Blog Archives

Changing Cairns: farewell to a gifted storyteller, and friend

Spend long enough being an MDO and you soon learn that the communities you work in are where you find some of your closest colleagues. In Cairns, where the MDO works in an independent office, this is doubly true, and many of these people also become friends.  So, when someone you’ve worked with closely for more than a decade decides to leave, well… it makes a bit of an impact.

Many of you will know Suzanne Gibson at Cairns Historical Society and Museum. For the last year she’s been working as the curator, but her legacy is as the manager who oversaw the building and museum renovation.  And for good reason. Driven and determined, she championed change in a volunteer organisation and led the creation of an award-winning museum that has transformed the way people see the value of museums in far north Queensland.

People and relationships have been front and centre to Suzanne’s work. She’s always quick to acknowledge the significant contribution that volunteers, other colleagues and communities can contribute to the organisations development. Her desire to create a safe and inclusive space to explore the region’s diverse stories has succeeded. Since opening in 2017, the temporary exhibition space has staged a variety of exhibitions that reflect her convictions and ethics.  This includes strong advocacy for First Nations voices and stories in the museum through collaborative exhibitions like Percy Tresize (2021), Reef Productions (2021) and the Djabu Gilga Yigan Land Sea Sky (2018) exhibition with students from Yarrabah state school. Her interest in Cairns’ Chinese and PNG community is enduring, as is her commitment to using the Cairns Historical Society’s spectacular photographic collection whenever there is a chance.

To make any of this work possible, however, Cairns Historical Society and Museum has undergone significant change. And Ms Gibson has been a key player in that transformation.

Before the refurbishment – the journey to the new museum

I first met Suzanne when she started work at the Cairns Historical Society and Museum in 2009. That was before I became the FNQ MDO – yep, almost a lifetime ago. I was struck by her passion, humour and her ability to speak like a radio host – short, sharp and direct! I also saw a kindred spirit – a lover of history and stories, and someone who was on the right side of crazy too! What we needed, we mused, was place where we could do the type of museum work we wanted to. Not long after this, Suzanne took over as the volunteer manager of Cairns Museum. We would often discuss our ideas for projects, stories we wanted to tell and ponder where the money might come from to do them. When I became MDO in 2012, she’d lead the project and I’d gallop in and provide advice, support or become actively involved – depending on what was needed.

One of our first projects at Cairns Museum was Cairns 1942, an exhibition that explored a critical year in Cairns’ World War Two history. It was the first major change to displays at the museum and I remember Suzanne’s concern about the impact this would have on volunteers as she led the installation of the work.

Team Gibson and Wills followed up with the Where are you from? project, which focused on the types of characters who have migrated to Cairns over time. This small show ended up in the entry foyer windows of Cairns City Library. Daringly, we branched out to pay a local graphic designer and cajoled our partners into helping us install the exhibition. My enduring memory, however, is both of us gasping as we realised, halfway through the project, that we’d asked the wrong question. Another salutary experience, and one that taught us both the value of critical reflection without blame or acrimony.

Suzanne’s application for a sustainability grant from Cairns Regional Council in 2012 was the beginning of significant change. She engaged museum guru, Kylie Winkworth, to develop a collection significance assessment and prepare a strategic plan. Cairns Museum’s vision to present “Cairns as a Tropical City” emerged from this work, and led to Suzanne and I teaming up again to work on concept and interpretation plans for new exhibitions and test our ideas with stakeholders.

Armed with this information, and refusing to take no for an answer, Suzanne played a central role in convincing Cairns Regional Council to support the redevelopment of the School of Arts Building, and upgrade Cairns Historical Society and Museum.  And from there the redevelopment project suddenly became real. How that unfolded for Suzanne is, of course, another story entirely – and one for her to tell.

I’ll miss her drive, curiosity, ethics, love of the absurd, and her enduring acceptance of my own shortcomings. I’ll take my cue from the rationale that guided the development of the Changing Cairns gallery in closing. New curators could consider including Suzanne Gibson as a character in that gallery: as a leader, a personality and as a force that initiated significant change.

Suzanne finishes at Cairns Historical Society and Museum this week to pursue a curatorial role with the National Museum of Australia.

