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Earlier this month I was lucky enough to travel to Muttaburra to deliver some workshops.  Although a (very) small town, Muttaburra boasts two museums – the Dr Arratta Memorial Museum and Cassimatis Store and Cottage –  which are managed by a small but dedicated team of volunteers. Keen to learn about how best to care for and interpret their collections, we devised a series of four workshops covering collection policies, interpretation panels, cataloguing, and object labelling.

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Learning how to make interpretation panels using foam core board.

While we all may know what is exciting and unusual about our own collections, it is worth giving some thought to how we share this with our visitors to make sure we’re providing the best possible experience of what our collections have to offer. During our workshop on interpretation panels, the Muttaburra volunteers thought and talked about how to plan exhibitions and displays (and what’s the difference between the two!), how best to interpret objects to make them accessible and interesting for visitors, and the nuts and bolts of what makes good interpretation panels. Thinking and talking is good, but doing is even better, so the volunteers soon got stuck into making their own interpretation panels. Now armed with the tools of the trade, I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with their new skills!

Writing a Collection Policy may not sound like the most exciting aspect of museum life, but it is really the most important document in helping you manage your collection well. It helps you clearly define all the main aspects of managing your collection, including how you will collect objects, how you will document them, how you will care for them, as well as tackling some of the more tricky issues of deaccessioning and ethical considerations. With two very different collections to manage, some thought had to be given to how to structure the collection policy to best suit their situation, but very quickly the volunteers worked together to painlessly produce a document which will be their first port of call in all important decision making processes.

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Checking to see if our location system works!

Another hallmark of a well managed collection is good documentation, but with backlogs common to all museums, it often gets put in the too hard basket. We spent some time in Muttaburra looking at the processes for accessioning items into the collection, followed by the more detailed work of cataloguing. While some useful work has been done in the past at the Hospital Museum, we had to spend some time trying to establish if previous location systems were still practical, and devising new ones for the Cassimatis Store and Cottage. As always, practice makes perfect so getting their own electronic catalogue started was an important component to the workshop.

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Cassimatis Store display

A good catalogue is of little use if you can’t identify your objects, so applying accession labels to objects was our last topic. Good object labelling, combined with good documentation, is also another weapon in the museum arsenal when confronted with a disaster. There are several options for doing this safely and unobtrusively dependent on the materials of each object, so the volunteers were introduced to a range of techniques. I expect that soon everything that isn’t nailed down will have a number attached to it!

The workshops were funded by the Regional Arts Development Fund through Barcaldine Regional Council. Thanks to the volunteers for being such wonderful hosts and willing students, and also to the volunteers from the Aramac Tramway Museum who made the trip to Muttaburra to take part.  It’s great to see small museums and communities working together. I’m looking forward to seeing more of your new skills in action.

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The only good typewriter is a provenanced typewriter…

It’s probably no secret that typewriters in museum collections generally aren’t my favourite kind of object. There are a few reasons for that, all based on principles of good museological practice. Let me explain…

As I travel the regions I come across many typewriters. They seem to be breeding in collection stores and back sheds. At first there is one and then another. And then another couple that turn up after that. Before you know it they have taken over, like the seagulls in Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds”. If sparrows or starlings are considered to be the rats of the sky, I wonder what this make the venerable museum typewriter?

A proliferance of typewriters in regional museums isn’t necessarily a reason not to include them in a collection. The problem is that many of the typewriters I come across in collections have little or no known provenance. We don’t know who donated them, if they are associated with any particular event, who used them, or even where they came from. As far as being able to use them to illustrate important or interesting local stories, often they aren’t great examples.

Typical typewriter breeding habitat. Note the typewriters lurking under the card index accompanied by their close relative, the adding machine

Typical typewriter breeding habitat. Note the typewriters lurking under the card index accompanied by their close relative, the adding machine

Aside from that, they are big and heavy. Even the “compact” versions are more than capable of wrenching a shoulder or breaking a toe should you decide to tangle with them. In terms of both storage and display, they occupy a significant amount of real estate that could be dedicated to more significant objects. If you have any more than two or three typewriters that you know nothing about, and are concerned about your storage space not having room left for the town survey plans or Mayoral chains, I’m sure you know what I would be putting up high on the deacessioning priority list.

