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
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.
“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.
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!