“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For the last few months I’ve been working on a number of projects that represent the regions diverse geography, history and communities. Rather than present a series of finished stories, this time I thought I’d showcase work that is underway. For each of the projects, the groups or organisations are undertaking something they’ve not attempted previously. None of them would be possible without the energy and enthusiasm of the various volunteers and community advocates – it’s the lifeblood of our industry.
A museum for Babinda
When Babinda Mill closed down in 2011, many people thought this small town would struggle to survive. They were sorely mistaken. In August last year, I was approached to provide Babinda Taskforce with advice about how to set up a museum. Motivated by the redeveloped Cairns Museum, and a desire to stimulate tourism and preserve history, this group aimed to set up displays in one of the shops on the town’s main street. But we had to start from scratch.
After running some introductory training, I then developed a strategic plan to get the project underway. Meanwhile, the Taskforce sought support from interested locals and created a museum subcommittee which began identifying objects and stories they wished to include. Funding was received funding through local council to develop curatorial and design concepts. We began an Indigenous liaison process to make sure cultural issues are respected and considered during the projects development. And, we have recently secured some of Queensland Museum’s recycled showcases to help realize the project. (Now all we have to do is get them up here!)
As the curatorial and design work has been developing, the Taskforce has been applying for grants and funding to support the building and fit out work. Local builders have been approached to be involved in renovating the space. While it’s been busy, the energy and enthusiasm of those involved in this project is inspiring. All of this is mixed in with a lot of good humour and local ingenuity – essential ingredients for a project like this!
Queensland Rail Movable Cultural Heritage & Normanton Railway Station Museum
Located on the edge of Normanton in the north west gulf country, the heritage listed Normanton Railway Station has a long and somewhat unusual history. Now one of the jewels in the town’s tourism crown, most visitors enjoy the small railway museum located at the station before boarding the historic Gulflander and heading out to Critters Camp or going onto Croydon.
The museum collection is eclectic – it reflects the region’s pastoral and social history as well as the story of rail. Station’s Officer in Charge, Ken Fairbairn, has been keen to get assistance with the museum’s collection management for a number of years. Now, through the assistance of Queensland Rail, the MDO program is about to start a project that aims to provide cataloging and policy advice for Queensland Rails movable heritage collections, and that involves practical work and training at Normanton Railway Station Museum.
Developing a keeping place for Napranum
In September I traveled up to Napranum, Mapoon and Weipa with historian Geoff Wharton to get an insight into the cultural heritage of the Western Cape. The main purpose of our trip was to begin discussions about developing a keeping place at Napranum in conjunction with the Shire Council. Geoff, who has a long association with Weipa and Napranum, a thorough knowledge of the region’s culture and connections with relevant community representatives, was the perfect person with whom to travel to there for the first time.
Since my visit, Napranum Shire Council staff have visited a couple of different museums in the Cairns CBD with me to give them an understanding of the different types of infrastructure and displays that can be set up. We have also undertaken research into funding opportunities, and are investigating ways to integrate relevant training in community.
Whilst in Weipa, Geoff also took me to the Cape York Collection, held at the Hibberd Library where he works as honorary curator. What a treat! And, what an amazing collection of cultural, technical and scientific material that provides an insight into the region’s diversity and history.
“Dressed to Impress” – a collaborative exhibition for Cairns Museum
As noted in my previous post, Michael Marendy’s textile training in June inspired everyone and got us focused on fashion. Apart from groups having a better understanding of how to manage, store and display textiles , one of the outcomes from his visit will be a small textile display, due to go on display early 2019. Representatives of Cairns Museum, Cairns and District Chinese Association, Mulgrave Settlers Museum and Babinda Museum have come together to start discussing which items they want to include, undertake some research and create an interpretation approach.
Since opening in 2017, Cairns Museum has been working tirelessly to produce a suite of exhibitions for their temporary gallery. This textile display, with a working title of “Dressed to Impress”, will be the first time the small museums of the Cairns region come together to produce a group show. Cairns Museum Manager, Suzanne Gibson, and I are also seeking to include works of some contemporary local designers including Grace Lillian Lee and Vivienne Francine to ensure there is some contrast between old and new. Stay tuned for more details.
As many museum followers know, Cairns is home to a nationally significant collection of Chinese artefacts known as the Lit Sung Goong temple collection. Cared for by the Heritage Group at Cairns and District Chinese Association Inc. (CADCAI), this collection tells the story of early migration and settlement, of business connections and acumen, religious practices and artistic skill and craftsmanship.
What many do not know, however, is that CADCAI is seeking support to build a new Chinese Cultural Centre. A new facility would support CADCAI’s vast array of activities, and be a place to preserve and display the Lit Sung Goong collection and explore Chinese-Australian history. Development plans and concepts are already underway, but there is still much to do before their vision can be realised.
Over the past two months, CADCAI volunteers have been working with Dr Jo Wills, MDO in Cairns, to develop display panels and banners that can be used in both temporary exhibitions and to promote CADCAI’s activities throughout the year. Following a successful RADF application to Cairns Regional Council, the group has undertaken exhibition concept development training with the MDO, text writing activities and worked with a local graphic designer. They are grateful to Cairns Historical Society and Museum for lending them showcases to display some of the collection.
Using the history of the temple, the Chinese history of Cairns and the preservation of the collection as a starting point, the banners, panels and object cases illustrate the exquisite beauty of this collection, and highlight the role played by Chinese settlers to the region. They also highlight the work that has already gone into preserving these items, and the passion of those involved. This background research and work with the collection has been so important for developing these exhibition materials. Follow this link to see a few of CADCAI’s short videos that feature the collection and volunteers.
For those based in Cairns, make sure you visit the updated CADCAI display on Grafton Street this Saturday as part of the Chinese New Year street festival and visit the festival website to find out what else is on. 恭喜發財 – Gong Xi Fa Cai – Happy Chinese New Year. 2017 is the Year of the Rooster!
For those of you not familiar with Cairns’ Chinese heritage, here is a chance for a sneak peak into CADCAI’s (Cairns and District Chinese Association Inc) collection rooms and activities. Recently, four volunteers from CADCAI – Julie, Jackie, Ann and Emma – participated in a video making workshop run by ABC Open in Cairns. Over two days they scripted, filmed and produced a short promotional clip designed to entice visitors to their rooms in Cairns.
Their production showcases the region’s Chinese history and promotes the work they do to preserve the remarkable Lit Sung Goong Temple Collection. Salvaged by members of the Cairns Temple Society in 1964, this rare and beautiful collection comprises more than 250 individual objects. The Lit Sung Goong Temple Collection is representative of late 19th century Southern Chinse religious artefact production and is one of the most complete and virtually intact collections of Imperial Chinese temple fittings in Australia.
Follow the link to see the video CADCAI’s volunteers produced during the workshop: http://vimeo.com/71074565/