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What lies beneath… three objects that have helped us view the reef

The Marine Wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, Tourism Poster, Percy Trompf, 1933. National Library of Australia.

The Marine Wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, Tourism Poster, Percy Trompf, 1933. National Library of Australia.

People’s desire to see  beneath the surface of the sea has inspired a myriad of underwater viewing objects and inventions. From hollow reeds to Leonardo Da Vinci’s early diving apparatus, there has been a whole raft of weird and wonderful creations inspired by our fascination with coral and the reef.

I’ve been exploring the way people have viewed coral recreationally on the Great Barrier Reef and around Cairns as part of my research for Cairns Museum’s new exhibitions. Drawing on material culture and academic research, I’ve found we can make some interesting observations about north Queensland’s contribution to the evolution of coral viewing.

Early visitors to the reef used hand held viewing devises known as coralscopes, waterscopes or glass bottom floats. Made from aluminum and a clear Perspex or glass, these were either boxes or tubes that were held over the side of the boat and provided the user with a stable viewing lens.

“The exclusion of surface turbulence meant that the scene through a waterscope was sometimes in stark contrast to the surface of the water … The waterscope thus opened up, not only fear, but a delight in the other that constituted the underwater world.” (Celmara Pocock, (2003). Romancing the Reef: history, heritage and the hyper-real. PhD thesis, James Cook University, p. 231).

Queensland Museum holds one example in its collection (see below). Cairns Museum and the State Library of Queensland hold a range of photographs that illustrate people viewing coral over the side of the boat. Does anyone know of other examples in other collections around the state or country?

Glass bottom boats were another early form of coral viewing. In 1937, the Hayles family launched the worlds first glass bottom boat at Green Island. Accompanied by music, these boats were ‘allowed to drift over deep channels so that passengers can view the teeming waterlife through the glass in the bottom.'(Tourism Guide book) Adapted later in the 1940s, these vessels continue to be used on the reef today, providing access to the underwater world for those who prefer not to immerse themselves.

Local entrepreneurs Lloyd Grigg and Vince Vlassof, were involved in creating another underwater viewing first for the region. In 1954, they opened the Green Island Underwater Observatory, a 10m chamber with 22 port holes, situated at the end of the jetty. Bought for 400 pounds, it was converted from an underwater diving chamber used in WW2 to erect pylons, and taken out to the island and sunk into position.  A shop and residence were erected above it and coral formations bought in from other reefs to attract fish. The underwater observatory remains on the jetty but is no longer open to the public.

New innovations, like the Scubadoo – an underwater scooter – and more advanced diving equipment have revolutionised the way we interact with and view the reef. But these three objects provide special insight into the innovations the region has used to make the Great Barrier Reef’s underwater gardens more accessible to visitors and enthusiasts.

Stay tuned – there are many more fascinating stories being uncovered as the research for Cairns Museum’s redevelopment continues.

Scenic Rim Story Skills

Remember the connection between a pencil and cassette tape? Chances are a younger audience won’t. Interpetation and labels share the important stories. “[you need to read what is on the cassette]” image courtesy RHiNO Neal (via Flickr)

Remember the connection between a pencil and cassette tape? Chances are a younger audience won’t. Interpretation and labels share the important stories. Image courtesy RHiNO Neal (via Flickr)

In this age one of the challenges many community museums face is attracting new visitors. A wide range of activities such as sports, theme parks, shopping or community service all compete for potential visitors’ time and attention. Compounding this effect, people’s understanding of our collections and their meaning is diminishing. The items which were once commonplace in everyday life are now seen by many as unknown “things”, with little relevance to their understanding of the world.
And to be fair to the visitor, sometimes we don’t do the best job of helping them to understand what they are seeing and why (we think) it matters. Sometimes we simply leave them alone with these unknown, uninterpreted objects to try to make sense of what it all means. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised when it becomes all too hard and they don’t bother to visit. With this situation at hand, the need to produce quality exhibitions with engaging stories to make sense of our collections has never been more important.

