As you may have read in Melanie’s significance post , a key component of a significance assessment is understanding the provenance of individual items, or the collection as a whole. But what happens when there isn’t as much documentation as you might like? How can you understand what you are looking at, where it comes from, what it means, assign a degree of significance, or make use of it in any way other than telling the most generic, commonplace histories? The simple truth is that you can’t, and you are going to need to find out more! In this blog I’d like to share a particular experience in object research that took an item from barely being understood to… well.. let’s just say something more than that!
I came across this chair while undertaking a significance assessment recently. It’s a well-crafted timber chair, stately perhaps, but not overly elaborate or ornate. The height, accentuated by its pointed top and acorn shaped finials, gives this chair a real sense of presence in the room compared with other more regular seats. It seems that while it can fulfil its purpose as a place to sit, there is more to it than just that. The object label simply reads “Masonic Chair”.
None of the museum records available to me could provide any elaboration about this particular chair. By the rationale and logic of the Museum’s collection policy, it may have come from the local Freemasons lodge. But a staff member mentioned that they thought it may have come from a Masonic Temple in Pomona (a nearby town in another local government area). All very interesting, but what was its history and how did it get to be in this collection?
First things first, I had to make sure that the chair was indeed Masonic. Other benevolent societies that are sometimes confused with Freemasons (such as the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, or the Manchester Unity Independent order of Oddfellows) operated throughout Queensland. While I was confident that it was Masonic, some quick background research confirmed that the design of the chair and its motifs are common to furniture associated with Freemasonry. Since I was in the area at the time, I was able to arrange a meeting with some local Freemasons who were able to shed some light on their organisation’s local history, some basic information about the types of furniture you might come across in a lodge, organisational hierarchy, and some of their donations of objects to the museum over the years. They identified the chair as being used by the Master Masons of a lodge, and pointed out that there were other similar- though slightly different- chairs that were also used during their private rituals. While we identified that the collection held other undocumented Masonic items gifted to the museum, no one was sure if this chair in particular came from the local lodge.
During our examinations, we turned our attention to the small engraved presentation plate at the head of the chair that listed the name of the person who presented it, their title, a date, some flourishes and a hallmark. The name and date on the plate didn’t match any listed on their local lodge honor boards, but the name seemed familiar.
Who was Bro. W. Hodge, who did he present this chair to, and why?
To be continued…
Significance. It’s a term we use frequently in museums. But what does it actually mean, and how can we apply it to our collections? Having just undertaken site visits to two collections for significance assessments, and with the Community Heritage Grants open to fund significance assessments, now seems like a good time to dip a toe in the sea of significance.
Understanding significance provides us with a framework to explain why an item or collection is important or valued. Through research and an application of a standard set of criteria, we are able to define the characteristics that make an object or collection significant without reference to personal interests. We can apply the principles of significance to managing our collections on an almost daily basis.
Significance 2.0 is the guiding document for understanding how to use significance. It explains the four primary criteria (historic; artistic or aesthetic; scientific or research; social or spiritual) and four comparative criteria (provenance; rarity or representativeness; condition or completeness; interpretive capacity).
I have recently conducted two site visits for significance assessments, at Greycliffe and Kilburnie Homesteads in the Banana Shire. These assessments have an added dimension as both buildings are on the state heritage register. The built heritage has therefore already been identified as significant, so how the collection relates to the building and allows it to be interpreted needs to be considered.
By applying the significance criteria to the collections at Greycliffe and Kilburnie Homesteads I am able to identify in what ways they are significant. Both have historic significance for their ability to demonstrate a pattern of life (particularly pastoralism, but the collection at Greycliffe also encompasses other industries important to the region, such as dairying and cotton growing). Perhaps unusually, both also have items of artistic or aesthetic significance. This is especially the case for Kilburnie, once the home of noted artist Ruby Campbell. Not only is the collection rich in her works, but also those of other artists she collected. And finally, both collections have considerable research significance, with a wealth of archives and photographs providing a fertile ground for potential researchers. As for the comparative criteria, the majority of both collections have good provenance, are in good condition, and have very high interpretive value, allowing their custodians to tell compelling stories about the history of their region.
While I undertake further research into these collections to provide their custodians with a comprehensive significance assessment, consider how you might be able to apply the criteria to your collection. If you have questions about significance, ask your local MDO – they will be happy to guide you!
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.
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 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.
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.
Thanks to Herberton Mining Museum for hosting the training and making everyone feel welcome.
“Everybody… it’s going to get LOUD!”
So warned Cairns Museum Manager, Susan Gibson, as CADCAI’s lion dancers and musicians geared up to begin their performance. Celebrating the Chinese New Year of the Metal Rat, and the opening of the latest temporary exhibition, dancers made their way through the museum and the crowd, bringing blessings, energy and great joy to this event.
“Two Worlds” is a collaborative exhibition developed by Cairns Museum and CADCAI. It tells the story of Chinese Australians in Cairns from World War II to the 1960s. Drawing on oral histories conducted with five of Cairns’ Chinese elders, the exhibition showcases candid family photographs from the Chinese community and uses quotes to bring them to life. The interviews explored the challenges these elders faced as they navigated through worlds of tradition and modernity, of how they challenged and embraced these contradictions, and of how they overcame discrimination with strength, humour and determination.
As MDO, I also value this exhibition as an exemplar of great community engagement. This is the second exhibition they have co created for Chinese New Year, and illustrates the benefits of shared knowledge, resources and facilities, and a commitment to explore and present new ideas and local stories.
And, yes, it was loud. Kids zoomed around the displays. Adults hastily prepared red envelopes as offerings to the lions. The balcony was full of people catching up on local news and sweating in the afternoon heat. People were everywhere, and the museum hummed with life.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.