There does seem to be a couple of standard justifications that I hear for having a glut of mystery typewriters in the collection. One is that there are plans afoot to develop a display on the development of typewriters through the ages, from past to present. However, few of the museums with such aspirations consider themselves museums of technology. They are museums that aim to tell the stories of their particular community, not a worldwide perspective on technological advances. Such stories are really out of the context and scope of the museum.

Another reason I hear is that children really enjoy using (read: playing with) them. The “a-ha” factor, where the child draws a connection between the typewriter and the computer, or an understanding the rationale behind the QWERTY keyboard layout* is often cited as being justification for their inclusion. I’m sure that there are children who make the connection and are enlightened by those facts, but I’m not quite convinced that these are the best lessons we have to offer.

We have been seduced by their quaint branding and maker’s marks, often with those nostalgic golden cursive scripts transferred onto a black wrinkle paint finish. Their open construction and visible mechanisms capture our imagination, and test our cognitive ability to predict what will happen inside when we press the button marked with the letter “a”. They are a far cry from our sleek, ergonomically designed smartphones or tablet computers, and we seem to love them for it. Perhaps a little more than is healthy.  Secretly I think there are more than a few others who think these intricate machines might look delightful parted out and turned into artworks, kitsch ornaments or steampunk jewellery. In either case, we seem to find it hard to let them go.

Now, before you lynch me for crucifying this poor, defenceless, much maligned device I need to state that it is possible for me to appreciate the typewriter in a museum context. In fact, it has been one of fantastic typewriter that prompted me to write this blog.

Oliver typewriter at Dayboro Historical Society Museum

Oliver typewriter at Dayboro Historical Society Museum

Recently I enjoyed a visit to the Dayboro Historical Society, and came across this little green beauty. It is an “Oliver” brand- possibly a model 3- that was manufactured in the USA between the 1890’s to late 1920’s. In this particular configuration, the u-shaped type bars that impress the letters onto paper swing down from above, rather than from the front of the machine to back. It’s certainly not like your average Remington.

But it isn’t just the unusual “down strike” format, the age, or the fact that it wasn’t black with pretty writing that I find this particular typewriter interesting and valuable. It was because it was used by David Edgar Evans, a local resident and newspaper correspondent, during the 1930s’. I’m told that Evans would type up his regional reports on this machine before forwarding it through to the Courier Mail for publishing. Unlike a multitude of unprovenanced typewriters sitting on shelves in our museums, its importance doesn’t necessarily lie in it’s ranking in the evolution of the printed word. The significance of this particular item lies in the way that it illustrates how the Dayboro community stayed connected with the rest of Queensland, and the importance of the region in Queensland daily life. It speaks of the means and importance of communication within our state. Through the documents it helped produce,  many years on we know about the issues and events of the time that Queenslanders of the time valued and found important.

This particular typewriter would have played a large part in the recording of many incidents, both great and small: social gatherings, sporting events, births, deaths and marriages. One Dayboro local recalled that “you could barely sneeze around here without it being written up in the paper”. This is one of many typewriters that would have been used to document the very articles that today we use in our research. The Dayboro Historical Society certainly understand the most important aspect of the history of this object.

So perhaps it’s not actually the typewriter that turns my gaze glassy when I encounter them. Maybe I just need to hear more about the unique stories and reasons our communities value them. Do you have a typewriter in your collection with a unique local story? I’d love to hear all about it!

*The QWERTY layout is said to have been designed in order to slow typists words per minute down count down enough so that the machine didn’t jam

A Golden Opportunity for Gold Coast Community Museums

Recently, members of the Gold Coast Heritage Voice network were treated to a behind the Scenes tour of both the John Oxley Library, and the Southbank campus of the Queensland Museum.

Heritage Voice members and Rachel Spano at the SLQ Conservation Lab

Heritage Voice members and Rachel Spano at the SLQ Conservation Lab

Brian Randall , Chrissi Theodosiou and the staff at SLQ were generous enough to retrieve a range of books, posters, maps, photographs, and ephemera all specifically related to the Gold Coast region from their collection stores for the group to view.