Relaxing the tapa: preparing for Mapoon’s new Cultural Keeping Place

Tapa cloth held at Mapoon Cultural Keeping Place.
Image courtesy Geoff Wharton, OAM.

Mapoon Aboriginal Shire Council holds a piece of tapa (bark cloth) that is believed to date from the 1900s. It was one of several items bought back to Mapoon in 2015 by Mrs Liz Ashton, granddaughter of Mapoon missionary, Reverend Nicholas Hey. Although the exact provenance of the cloth is unknown, it was thought to have been made by South Sea Islanders living in the area, and was a gift to Reverend Hey’s wife, Minnie. The Heys, along with Superintendent Reverend James Gibson Ward and Mrs Matilda Hall Ward, were the founding missionaries of the Batavia River Presbyterian Mission at Mapoon.

The tapa will soon be exhibited at Mapoon’s new Cultural Keeping Place which is part of a new cultural facility scheduled to open later this year.

In April, Queensland Museum’s northern MDOs, Dr Jo Wills and Ewen McPhee, traveled to Mapoon to work with Cultural Heritage Officer, Jason Jia, and provide hands on assistance and advice for collections and displays.

Relaxing the tapa

One of the tasks was to help ‘relax’ the tapa after it had been folded for a number of years. Following advice from QM conservators, a table was lined with paper towels and these were moistened with water. These were then covered with pH neutral blotting paper and the tapa was placed on top. Another layer of dry blotting paper was then placed over the tapa and, finally, another layer of moistened paper towels. This ‘sandwich’ effect allowed the moisture to ‘relax the folds’ without overtly impacting on the item and the dyes.

After a few days, the folds ‘relaxed’ sufficiently for the tapa to be rolled for storage. The cloth was placed between sheets of acid free tissue and then rolled onto a tissue covered tube. It will be transported to Cairns where it will be carefully framed in readiness for the new display. Thanks to QM conservators for their professional advice and interest.

Preparing for displays and collections

The new Keeping Place will house displays, a community database and a secure storage room. An overall layout plan was developed, taking into consideration visitor access, staff operations, cultural requirements and database access. This database allows users to explore the region’s resources, wildlife, flora, culture and language and is an important part of the centres cultural work.

To ensure new displays help visitors understand the history and culture of the region, key themes and events were identified. Banners will explore these themes, and make use of the photographic and archival collections held by the council, Cape York Collection in Weipa and at State Library of Queensland. They will explore culture and country, maritime exploration, the missionary era, the 1963 removals and the return to community. Objects, where available, will accompany these displays.

Contemporary cultural artefacts and stories will also be displayed to acknowledge the ongoing nature of cultural production. This means items such as the delightful ghostnet magpie geese created by local artist and resident, Zoe de Jersey and her husband Stan, can be included and exhibited. Follow this link to find out how they created these scultures from ghostnets collected from the region’s beaches.

The keeping place is just one part of Mapoon’s new cultural facility that recognises the importance of culture and identity: it also includes an arts studio, a gallery and coffee shop and an Indigenous Knowledge Centre/ library.

Acknowledgement:  The Cape York Collection in Weipa holds a significant collection of Mapoon-related material, including photographs, and missionary diaries and archives. The collection’s honorary curator, Geoff Wharton OAM, has generously shared his knowledge and information with the MDOs and Jason as they work on this project.

Up close & personal: falling in love… with objects

Sometimes I fall head over heels in love with the objects and collections I work with in far north Queensland. I remember them. I seek them out on site visits to make sure they are still there. I undertake research on them in my spare time, and try to understand their value and why they might be special to others.

So what triggers this attachment? At a recent workshop with the Tableland Heritage Network in Atherton I I returned to museum basics and linked provenance and research to a love of objects. We talked about what inspires us to learn more about particular objects and how this helps us to create engaging interpretation. We discussed the art of looking at objects and how this builds our understanding and commitment to them, and then listened to people talk about some of the items they had brought in to discuss.

I also decided to examine what triggers my own emotional engagement with particular items and found a number of recurring key themes. It’s not just the collections I work with that I admire, it’s those I encounter as a museum visitor myself as well.

