Blog Archives

“In the Path of the Storm” – Mackay’s 1918 cyclone

Last month four museums in the Mackay region collaborated on an exhibition to mark the 100th anniversary of the cyclone which struck the region on January 20th 1918. The exhibition was valuable in not only gathering together information and objects to commemorate this devastating event, but also in acting as a timely reminder of our continued vulnerability to severe weather events.

The cyclone, considered a category 4 in today’s system, caused widespread devastation from Mackay and down the coast as far as Yeppoon and Rockhampton. It was responsible for substantial losses in the sugar and beef industries, and claimed 30 lives in Mackay.  Mackay Museum, Greenmount Homestead, Pioneer Valley Museum, and Sarina District Historical Centre collaborated with the assistance of Mackay Regional Council and the MDO programme to gather together information, photographs and objects to create “In the Path of the Storm”. By combining in this way to produce the exhibition, the museums were able to present a region wide interpretation of the event and its impacts.

By the very nature of the event the museums were commemorating, objects were going to be hard to come by. But the museums demonstrated what treasure troves community collections can be. Greenmount Homestead contributed a diary kept by Albert Cook at the time of the cyclone as well as an impressive print by Tom Roberts which had been water damaged at the homestead during the cyclone, and which still bore the watermarks. Mackay Museum contributed a model of the brave little Eleanor, the only vessel to survive the cyclone intact and which was crucial in the recovery efforts in the days following the cyclone, when Mackay was completely isolated from the rest of the world. The original vessel is on display at the Mackay Museum. On loan to Mackay Museum from the Queensland Museum collections were the twisted remains of the Brinawarr, a steamship which broke free from its moorings during the cyclone and crashed into the bridge over the Pioneer River, severing communications between north and south Mackay. The remains of the Brinawarr were only rediscovered during the construction of a new bridge in 2009.

The exhibition was held in the Jubilee Community Centre and was the first major exhibition in this new space created from the former library. Community response to the exhibition has been enthusiastic, with many visitors engaging through opportunities to tell their own family’s story of the cyclone. One hundred years on, memories of the event passed down are still painful and vivid.

The exhibition banners have now left the Jubilee Community Centre and begun a tour of the region, first stop Melba House at Marian. So keep a weather eye for the banners coming to a venue near you!

Winton one year on

The early hours of Saturday July 18th will mark the first anniversary of the fire which claimed the Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton.  It has been a long hard road for the volunteers of the Winton District Historical Society so it is timely to reflect on the enormous amount they have achieved since the devastating impact of the fire. Previous blogs have detailed the remarkable results achieved by conservators on a number of significant objects (Winton Fire response – Waltzing Matilda Centre, Winton Fire Response – the next phase of recovery, Phoenix objects from Winton, The conservation of a fire damaged print), but the work hasn’t stopped there.

Since March 21st the volunteers have opened those areas of the complex unaffected by the fire on a daily basis, and have welcomed over 1800 visitors. Although displays in the main Waltzing Matilda Centre were impacted by the fire, there’s still plenty for visitors to see in the museum complex with a fascinating range of cultural and natural history objects from the region on display.  Visitors can also see objects salvaged from the fire and the ongoing work of volunteers in conserving them.

The Waltzing Matilda Story, which previously formed part of the Billabong Show in the Centre, was saved from the fire and can be viewed in the Sarah Riley Theatre, which has also played host to a variety of community activities since the fire, including Waltzing Matilda Day, a famil tour and smoko for interstate journalists, and a free talk on overshots in Western Queensland by historian Sandi Robb.

In amongst all this activity, the volunteers have continued to work steadily through the objects still requiring attention.  Locals and visitors have also donated their time and expertise in the ongoing cleaning process, and the Winton Creative Arts Group have achieved stunning results with some of the collection, reading room, and storage furniture, with 11 large items and 12 chairs restored.

With all these achievements it’s easy for outsiders to forget the physical and emotional toll a disaster such as this takes on those who face loss and damage of their treasured collections.  But the images below demonstrate just what a huge accomplishment the successes of the past year have been.  The Winton District Historical Society are collaborating with Council, architects and the curatorial team on plans for the new Waltzing Matilda Centre, incorporating the museum precinct, and we can’t wait to see what they’ll do next.

Follow the new Centre’s progress at Waltzing Matilda Centre


Cyclone Season and Preparation

With the first low developing in the Coral Sea it is a good time to enact your cyclone preparedness plans.

