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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mulgrave Settlers Museum, which is part of the Mulgrave Shire Historical Society, has been awarded the 2018 Gallery and Museum Achievement Awards (GAMAA) in the category of Engagement for Volunteer-run Organisations for its program “Visiting the Ancestors”. As MDO in Far North Queensland, it’s great to see this group recognised for all their hard work. Read on to find out about the three parts that made up this project:
Volunteers photographed all graves in the Gordonvale Cemetery and added basic information to “Find a Grave”. When searching for information the group realised many of the residents had interesting stories that formed the history of Gordonvale.
‘Streets Ahead’ newspaper column in the Pyramid Views
Many of Gordonvale’s streets had been named after early settlers and those now buried in the Gordonvale Cemetery. Locally produced magazine, Pyramid Views, approached the Mulgrave Shire Historical Society to write a regular column capturing this history of the family or person the street was named after. Each month one of the volunteers organised for the family members of several generations to be photographed at the street sign.
Since its inception, the project has grown. The paper now dedicated a whole page to the section due to the response from families wanting to share their heritages and the response from readers. Information is also available via their Facebook page.
Public programs: Ghosts of Gordonvale Cemetery & Ghosts of Babinda Cemetery
Inspired by similar cemetery tours developed both other organisations, volunteers at the Mulgrave Settlers Museum decided to conduct a similar program. They identified 12 individuals from the cemetery, researched their history using a range of local, reference and online resources.
Volunteers then approached Gordonvale State High School to see if any students were interested in portraying the chosen individuals. Students memorised the scripts and then, on the day of the performance, dressed in period costumes whilst standing next to the gave of their character.
Success at Gordonvale inspired a similar program in Babinda – the other cemetery in the original Mulgrave Shire. This time, 10 identified were chosen and students from Babinda State School and St Rita’s Catholic School participated in the project.
The Society also produced an associated booklet of for each cemetery that included the script, a photo of the student and an image of the person. Background information about the township and surrounding geography was also included.
For the last few months I’ve been working on a number of projects that represent the regions diverse geography, history and communities. Rather than present a series of finished stories, this time I thought I’d showcase work that is underway. For each of the projects, the groups or organisations are undertaking something they’ve not attempted previously. None of them would be possible without the energy and enthusiasm of the various volunteers and community advocates – it’s the lifeblood of our industry.
A museum for Babinda
When Babinda Mill closed down in 2011, many people thought this small town would struggle to survive. They were sorely mistaken. In August last year, I was approached to provide Babinda Taskforce with advice about how to set up a museum. Motivated by the redeveloped Cairns Museum, and a desire to stimulate tourism and preserve history, this group aimed to set up displays in one of the shops on the town’s main street. But we had to start from scratch.
After running some introductory training, I then developed a strategic plan to get the project underway. Meanwhile, the Taskforce sought support from interested locals and created a museum subcommittee which began identifying objects and stories they wished to include. Funding was received funding through local council to develop curatorial and design concepts. We began an Indigenous liaison process to make sure cultural issues are respected and considered during the projects development. And, we have recently secured some of Queensland Museum’s recycled showcases to help realize the project. (Now all we have to do is get them up here!)
As the curatorial and design work has been developing, the Taskforce has been applying for grants and funding to support the building and fit out work. Local builders have been approached to be involved in renovating the space. While it’s been busy, the energy and enthusiasm of those involved in this project is inspiring. All of this is mixed in with a lot of good humour and local ingenuity – essential ingredients for a project like this!
Queensland Rail Movable Cultural Heritage & Normanton Railway Station Museum
Located on the edge of Normanton in the north west gulf country, the heritage listed Normanton Railway Station has a long and somewhat unusual history. Now one of the jewels in the town’s tourism crown, most visitors enjoy the small railway museum located at the station before boarding the historic Gulflander and heading out to Critters Camp or going onto Croydon.
The museum collection is eclectic – it reflects the region’s pastoral and social history as well as the story of rail. Station’s Officer in Charge, Ken Fairbairn, has been keen to get assistance with the museum’s collection management for a number of years. Now, through the assistance of Queensland Rail, the MDO program is about to start a project that aims to provide cataloging and policy advice for Queensland Rails movable heritage collections, and that involves practical work and training at Normanton Railway Station Museum.
Developing a keeping place for Napranum
In September I traveled up to Napranum, Mapoon and Weipa with historian Geoff Wharton to get an insight into the cultural heritage of the Western Cape. The main purpose of our trip was to begin discussions about developing a keeping place at Napranum in conjunction with the Shire Council. Geoff, who has a long association with Weipa and Napranum, a thorough knowledge of the region’s culture and connections with relevant community representatives, was the perfect person with whom to travel to there for the first time.
Since my visit, Napranum Shire Council staff have visited a couple of different museums in the Cairns CBD with me to give them an understanding of the different types of infrastructure and displays that can be set up. We have also undertaken research into funding opportunities, and are investigating ways to integrate relevant training in community.
Whilst in Weipa, Geoff also took me to the Cape York Collection, held at the Hibberd Library where he works as honorary curator. What a treat! And, what an amazing collection of cultural, technical and scientific material that provides an insight into the region’s diversity and history.
“Dressed to Impress” – a collaborative exhibition for Cairns Museum
As noted in my previous post, Michael Marendy’s textile training in June inspired everyone and got us focused on fashion. Apart from groups having a better understanding of how to manage, store and display textiles , one of the outcomes from his visit will be a small textile display, due to go on display early 2019. Representatives of Cairns Museum, Cairns and District Chinese Association, Mulgrave Settlers Museum and Babinda Museum have come together to start discussing which items they want to include, undertake some research and create an interpretation approach.