Blood ties and birthplace: identity

Where you’re from, who you’re related to, who your mob are. For some, family and place trigger an immediate sense of connection. I was born in a small town called Poole in SW England, a seaside town with a strong tradition of ceramics. I found this 1930s ceramic tile panel depicting Poole High Street and Quay while visiting Poole Museum. I was mesmerized by it. The picture illustrates the high street and waterfront that formed part of my childhood, and shows the area where my family worked as fishermen and ran a local pub. The ceramic tiles were made at Carters Tiles, which went on to become a well known local business called Poole Pottery. You might have seen their tiles lining the walls of the London Underground.

Emotional reaction: compassion

Some objects leave a lasting impression on us. Menmuny Museum at Yarrabah has an embroidered cloth that was made during the 1930s by residents of the girls dormitory at Yarrabah Mission. Individual hand stitched pieces have been combined to create a kind of ‘memory cloth’ or quilt. The panels illustrate the impact of mission life and removals, of government policies and their impact on families.

Embroidered Quilt, Yarrabah Mission, Menmuny Museum 2014.

For me, this object represents a learning point in my career – it is an item that I have thought about many times and which moves me profoundly. Who made it, how and when? Where did they come from and how did they get to be at Yarrabah? When were the pieces joined together and what sort of lives did the makers have living under the Act? It takes me outside of my lived experience and addresses the truth of First Nation’s history – one that was that was never discussed at school.

Physical attraction: aesthetics

‘Papa Dabad’, Nancy Kiwat, 2016.

Some objects sweep you off your feet through their good looks, material and textures. Two, in particular, vie for my attention. Popa Dabad, the award winning ghostnet piece by Erub Arts Centre’s Nancy Kiwat, was made in 2016. The colours, materials and inquiring angle of his head always make stop me in my tracks and spend an extra minute in contemplation.

Equally enchanting, for me, is a 1920s photograph album one of the volunteers uncovered while we were working on the Cairns Museum redevelopment. Each page is a visual delight. Some are decorated with line drawings, quotes and graphic titles, and many of the photos are hand coloured. I cannot resist a visit when I stop into the museum stop and gaze at the facsimile that is part of the museum’s display.

Intrigue and curiosity

Light bath after reconstruction

How does that work? It is a question that people often ask when they see old equipment in museums. When I first visited Millaa Millaa Museum on the Tablelands I became intrigued by the story of migrant Swedish healer, Ernst Kjellberg, and the electric light bath he used that was stashed under the museum. How did it work? Where did the bulbs go? Where did you sit? Lots of questions that the individual pieces struggled to convey. But when the group arranged an exhibition to commemorate 100th anniversary of Kjellbergs arrival in the district, they reassembled the bath. It was fantastic to see it come back to life and to understand how it operated.

Becoming friends: understanding

Objects and collections can be like good friends – the more you get to know them, the more you admire them. When I started to work on the Reef Productions collection for Cairns Museum last year, I had no idea how much detail we would be able to uncover. Slowly, with the help of colleagues and community, we started to piece together a history of owners, an organization and a community through a collection of objects.

Attracted to the diversity and style of the artwork, I was inspired to get to know the different artists who created them, the different subjects they depicted and the motivations behind their work. In doing so, a whole new understanding about the tourism history and community Cairns emerged. I have learned about the burgeoning arts scene in Cairns during the 1970s and 1980s, and been able to explore the different works of art more deeply. And although my work on the collection and exhibition is now finished, I remain interested in the works and what they tell us.

In understanding my own motivation better, I feel I am better placed to help volunteers and museum workers in the region sustain their interest in their history and collections. That’s my hope, anyway.

More than just tea towels: the migrants, makers and merchandise of Reef Productions

Reef Productions Exhibition, Cairns Museum, 2021

A new exhibition for Cairns Museum

On Friday 28 May, Cairns Museum opened a new temporary exhibition called Reef Productions: migrants, makers and merchandise.  Timed to coincide with Reconciliation Week, the exhibition explores the story of a Cairns-based screen printing company that began in the 1970s. Running for almost 20 years, the owners hand printed and manufactured souvenirs using licenced designs from established Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. The result is an extraordinary array of works on linen and paper, and a multilayered story that has been a pleasure to explore.

The exhibition showcases only a small selection of works due to the size of the gallery. Featured, however, are items from each era of ownership, and works by as many artists as possible. Also included is a recreated trade stand, based around photographs from the Sydney Trade Fair, and a screen printing interactive based around a previously unseen work by Rosyln Serico (Kemp). The opening was a chance for owners and artists to reconnect.