Volunteers from The Rathdowney Museum, Museum of Australian Military Intelligence, Templin Museum, Beaudesert Historical Society, Tamborine Mountain Historical Village with their finished interpretative panel exercise.

Volunteers from The Rathdowney Museum, Museum of Australian Military Intelligence, Templin Museum, Beaudesert Historical Society, Tamborine Mountain Historical Village with their finished interpretative panel exercise.

With these challenges in mind, volunteers from Scenic Rim museums gathered recently at Rathdowney for an exhibition development and label production workshop. During the day, the groups explored the topics of exhibition components, concept development, structuring narrative, writing, and production methods. The afternoon saw a practical session, focusing on making simple yet professional foam core labels using a number of different techniques. After an enthusiastic afternoon brandishing Stanley knives, steel rulers and spray adhesive, the participants were well equipped with the background knowledge and skills needed to produce their own exhibition panels in-house. I can’t wait to see how they will use these skills to tell the fascinating stories from their region!

The Workshop was funded by the Scenic Rim Regional Council and Arts Queensland RADF Fund. The Regional Arts Development Fund is a Queensland Government through Arts Queensland and Scenic Rim Regional Council partnership to support local arts and culture. If you would like to host a similar workshop for your museum, please contact the Museum Development Officer for your region.

“Evolution: Torres Strait Masks”- MDOs working with Gab Titui

Apart from the disaster recovery work in Winton, the MDOs have been working on numerous other projects.  One of these, “Evolution: Torres Strait Masks”,  has been with staff from Gab Titui Cultural Centre on Thursday Island.

At the end of last year, Jo Wills and Ewen McPhee traveled up to Torres Strait to train and work with the staff to develop a new exhibition for their cultural maintenance gallery. The theme was chosen to recognise the cultural significance of masks in Torres Strait culture, their influence on contemporary art forms, and to revive the art form itself.

The special challenge for this project was the procurement of objects – so many of these items are held in international institutions and other Australian museums. To address this, the exhibition concept was planned around a contemporary arts component which involved commissioning local artists to create masks for the exhibition.

After undertaking applied training with the MDOs, Gab Titui staff got down to the task of researching and curating the exhibition. Working with renowned artist Alick Tipoti as co-curator, Leitha Assan and Aven Noah developed the overall look and feel for the exhibition and prepared all exhibition text and content. They identified eight different artists, based on islands where masks were traditionally made, to design masks for the exhibition: Andrew Passi, Eddie Nona, Vincent Babia, Kapua Gutchen Snr, Alick Tipoti, Torrens Gizu and Yessie Mosby.

Jo and Ewen returned to Gab Titui to help install the exhibition. Cultural protocols dictate the way masks can be handled – only men are able to touch the masks. For installation, this meant Ewen worked with Aven and Kailu to hang the masks, while Jo worked with Leitha and Elsie to hang panels, create object mounts for other items, line the cases and prepare the labels.

The end result is stunning, and a testament to their hard work. The masks are extraordinary and powerful objects in their own right, and together represent a significant body of work. The black lined cases create a sense of mystery and dark magic to echo the spirituality of the objects. The labels tell the artists stories, while the text panels provide an insight into the background of the mask in TI culture.

“Evolution” opened in conjunction with the 2015 Gab Titui Arts Awards and will be on display for a year. Jo traveled back to Thursday Island to attend the opening, see the final exhibition, and was lucky enough to see performances by the Aibai Sagulau Buai Dance Team from Badu Island.

Thank you to George Serras from the National Museum of Australia for allowing me to use some images from the opening in this post.

Heritage North – bringing local museum communities together

Ewen McPhee demonstrates display techniques at the Heritage North workshop in Gordonvale. Photo: Robyn Smith, Cairns Museum.

Ewen McPhee demonstrates display techniques at the Heritage North workshop in Gordonvale. Photo: Robyn Smith, Cairns Museum.

Heritage North is an association of museums and historical societies from north and far north Queensland that meets quarterly to discuss issues affecting the region. When the organisation meets, members have the opportunity to share ideas and stories about the region’s history and their museum collections.