Usually this should involve:

  • checking that all volunteers and local council staff are aware and have read the cyclone preparedness plan, and understand what need to be done if a cyclone watch is declared;
  • checking your disaster response bin and ensuring that it is up to date with the list enclosed in the bin (see below for list);
  • ensuring a recent backup of all computer files has been carried out, or check that routine automatic backup systems are working and up to date;
  • ensuring the museum curator and office holders have updated personal contact details for each other stored in their personal mobile phones;
  • checking the list of phone contacts for volunteers, local council contacts and emergency services;
  • checking local council cyclone plans;
  • checking that any procedures dealing with post disaster event are located in a safe place and that volunteers and staff  are aware of these;
  • locating all keys to display cabinets, testing that all locks work and access is available to remove objects. Storing the keys in the key safe and ensuring volunteers and staff know how to access;
  • ensuring collection items and display images have been updated and that volunteers and staff are aware;
  • ensuring any loaned objects are assessed and that they are returned if practical. Contacting lenders and make them aware that cyclone season is approaching;
  • cleaning all gutters, down pipes and removing overhead branches

Your disaster bin should be located in an area that is readily accessible and should have a list, kept with the bin, stating what the contents are.  It is important to replace things like batteries and review its contents on a regular basis.


  • 1 torch
  • 1 head torch
  • 1 spare battery
  • 10 metres plastic sheeting
  • 2 rolls waterproof tape
  • 1 pair scissors
  • 1 stanley knife
  • 4 packets paper towelling
  • 40 Chucks wipes
  • 1 sponge mop
  • 1 spare mop sponge
  • 1 hand sponge
  • 1 plastic bucket
  • 1 brush & pan
  • 8 garbage bags
  • 2 boxes nitrile gloves
  • 1 large & 1 medium rubber gloves
  • 2 dust masks
  • 2 waterproof pens
  • 30 tyvek labels & ties
  • 1 roll cotton tape
  • 1 notebook
  • 2 pens
  • 30 ziplock bags


Example of disaster supply bin - cable tie shut and cut when needed.  This will mean that supplies aren't used for general cleaning purposes

Example of disaster supply bin – cable tie shut and cut when needed. This will mean that supplies aren’t used for general cleaning purposes


For more information about cyclone and disasters preparation, visit some of the Museum Development Officer previous blog posts or contact us.



Tips on salvaging fire damaged collections

Given the recent fire at the Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton, it is timely to share a few tips and useful websites on salvaging fire damaged objects.

Below I have outlined the basic salvage procedure. For more information please refer to the provided websites or contact your local MDO or a qualified conservator for specific advice.


Gentle reminder: Make sure your disaster preparedness plan is up to date and those involved in the disaster team are familiar with its contents and have received recent hands on salvage training.

Flood relief effort wins award

The MDO program recently received a Gallery and Museum Achievement Award (gamaa), presented by Museum and Gallery Services Queensland, for their flood relief work.  The award was given in the category of Organisations: staff of 4 or more.  Please see below  for the project summary and the judges citation.


In early 2013, floods devastated regions of Queensland, in particular around the Wide Bay/Burnett area. The MDOs converged to provide a professional, first-response disaster service to museum communities in Gayndah and Bundaberg. The MDOs worked with volunteers and staff at each location to ensure that any major decisions regarding the damaged collections were made jointly. Conscious not to use emergency resources or facilities needed for those who had endured significant loss, the MDOs brought mobile accommodation to deliver conservation and museum disaster procedures on-site, which allowed for limited but practical training to be undertaken. Being on-site also provided professional and emotional support through reassurance that community collections could be rebuilt, and that response efforts were supported. The MDO Blog played an important role in the dispersal of information and informed peers and the general public of the work being undertaken. The MDOs developed a professional relationship with these organisations based on mutual respect and understanding. They returned to Gayndah in October where they assisted in the conservation of the paper and photographic material that had been frozen immediately after the flood event. The MDOs were able to train the volunteers, thus allowing them to complete the process of first response action right through to reinstating the collection and its ongoing management.

mdo gamaa award
MDO gamaa award

MDO gamaa award

Image: Helen Pithie, Deborah Bailey, Josh Tarrant, Lydia Egunnike, Ewen McPhee and Dr Joanna Wills with Hon Ian Walker, Minister for Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts. Photographer: Chelsea Sipthorp


In choosing the 2013 Queensland Museum MDO Flood Response as the Winner in this category, the judges acknowledged the Museum Development Officer Program’s outstanding leadership in harnessing their training and knowledge to provide front-line support to communities in recovery. Their demonstration of best practice, and the creation of a learning environment for all involved (including themselves), resulted in a streamlined approach to the care and safeguard of collections at risk. The judges also recognised not only the professional support provided to these organisations by the MDOs, but also the personal commitment – living in campervans and working side by side with affected volunteers and staff in the midst of mud, water, mould and debris.