A chance meeting Leads to ACQUISITION

I first came across the name ‘Reef Productions – Made in Cairns’ on a tea towel in 2015 when I was curating one of the galleries for Cairns Museum’s redevelopment. I can remember being curios but at the time was too busy to delve deeper.

Fast forward four years, however, and it’s a different story. Whilst viewing the Thancoupie “A Legacy of Cultural Power” exhibition at CIAF in 2019 I was introduced to Andy and Joan Csorba while standing in front of a large screen print on fabric. ‘Have you ever heard of a company called Reef Productions’, I asked? ‘Yes’, grinned Andy, ‘we used to own it.’ And so began my, and Cairns Museum’s, Reef Productions journey.

Jo with Andy Csorba in 2019.

After visiting the Csorba’s farm to view the material, I discussed the collection with Cairns Museum. Museum Manager, Suzanne Gibson, sought funds to undertake a significance assessment and I, along with Indigenous cultural worker, Nerelle Nicol, began a period of detailed research and analysis. As part of the project, I was required to mentor Nerelle and suppport and undertake research. Nerelle worked closely with the Indigenous artists and this was critical to building an understanding of the content, context and personal stories within the artworks and company history. At the same time, I met with former owners and the artists who had worked with them to create designs.

From its beginnings in the front room of a house in Cairns’ northern beaches, Reef Productions produced portable souvenirs that illustrated the tropical charm of Far North Queensland. It also worked on commission, creating items for organisations or special events and anniversaries. When the company changed hands in the mid-1980s, the designs evolved to include Indigenous culture and stories. Andy worked with a range of artists, including Thancoupie, Jenuarrie, Roslyn Serico (Kemp), Connie Rovina (Barker) Heather Walker, Ludij Peden and Joan Boissevain.

Our research uncovered a story and collection with multiple layers and threads. All participants had some sort of migration story to tell – they had all moved to Cairns, be it from areas within Queensland, Australia or from overseas. The Indigenous artists bought a cultural dimension to the business – through their design style, working for Queensland Aboriginal Creations or through their personal experience of mission life an search for identity. Embedded too, were stories of environmental change, tourism and lost heritage places. We found out about the different artists, their work and inspiration, and their relationship with Reef Productions.

Research into other collections showed that some of these works are held by Queensland Museum and many by the State Library of Queensland in the Glenn R. Cooke Souvenir Textiles Collection. Our work contributes detailed provenance knowledge to these collections, and to understandings of souvenir production at this time.

These findings, as well as the extraordinary aesthetics of the collection, are just some of the reasons Cairns Museum decided to acquire it. They then applied for funding to support Nerelle and I to co-curate the Reef Productions Exhibition.

Curating Reef Productions

From the outset we knew we did not have the space to do everything we wanted. We chose to focus on the evolution of the company, in particular the works produced by artists working during the Csorba ownership period. Community engagement continued throughout the production of the exhibition. Artists and owners reviewed all text, and choice of artwork – with the right of veto. 

Generous donations by former owner, Georgie Zeiger, and items by Charters Towers’ artist Jim Arena, and Daintree’s Betty Hinton, were included in the early section of the exhibition. Sadly, we had to leave out one of Jim’s original ‘pencil roughs’ created for his design of Freshwater Station. However, he has generously agree to donate it, and the tea towel, to Cairns Museum.

Staff and volunteers at Cairns Museum worked tirelessly behind the scenes to support the preparation of materials for display. This included doing framing workshops, sewing supports and creating backing boards for the textile works. The exhibition was installed by Michael Marzik.

Although only a small selection of pieces are on show, this project celebrates the work of these artists and entrepreneurs. From a museum perspective, it illustrates the value of contemporary collection, the importance of community engagement, the need for copyright vigilence and the joy of research and discovery. And, as a story, it represents the importance of relationships – for those who were part of Reef Productions and those involved in putting this research and exhibition together.

The exhibition is on at Cairns Museum for three months from 29 May 2021.

 

Reopening Atherton Chinatown

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

Volunteers cleaning the temple fence.

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.

Back on the road – heading west to Croydon

On the road to Croydon.