Later, Reuben Hillier showed the group through the library repository where the sheer magnitude of the collection and the challenges of providing for an ever-growing collection became apparent. The careful storage and order is undoubtedly a key factor in the JOL being able to respond so quickly to collection viewing requests- largely within the hour!

Rachel Spano greeted us at the SLQ conservation lab, where a number of specialist conservators were at work on fragile paper based objects. The lab has a range of specialist equipment at hand, including some fanciful looking gilding and embossing tools. There was an interesting conversation about the principles behind the appropriate choice of conservation or restoration in a library context, which provided some interesting perspectives compared to a museum standpoint.

At the Museum, Nicholas Hadnutt treated the group to an in-depth examination of the Social History collection stores and the treasures that it holds. While some elements of the collection elicited nostalgic reactions and others confirmed a long history of collecting, all asserted the important role of Queensland Museum as responsible custodians of significant Queensland histories.

Sue from the Kirra Hill Heritage Group get the all clear!

Sue from the Kirra Hill Heritage Group gets the all clear from conservation!

A visit to the conservation lab provided an eye-opening experience, with the opportunity to see the painstakingly precise nature and results of conservation work. Textiles Conservator Dr Michael Marendy shared some simple, yet effective techniques for preserving costumes, while Jenny Blakely and Caroline O’Rorke showcased some current ANZAC related objects being treated.

The visit was facilitated by the Museum Development Office of South East Queensland, Dr Kevin Rains and Jane Austen at Gold Coast City Council, Nick Hadnutt and Jenny Blakely at Queensland Museum Southbank, and Anne Scheu at the State Library of Queensland. A big Thank you to all!

Reinvigorating FNQ’s museum workers and volunteers

Museum workers and volunteers from a range of FNQ museums have been involved in three different workshops over the past six weeks. Workshops offer participants an opportunity to acquire new skills so that they can care for and promote their collections and museums. But it’s important not to overlook the social value of these training sessions and to acknowledge how they reinvigorate the region’s industry and the people who work in it.

The three workshops held were designed to improve museum skills in exhibitions planning, collection management software and timber conservation. Each workshop has been a stand alone event that has been delivered by a different presenter or company.

FNQ MDO Dr Jo Wills delivered the exhibitions planning workshop through Heritage North in Cairns. Representatives from eight different groups from around the Tablelands, Cairns and Innisfail region participated.  Innisfail Historical Society members and Douglas Shire Historical Society representatives, for example, discovered that their collections both hold material related to the Low Isles expedition, and so can share knowledge and resources.

Collections management training for organisations using MOSAiC software was run by the MOSAiC team, Rew and Sally-Anne Whittington, in Cairns. There is now a local network of organisations using this software that can help each other out if they get into difficulties, including two Aboriginal collecting organisations at Kowanyama and Yarrabah.

Adam Godijn, Senior Paintings Conservator at ICS, demonstrates during a timber conservation workshop held at the Cairns and District Chinese Association Inc.

Adam Godijn, Senior Paintings Conservator at ICS, demonstrates during a timber conservation workshop held at the Cairns and District Chinese Association Inc.

Timber conservation workshops were held at CADCAI to conserve some of the nationally significant Lit Sung Goong Temple collection. The workshops were funded through the National Library of Australia’s Community Heritage Grant stream and included bringing two professional conservators from International Conservation Services, Adam Godijn and Oliver Hull, to work on the collection and run a timber preservation workshop. By opening up this training to other collecting groups, CADCAI have offered another workshop and networking opportunity for museum workers in the far north, including Cairns Museum and James Cook Museum in Cooktown.

Jo’s Diary

Menmuny Museum, Yarrabah

Visited Menmuny Museum at Yarrabah to familiarise myself with the collection and facilities. They have some wonderful material in the collection, and some very significant records. I will be working with Trish Barnard, Senior Curator Indigenous Studies, Queensland Museum, who will deliver collection management training over three days. I am also going to help Michael Marzik set up their digitisation station and run digitisation training.