For a full list of other gamaa winners please see the Museum and Gallery Services Queensland website here.

Gayndah Flood Recovery Phase Two

In February 2013 communities in the Bundaberg, Burnett and Frazer Coast region were inundated by flood waters in the wake of ex tropical cyclone Oswald. In an initial disaster response, Queensland Museum’s MDO team worked with museums at Gayndah, Bundaberg and Maryborough to salvage collection material, and provided assistance to museums faced with the massive clean up task.

Eight months later, five MDOs, and Queensland Museum’s Director of Regional Services, Deborah Bailey, returned to Gayndah to help volunteers deal with the next phase of disaster recovery. The three day trip was also a chance for the MDOs and volunteers to get some invaluable applied onsite training.

Earlier posts on the blog outline the process for freezing paper-based materials.  Frozen material can be dealt with later, at a more convenient time for people whose lives have been disrupted by a disaster.

Packages of frozen documents defrosting from Gayndah and District Historical Society. (Photo: Lydia Egunnike).

Packages of frozen documents defrosting from Gayndah and District Historical Society. (Photo: Lydia Egunnike).

To prepare for the unfreezing process, Gayndah and District Historical Society volunteers removed the wrapped packages from the freezer two days before the MDOs arrived. They wrapped them in towels and placed them in an undercover, shaded area to slowly defrost.

Lydia Egunnike, MDO for the southern inland region, organised all materials needed for the workshop, including vast quantities of paper towels, plastic spatulas and clean water. John Wein, the Secretary of the Historical Society, ensured there were plenty of fly screens on hand that could be used for drying racks, bricks to make tables higher and prevent sore backs, and food for a hungry work crew!

Activities on the first morning involved setting up works stations and drying stations both inside and on the museum verandah.

Deborah Bailey and Helen Pithe ensure fly screens used for drying stations are free of dirt. (Photo: Ewen McPhee).

Deborah Bailey and Helen Pithie ensure fly screens used for drying stations are free of dirt. (Photo: Ewen McPhee).

Jo Wills and Ewen McPhee cover fly screens with absorbent material to make a drying station. (Photo: Helen Pithe).

Jo Wills and Ewen McPhee cover fly screens with absorbent material to make a drying station. (Photo: Helen Pithie).

Lydia then provided preliminary training on how to carefully separate documents, what to do if they were stuck together, how to clean away residual dirt and mud, and how to start drying them properly.

Lydia Egunnike demonstrates how to separate and clean defrosted items rescued from the floods. (Photos: Helen Pithe).

Lydia Egunnike demonstrates how to separate and clean defrosted items rescued from the floods. (Photos: Helen Pithie).

Each MDO and the six volunteers (John Wein, Mary McIntyre, Brian and Sue Hutchinson, Jamie Wilson and Judith Woodman-Heuth) then set about working through the bundle of frozen documents. With John providing advice about which documents or materials they could discard, much time was saved. John also started the process of scanning dried documents that contained important information but which were not going to be kept due to damage, mould and/or general condition.

Drying booklets, folders and archives was a primary goal. Items were interleaved with paper toweling, often two or three times over the course of the site visit. Some material was stuck together so tightly it needed to be re-submerged in clean water or re-wet and gently prised apart using finer, more professional conservation tools.

Josh Tarrant separating the pages of a manual. (Photo: Helen Pithe).

Josh Tarrant separating the pages of a manual. (Photo: Helen Pithie).

Helen Pithe at work table. (Photo: Ewen McPhee).

Helen Pithe at work table. (Photo: Ewen McPhee).

Interleaving a ledger with paper towels to help the drying process. (Photo: Helen Pithe).

Interleaving a ledger with paper towels to help the drying process. (Photo: Helen Pithie).

At the end of the three days, all frozen items had been assessed with the drying process underway. This was possible because of the large number of volunteers and MDOs available, but also due to the organisation and planning that had gone into preparing for the activity.

Many thanks again to the Historical Society at Gayndah volunteers for making the MDO team feel welcome and keeping us well fed.

Cyclone Display now open in Cardwell

Hinkler Hall of Aviation – MDO flood recovery work

Gayndah Museum flood recovery

Bundaberg Railway Historical Society and ex cyclone Oswald