Members work closely with the MDOs from north and far north Queensland. Last Saturday, Jo Wills and Ewen McPhee ran a workshop for Heritage North members at the Mulgrave Settlers Museum in Gordonvale.

Noel Weare from the Douglas Shire Historical Society presents his object to the Heritage North Workshop. Photo: Robyn Smith, Cairns Museum.

Noel Weare from the Douglas Shire Historical Society presents his object to the Heritage North Workshop. Photo: Robyn Smith, Cairns Museum.

Representatives from Cairns Museum, CADCAI, El Arish Museum, Innisfail Historical Society, Loudoun House Museum, Douglas Shire Historical Society, Mareeba Historical Society, Eacham Historical Society and Mulgrave Settlers Museum bought along objects from their collections to work on as part of the workshop.

Objects ranged from a walking cane, bricks, stone decorative items from CADCAI’s temple collection, to medals, a surveyor’s instrument, a branding iron and archival and photographic material. Ewen and Jo provided the group with curatorial advice regarding display planning and implementation. The focus of discussions was on object choice and stories, the value of labels, different display techniques and conservation suggestions.

Racing on the River: Tambo backs 150 years of winners!

Trial starts, Tambo c.1890 Image courtesy of Charmaine Bailey

Trial starts, Tambo c.1890
Image courtesy of Charmaine Bailey

Keen punters from Western Queensland and beyond gathered in Tambo this year for a very special race meet to mark 150 years of horse racing. In the long history of Queensland racing, Tambo lays claim to the earliest organised race day west of the Great Dividing Range.

With horses being the most common form of transport at the time, it is no surprise that the first organised horse races were held in the district on the 20th and 21st of July 1864, barely one year after the gazetting of the township. No doubt fuelled by community spirit and the posturing of both riders and breeders, the first race was hosted by Henry L. Harden, owner of Northampton Downs station. The event was staged under the name of the Great Western Downs Race Meeting and saw 4 races each day, with 21 horses entered by 14 owners. Prizes included a number of silver trophies, silver spurs, and around 54 sovereigns prize money- not a small sum for the time!

Museum Development Officer Josh Tarrant,  Blackall Tambo Regional Council  Deputy Mayor Cr. Richelle Johnson and The Hon. Federal Minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce at the opening of Racing on the River.

MDO Josh Tarrant, Blackall Tambo Regional Council Deputy Mayor Cr. Richelle Johnson and The Hon. Federal Minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce at the opening of Racing on the River. Image courtesy of Tambo & District Race Club

To help celebrate the event, the Central Queensland MDO worked with the Tambo & District Race Club to develop and produce Racing on the River, a travelling exhibition exploring the history of racing in the district.

An exciting discovery was made during the exhibition development: the location of the first racing trophy, “The Northampton Downs Cup”. With community assistance, this holy grail of Tambo Racing history was traced back to a private collector in Toowoomba. Mrs Diana Mayall was kind enough to loan the precious piece of history for part of the exhibition.

The exhibition will travel to a number of venues in the Blackall Tambo Region throughout 2014. This project was supported by funding from the Regional Arts Development Fund through Arts Queensland and Blackall Tambo Regional Council partnering to support local arts and culture.

International Museum Day: Museum collections making connections

2014 International Museums Day Poster

2014 International Museums Day Poster

Every year, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) celebrates International Museum Day on or around the 18th of May. The theme for 2014 is: Museum collections make connections.

This year’s theme aims to promote the way museum’s contribute to the development of society through the use of shared memory, community and cultural heritage storytelling. It reflects the desire for museums to create links between visitors and the objects in collections, and rejuvenate an understanding of the traditional methods museums use to involve their communities and stay relevant.