Last week, after almost three months working from home, MDOs Jo Wills and Ewen McPhee traveled to Croydon in western Queensland. While it was great to be back on the road, the journey also gave us the chance to see how small towns have been impacted by the COVID 19 upheaval. Lots of hand-washing stations at shops and service stations, and closed businesses and roads. Empty caravan parks really struck a cord – it is unheard of at this time of year in FNQ.

This was the first field trip for MDOs following the COVID 19 travel restrictions. It was organised in accordance with both Council and Queensland Museum risk assessment protocols. Each morning, Ewen and I would meet at the council offices and have our temperatures monitored before we could start work. Social distancing was a given, and we self catered to avoid unnecessary community interaction. Although the caravan sites were empty, the onsite accommodation was full – Croydon relies on contractors coming through to keep things going.

We were in Croydon to continue some of the work I’ve been doing in ‘lockdown’ to help Tourism Officer, Sandrine Gloton. Council is developing new interpretation panels for three goldfields displays in their heritage precinct buildings and while Sandrine has been writing and researching, I have been helping her with the interpretation techniques. As well as improving my knowledge of Croydon’s history, the project gave me a chance to re-engage with images created by one of the town’s (and Queensland’s) notable late 19th century photographers: Alphonse Chargois.

Although I have seen many Chargois photographs from the Gulf region (sample above), I enjoyed discovering a bit more about his life in Croydon. His obituary stated “he resided at Croydon when mining operations were booming and he interested himself in all matters concerning the progress of the district.” (Cairns Post 24 November 1936). This is clearly evident in his images of mines that appeared in many of the Northern Register stories about Croydon’s goldfield.

In addition to running a studio, and undertaking photographic trips around the region, Chargois was also a director of a mining lease, and a prominent member of Croydon’s Salvation Army. The Morning Post from August 1901 listed him as one of four directors of the Golden Gate No.9 South Block Gold Mining Company – I haven’t found out much more about that yet. Tragically, his son Henry, drowned in the Gilbert River in 1906. However Chargois appears to have stayed in Croydon for sometime before moving on to other towns and eventually Cairns.

There are numerous Chargois photographs held at the State Library of Queensland, National Museum of Australia and Cairns Historical Society – no doubt there are many other repositories that hold some of his images.

Gilbert River today – looking towards the single lane bridge.

Two worlds: Cairns Museum’s latest temporary exhibition brings the museum to life

“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.

Quote from one of the interviewees. The introductory text, and biographical information was provided in bilingual labels.

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.

Cairns Museum’s advertising graphic for the Two Worlds Exhibition.
Source: Cairns Museum Website.

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.

Pause, reflect, learn: FNQ MDO at the SLQ Heritage Leaders Workshop

To be honest I thought I was ‘done’ with First World War projects. But when I was asked to speak about the Anzac Treasures Program at the Heritage Leaders Workshop at State Library Queensland I felt it was recognition for the communities involved and the variety of other projects that happened along the way.

With only ten minutes to talk, there was no time to be expansive. So I chose to focus on the benefits of collaboration and the types of outcomes that emerged or which were connected to the project in some way:

  • collection items that were uncovered or discovered
  • projects that groups undertook either simultaneously or afterwards
  • follow up Anzac Trails projects by Cairns, Tablelands and Mareeba Shire Councils that utilised the graphic identity we created for the exhibition
  • the delivery of the Railways 1914-1918 temporary travelling and production of the Railway Ready: War Ready exhibition that went on display in the Atherton Post Office Gallery a few years later.

It is always good to speak, but sometimes it is even better to listen. And in doing so, I found that I wasn’t quite ‘done’ with the topic after all. I heard representatives from Cherbourg discuss their app and how students are using it, the story of researching nurses in Central Queensland and the importance of remembering and honoring Indigenous soldiers who fought in the war.

I was fascinated, too, to hear about some of the work undertaken internationally. The key note presentation by Jennifer Waldman, Director at the 14-18 Now program in the UK, highlighted innovation, creativity and participation. This program was driven by artist interpretation, clever marketing and, most critically, a very strong sense of identity and audience definition. While the scale of this sort of project is much bigger than some of the things we do in FNQ, there are still some critical take home messages. Planning for, understanding and identifying audiences is such an important part of what we do when we create programs. A great refresher for us all, I think, as we go about our work in the industry after this commemorative odyssey.

