image: Travis Teske).

Babinda contributed a dress worn by Joan Dickson, winner of the inaugural harvest queen competition in 1963. Behind this fairy tale dress, lies the story of a woman who grew up on a cane farm, trained to be a school teacher in Brisbane, made her own clothes and whose knowledge of the sugar industry was critical to her being selected the winner of the competition. Joan was part of a contingent of 14 from Babinda who traveled up to the opening by bus, turning heads when she entered with 2018 Harvest Queen, Demi Bettini.

Harvest Queen Dress installation transformation: backroom preparations (Image: Suzanne Gibson); being installed by volunteers Glenys and Jenni; two Harvest Queens at the opening – Demi Bettini (2018) and Joan Dickson (1962) (Image: Travis Teske).

 

The contribution from CADCAI, via member, Jenni Campbell, showcased a different era of clothing, and a vastly different style. Jenni’s family had kept a chest of garments belonging to her grandmother who moved to Cairns in 1906. The clothing inside is made from exquisite and ornate textiles, most likely imported from China and sewn here. The fragility of the items caused us to be cautious about which pieces to display. Jenni worked meticulously to craft her story and then attach the fabric to the textile support, a technique that Michael Marendy had demonstrated during the workshop.

The kaftan that Celeste Augur donated to Cairns Museum added a pop of colour and vibrancy to the display.  She bought it off the rack from a local retailer and wore it to a Fun in the Sun party during the 1970s. Free flowing and light, it is an example of the changing fashion ‘loosening up’ – rather essential during Cairns’ warmer months!

Cairns designer, Grace Lillian Lee, also loaned a piece for the show, providing a contemporary example of tropical inspired textile ingenuity. Her Great Barrier Reef dress mixed hand printed textiles with metal spikes suggestive of the crown of thorns, and was paired with a woven coral hat that drew on traditional Torres Strait weaving techniques. Grace’s work is now recognised nationally, and she is now working on projects that seek to create opportunities to develop indigenous voices in the textile and fashion industries.

 

 

 

Read the rest of this entry