Right across Queensland the MDOs are working with museum volunteers and collecting groups on projects that reflect this theme and the associated goals. Here a just a few of the inspiring projects that museums are working on in Far North Queensland:

  • Cairns Historical Society are in the process of re imagining displays for Cairns Museum, and working with the community to ensure their relevance.
  • Cairns and District Chinese Association (CADCAI) are preparing to undertake an oral history project to capture community memories of the Lit Sung Goong Temple.
  • Gordonvale’s Mulgrave Settler’s Museum is planning a new community-based competition to boost it’s public standing.
  • Menmuny Museum at Yarrabah is working to update and rejuvenate displays.
  • Mapoon Aboriginal Shire Council is hoping to undertake a significance assessment of its collections.
  • Carpentaria Shire Council is working on the interpretation of significant heritage buildings along its main street.
  • Cape York Heritage House in Coen and James Cook Museum in Cooktown are developing displays to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Queensland Police.
  • Ravenshoe Visitor Information Centre is opening a new Ravenshoe Heritage Gallery to showcase the region’s photographic material culture.
  • And regional councils, museums and historical societies in Cape York, Torres Strait, the Atherton Tablelands region and the reformed Mareeba Shire and Douglas Shires are planning a range of projects to commemorate the centenary of World War One.

Museums are a great industry and community to be involved in!

The theme for 2015 is: Museums for a sustainable society.

Recycled Brass Band exhibition a hit at Yarrabah

Ewen McPhee with Brad Higgins of Menmuny Museum during the re installation of the “Blow ‘Im Exhibition”.

Ewen McPhee with Brad Higgins of Menmuny Museum during the re installation of the “Blow ‘Im Exhibition”.

In mid July, MDOs Ewen McPhee and Dr Jo Wills worked with Bradley Higgins, archivist from Yarrabah’s Menmuny Museum, to install the “Blow ‘Im: The Yarrabah Brass Band Story” exhibition in time for the Yarrabah Band Festival.

In just over three days, the museum space was reinvigorated, whilst maintaining the consistency of original stories and exhibition rationale. Object cases were cleaned, moved and reinstalled. Graphic panels were re-hung. Some cases were relined with calico. Object supports were also made for an original euphonium used in the first band that was donated to the Museum A new object label was also produced to accompany the display.

National Indigenous Time article (Issue 323,  7 August 2013: pp.21-22) celebrates the Yarrabah Band Festival

National Indigenous Times article (Issue 323, 7 Aug 2013: pp.21-22) celebrates the Yarrabah Band Festival

Digital screens were installed to make Menmuny Museum’s pictorial collection more accessible to visitors, and showcase an interview with the exhibition’s original curator, Elverina Johnston. A descendant of the Kunganji tribe of the Yarrabah Aboriginal Community, Elverina curated “Blow ‘Im” in 2003. The exhibition comprises graphic text panels that explore the history of Yarrabah Brass bands as well as other Indigenous brass bands all around Queensland from 1901 to the 1970’s.

The Yarrabah Band Festival was put on by Queensland Music Festival and supported by Queensland Performing Arts. Check out the following link to find out how the project got started, and its importance to communities in the following short video clip on the ABC.

Every Museum has Words…

Every museum has words.  In text panels, in labels, in handouts, in multimedia presentations…  Recently museum workers came together for the 2012 CQ Museums Network Day to learn all about words in their museums. Read the rest of this entry

Mossman Shire Hall 75th Anniversary Exhibition

In June 1937, Mossman celebrated the opening of it’s new shire hall with an Opening Ball. Seventy five years later, Cairns Regional Council will celebrate the anniversary of this Queensland Heritage Register-listed building (and its refurbishment this year) with an old time dance and a small exhibition on 22 June 2012 .

Built as part of the Queensland Government Unemployment Relief Scheme during the 1930s, Mossmand Shire Hall was designed by notable north Queensland architectural firm, Hill and Taylor. Their work can be seen in a number of buildings in Mossman, and in many towns across the region.

In preparation for the exhibition, Council staff in Mossman have been busy talking to locals and gathering photographs, newspaper articles, dresses, awards and other Hall-related memorabilia. The material will be used to showcase the buildings history and community use. Exhibitions that draw on community artefacts, anecdotes and images are a great way of exploring the significance of heritage buildings.