Below are some links to a couple of the 14-18 Now projects – I recommend you have a quick look as they were thought provoking and bold. Behind the works there is of course was a plethora of research and details that come from organisations like many of our museums and collecting groups who continue to preserve these stories:†

We’re here because we’re here: a poignant commemoration
of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme
Dazzle Ships
Recoloured/edited film footage by Sir Peter Jackson
Letter from an unknown soldier

Discovering Jack Wilkie’s orchid specimen at Cairns Museum

Earlier this week, I was contacted by Don Lawie, one of the volunteers at Gordonvale’s Mulgrave Settlers Museum. His email contained a link to a newsletter he had recently prepared for the Society for Growing Australian Plants. Don drew my attention to the piece called “Beautiful Plants of the Tropics”, one that he had written following his visit to Cairns Museum for the opening of the latest temporary exhibition. 

I first met Don in my capacity as MDO for FNQ and have always been aware of his knowledge and love of local history and the region, despite his struggles with Parkinson’s Disease. But I didn’t know about Don’s interest in Australian plants, and his article’s closing sentence stopped me in my tracks:

“I will never see D. fleckeri alive, but thanks to Cairns Museum I have seen a lasting specimen collected and mounted by one of my heroes.”

Don Lawie, 2019

Here in a single sentence, Don captures the value of museums: the joy that a single artefact can bring to a visitor, the wonder of ‘the real thing’, the importance of preserving collections, the significance of local collections and the value of sharing knowledge across the community. As a museum worker, this shows me the different ways people access and read the items on display, and it validates my interest in interpreting our environment as part of a region’s social history, and the importance of national history collections and herbariums.

The display corner in Cairns Museum that caught Don’s eye.

Don’s email inspired me to go back into the museum and seek out the display, and to see what it is that captured his imagination. I also got online to find out more about the specimen, dendrobium fleckeri and found that its common name is the apricot cane orchid. I hope to work with Don and use his memories of Babinda’s orchidologist, and former Babinda Mill worker, Jack Wilkie as part of a larger story as we develop Babinda’s new museum. For now, however, I’m just going to share Don’s article (with permission), and the delight of his discovery.

Beautiful plants of the tropics: Dendrobium fleckeri
Don Lawie, 2019

The refurbished Cairns Museum is filled with treasures that recall the past of our part of the world. On a recent visit I was excited to find a treasure that made my heart beat faster and my tremors go into overdrive. There, on the first floor, in an unremarkable corner, was a dried and mounted specimen of a Dendrobium orchid. I found this fascinating since the expertly mounted specimen comprised the entire plant – leaves, rooted stem and inflorescences. I have long understood that such a mounted specimen is impractical due to the general features of a Dendrobium orchid. This specimen was collected on Mount Bartle Frere in 1947 and is still in good condition – good enough for an I.D.

Why does this specimen excite me? The collector was Babinda’s Jack Wilkie. Jack was an indefatigable explorer of the mountains and rivers in the vicinity of Babinda; he found and named a number of orchid species previously unknown to Australia , and several were named in his honour (unfortunately, they had been previously described overseas and so the original name had to supercede the wilkiei name).

I knew Mr Wilkie when I was a boy and he was a loco driver for Babinda Mill. He used to give my brother and me a ride in the steam loco cab when he went down the spur line to our farm at Fig Tree Creek, letting us toss coal into the roaring maw of the fire box. Many years later Pauline and I had the honour of being present when Orchidologist Bill Lavarack presented the Australian Orchid Foundation’s Award of Honour to Jack Wilkie in acknowledgement of his immense contribution to the orchid world. And not many years later I was proud to be able to scatter some home-grown orchid flowers on his grave.

Dendrobium fleckeri occurs mostly on the higher mountains such as Bartle Frere, Bellenden Ker and Mount Lewis at altitudes above 900 metres. It prefers to grow on exposed rocks and can flower at any time of the year. The plant is small – the stems about 30 centimetres long – and the flowers are also small. Common name is Apricot Orchid and it is not found in cultivation since it will only grow in the weather conditions of our highest mountains. So, I will never see D. fleckeri alive, but thanks to Cairns Museum I have seen a lasting specimen collected and mounted by one of my heroes.


