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Adaptation and collaboration: creating the gallery for “Cooktown’s War”


Cooktown’s War: final exhibition in one of the nun’s cells at James Cook Museum, Cooktown. Photo: Ewen McPhee.

Like many museums across Queensland, James Cook Museum received funding from the Anzac Centenary Local Grants Program. Designed to showcase the museum’s First World War collections, the grant also included time for Ewen and I to provide onsite advice, reconfigure the gallery space and install the exhibition.

When Kate Eastick took over the reins as the museums new curator, however, she decided to refocus the exhibition to tell stories from the home front and the local community, and identified a different space for the exhibition. This change responded, in part, to some of the stories and objects Kate uncovered during her research. An unexpected find, for example, was a hand crocheted square (pictured below). She was also keenly aware of Cooktown History Centre’s Behind the Lines Exhibition, which provides detailed biographies of Cooktown’s soldiers and their wartime experiences.

Cooktown’s War creates an additional narrative layer to Cooktown’s war stories and reveals the impact of the First World War on Cooktown residents. And by working with members of the History Centre, the exhibition demonstrates the benefits of two of Cooktown’s premier collecting organisations pooling resources and knowledge. Shared photos and research have meant that details about rifle clubs, and Chinese business owners and war loans have been placed on display. Difficulties surrounding Indigenous enlistment are explored through archives and portraits of Charles and Norman Baird, brothers who were among Queensland’s Indigenous soldiers from the region.  Stories of  Red Cross fundraising initiatives and women’s patriotic activities have been woven into the exhibition framework through evocative photographs (see below). Kate also included a contemporary story using a uniform and images from the 100 years commemorative march held in Cooktown this year.

Changes to the project meant that Ewen and I also had to make adjustments.  The alternative gallery space meant Ewen had to install a new hanging system and different types of framing mounts and matts were required. By coincidence, Cooktown’s timber honour board, already on the display, is located outside the gallery. This, and a poster created to promote the exhibition, created a nice entry to the gallery. I had to remove some photos and posters from damaged frames for conservation and display purposes. I also made a range of different mounts and object supports, and generally extended my sewing skills!  Of course, label making is always a feature for this type of project, but I can advise that the degree of difficulty definitely increases as the temperature and humidity rises!

MDOs have to be fairly versatile and responsive whilst in the field. As James Cook Museum had recently had a serious pest issue in its Indigenous display cabinets, we took time out from the exhibition to reline the cases with unbleached calico and then reinstall all the objects that had been treated prior to our arrival.

Follow up from Cyclone Nathan, FNQ

Preparation for Cyclone Nathan at James Cook Museum, Cooktown, March 2015.  Image: Jacqui Collins-Herrmann, Manager, James Cook Museum.

Preparation for Cyclone Nathan at James Cook Museum, Cooktown, March 2015.
Image: Jacqui Collins-Herrmann, Manager, James Cook Museum.

After two weeks of watching and waiting as Cyclone Nathan carved an erratic path back and forth across the Coral Sea, it finally passed over the FNQ coast on Friday/Saturday between Cape Flattery and Cape Melville. This more northerly crossing meant that the museums in Cooktown were spared the worst of the severe winds, and the museum at Coen did not experience adverse weather.  A number of these organisations are housed in heritage buildings. During cyclone season, we always reflect on the vulnerability of these buildings to heavy rain and cyclonic weather, particularly if they have sustained damage from previous weather events.

As usual, MDOs worked with groups in the immediate vicinity pre and post cyclone to discuss their preparations and contingencies, and to offer advice and support. We are pleased to advise that none of the organisations sustained significant damage or impact. Staff and volunteers at James Cook Museum, Nature’s Powerhouse, Cooktown History Centre and Cape York Heritage House all did a fantastic job during the lead up phase to ensure that collections, data and buildings were as prepared and protected as they could be.

Cyclone preparation and clean up can be an exhausting process – at work and at home. And it always disrupts work on other projects.   For Cooktown History Centre, Cyclone Nathan meant putting on hold their research and preparations for the new exhibition they plan to open for Anzac Day.  Spare a thought for these groups now as they clean up, reopen and get back to the business (and pleasure) of running museums.


MDO’s in Coen post Cyclone Ita

Traveling along the Peninsula Development Road up to Coen.

Traveling along the Peninsula Development Road up to Coen.

Almost a month after Cyclone Ita threatened communities along the Far North Queensland coast, it is great to see museums in the Cook Shire back in business and getting ready for the tourist season. The museums and collecting groups in the region did a great job with their disaster preparedness – it’s fortunate that the predicted impact did not eventuate for these organisations. After being in close contact with the groups during the lead up to the cyclone, it was great for the MDOs for Far North Queensland and North Queensland to travel to the region and undertake some practical work with communities.

Cape York Heritage House, Coen

Cape York Heritage House, Coen

Displays at Cape York Heritage House, Coen

Displays at Cape York Heritage House, Coen

Telegraph Station Displays at Cape York Heritage House, Coen

Telegraph Station Displays at Cape York Heritage House, Coen

Last week, Jo Wills and Ewen McPhee traveled up the Peninsula Development Road to Coen to work with Gail and Peter Clark at Cape York Heritage House. There is always something to see and enjoy while traveling through this magnificent country – this time there was much more water around, and small billabongs and water lilies were evident along the roadside. It was also good to see that heritage places like the Musgrave Telegraph Station were still standing strong. Unfortunately, as the road through Lakeland National Park was closed we couldn’t visit Old Laura Homestead to see how that had fared.

Jo and Ewen have worked at Cape York Heritage House in Coen for the last three years, each time helping the local volunteers to clean, refresh, reinvigorate and reinstall displays. Every year, the volunteers pack down the museum for the wet season and reinstall at the beginning of May. In addition to the usual work, this year the MDO’s helped Gail begin work on a new policing display, put up some information about WWI, cleaned up the mining machinery display and developed plans for future projects in the region.

After three days in Coen, the MDOs headed back to Cooktown to James Cook Museum and Nature’s Powerhouse. Although cyclone damage is a little more evident there, again it is nowhere near the predicted impact.

Stay tuned for more entries about the MDO’s recent activities in Cooktown.

beautiful cases

Old Queensland Museum cases, Cloncurry.

Timber display cabinets that once housed Queensland Museum’s collections in Brisbane have been unearthing themselves in museums throughout the State.  Mary Kathleen Park in Cloncurry and James Cook Museum in Cooktown have both been visited recently by Cairns based MDO, Jo Wills, and Townsville based Ewen McPhee where they came accross the cases.  Further enquiries also found them in Kingaroy at the Kingaroy Heritage Museum.  All of the cases appear to be in good condition, and most are intact with early glass and are being used as intended – to display the State’s moveable cultural heritage.  They are also a collection object in themselves.

The cases came from the Old Queensland Museum in Brisbane when it was located in the Brisbane Exhibition Hall from 1899. Queensland Museum remained in this building until 1986 when a new Queensland Cultural Centre was constructed. In fact the cases may be even older than the Exhibition Hall phase as there were earlier buildings that were also used by Queensland Museum.  For a history on other buildings used by the Queensland Museum have a look at this blog here.

Old Queensland Museum cases, Cloncurry.

Please leave a comment or get in touch if you know any more about the history of these display cases or if your local museum or collecting place has some as well.

Old Queensland Museum cases, Cooktown.

Old Queensland Museum cases, Kingaroy.