‘Dressed to Impress’: Cairns’ museums collaborate to showcase fabulous frocks from the far north

What do you get when you bring together a wedding gown, a ‘fashions on the field’ racing dress, a kaftan, a Chinese silk skirt panel, a debutante gown and a fancy dress costume on International Women’s Day? A window into the lives and creativity of local women from the far north, and a chance to explore their stories!

Following on from the textile training run by Dr Michael Marendy in Cairns last year, museums in the Cairns region have recently celebrated the opening of ‘Dressed to Impress’ at Cairns Museum,  a collaborative exhibition that explored the wearers and makers of  some of the region’s textile treasures. This is the first time the groups have worked in this way and, if the level of participation and the attendance at the opening are anything to go by, it won’t be the last!

Each organisation was asked to choose one garment for inclusion in the show, to undertake research into the history and provenance, and to consider how they want it to be displayed.  Volunteers have contributed considerable time and work to prepare the displays. By combining their own sewing skills with the training from the workshops, they have adapted petticoats to fit the fuller dresses, made textile mounts, designed a full length slip to go under the wedding dress, padded mannequins and created supports for hats. 

Mulgrave Settler’s Museum shortlisted two pieces – and each was so strong we ended up including both. Volunteers contacted both dress donors and arranged for me to meet with them in Gordonvale so that we could find out more.  Owner of the wedding dress, Marlene Moss reminisced about her mother-in-law, renowned local seamstress, Kath Moss. We perused the photographic album that was part of the collection and looked at Kath’s notebooks that held the measurements of women from across the region.

Marlene Moss on her wedding day; one of Kath Moss’ measurement notebooks; the dress on display after hours of preparation.

Carol Lavelle, former owner and wearer of the Cairns Post costume, took the dress to the nursing home to show her mother who had made it in 1956.  Although her mother’s memory is fading, seeing the dress briefly stirred some recognition, a treasured moment for Carol and her family. For me, this illustrates the power of objects and the important role museums can play in reminiscence programs and community well being.  

Carol Lavelle: in the newspaper dress in 1956; with her mum, Callie at the nursing home (Image: Jenny Verrall); at the exhibition opening (Image: Travis Teske).

Babinda contributed a dress worn by Joan Dickson, winner of the inaugural harvest queen competition in 1963. Behind this fairy tale dress, lies the story of a woman who grew up on a cane farm, trained to be a school teacher in Brisbane, made her own clothes and whose knowledge of the sugar industry was critical to her being selected the winner of the competition. Joan was part of a contingent of 14 from Babinda who traveled up to the opening by bus, turning heads when she entered with 2018 Harvest Queen, Demi Bettini.

Harvest Queen Dress installation transformation: backroom preparations (Image: Suzanne Gibson); being installed by volunteers Glenys and Jenni; two Harvest Queens at the opening – Demi Bettini (2018) and Joan Dickson (1962) (Image: Travis Teske).

 

The contribution from CADCAI, via member, Jenni Campbell, showcased a different era of clothing, and a vastly different style. Jenni’s family had kept a chest of garments belonging to her grandmother who moved to Cairns in 1906. The clothing inside is made from exquisite and ornate textiles, most likely imported from China and sewn here. The fragility of the items caused us to be cautious about which pieces to display. Jenni worked meticulously to craft her story and then attach the fabric to the textile support, a technique that Michael Marendy had demonstrated during the workshop.

The kaftan that Celeste Augur donated to Cairns Museum added a pop of colour and vibrancy to the display.  She bought it off the rack from a local retailer and wore it to a Fun in the Sun party during the 1970s. Free flowing and light, it is an example of the changing fashion ‘loosening up’ – rather essential during Cairns’ warmer months!

Cairns designer, Grace Lillian Lee, also loaned a piece for the show, providing a contemporary example of tropical inspired textile ingenuity. Her Great Barrier Reef dress mixed hand printed textiles with metal spikes suggestive of the crown of thorns, and was paired with a woven coral hat that drew on traditional Torres Strait weaving techniques. Grace’s work is now recognised nationally, and she is now working on projects that seek to create opportunities to develop indigenous voices in the textile and fashion industries.

 

 

 

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