Since opening in 2017, Cairns Museum has been working tirelessly to produce a suite of exhibitions for their temporary gallery. This textile display, with a working title of “Dressed to Impress”, will be the first time the small museums of the Cairns region come together to produce a group show. Cairns Museum Manager, Suzanne Gibson, and I are also seeking to include works of some contemporary local designers including Grace Lillian Lee and Vivienne Francine to ensure there is some contrast between old and new. Stay tuned for more details.
MDO life in FNQ has again been busy over the last three months. I’ve travelled what feels like 1000s of kilometres and been privileged to see north Queensland’s diverse landscapes and intriguing cultural history. Great, too, has been the opportunity to work closely for the first time with communities in Burketown, Babinda and Millaa Millaa, and reconnect with colleagues and friends in Cairns’ museums and Torres Strait. Here are just a few details of projects I have been lucky enough to work on recently:
The Wild Irish Girl Display, Cooktown History Centre
I’ve always been impressed at the self sufficiency of the volunteers at the Cooktown History Centre. So when they asked me to help out with cataloguing training for the John Hay/Sam Elliot collection, which was donated to them just before John died, I was only too pleased to assist. As we worked our way through we discovered a fabulous collection of material from the Palmer River Goldfields. Handmade tools, Chinese pots, gold scales and opium pipes… these are just a few of the items that tell the story of the Wild Irish Girl Mine, a unique place in FNQ’s mining and social history. Follow this Wild Irish Girl Mine link for more information.
We also discussed displaying the material in the available space and how the group might set up the new area. Six months later, I received pictures of the new display. After purchasing some new cases and developing panels using their in-house style, the group have produced a fabulous display that mirrors and succeeds their intentions. Congratulations to a very dedicated group of people.
Burketown Visitor Centre CHG project
At the end of May, Ewen McPhee and I drove out to Burketown on the Albert River in far northwest Queensland to help out the local Shire Council and the Carpentaria Land Council with their collection as part of a CHG grant. Designed to help understand the collection and make it more accessible, the grant enabled us to spend a week with the group and help redevelop their displays and get them ready for opening. Along the way we got to spend time getting to know the community in more depth, learn about the Aboriginal and settler history, and become acquainted with the cultural artefacts and paintings that make up their collection. We made sure to enjoy the surrounding landscape and evening skies as well.
Cairns’ Museums Textile Training with Dr Michael Marendy
Museum volunteers in Cairns attended a week long textile preservation workshop in June, thanks to funding from Cairns Regional Council. Run with great care and passion by Dr Michael Marendy, participants were treated to his wealth of knowledge, attention to detail and ready humour as he ran applied training sessions. I was amazed at the sewing skills out there among the community, and painfully aware of my own needlework limitations! But Michael’s enthusiasm is infectious and, by the end of the week, I could see how beneficial site visits Mulgrave Settler Museum and CADCAI had been, and how inspiring it is to have access to a material specialist. Michael also delivered a delightful public lecture, leaving guests crying out for more stories from his experiences with textile treasures. The groups in Cairns are now working towards developing a small textile exhibition in Cairns Museum’s temporary gallery.
Gab Titui Cultural Centre: Butal Inu Ngapa Boey and the 2018 Art Awards
Ewen and I travelled up to Thursday Island in July to help the team at Gab Titui install two new exhibitions. The 2018 art awards were opened on Thursday 26 of July and we were honoured to work with a vast array of wonderful pieces. The new cultural exhibition, Butal Inu Ngapa Boey translates as ‘our luggers’ and examines the familial connections to the Torres Strait’s pearling history. Ewen has been advising on this project for the past year. Important to this project was the video recordings with different island representatives. The display also included commissioned artworks that celebrated the region’s pearling traditions and history. As usual, an exhibition opening at Gab Titui is accompanied by extraordinary dancing, this time from the Badu Island Dancers who performed lugger dances.
The Kjellberg Story: Millaa Millaa Museum’s first temporary exhibition
Last, but by no means least, Eacham Historical Society’s Millaa Millaa Museum developed and opened a new temporary exhibition to commemorate 100 years of noted Swedish migrant Ernst Kjellberg’s arrival in the district. Initially, Kjellberg worked closely with Mamu men to clear their land, and run a dairy farm. Then, between 1930 and the 1945 he and his family ran a health clinic on their property Beachview on the outskirts of Millaa Millaa. As knowledge of his abilities grew, people flocked to his clinic and lived in tents while they received holistic and manipulative therapy.
The production of this exhibition was no mean feat for this group of volunteers who live in this small town on the Atherton Tablelands. At least two of them are over 90 and many have been experiencing health complications. Nonetheless they were keen to participate and were gently guided by new volunteer curator, Stacee Hillyard who did a fantastic job. I was very fortunate to be able to enjoy their support and goodwill as I came in and made changes, and believe the process was as important as the outcome. Community enthusiasm for this story was strong, and became increasingly evident as we worked toward the opening. We had people offering to lend small collections of material. Volunteers partially reassembled the electric light bath for the display – perhaps one of the most unusual items I’ve come across for a while.
The exhibition was officially opened on July 28th by Councillor Anthony Ball. For a small town, it was a big event. Am amazing morning tea was provided by the CWA, and more than 50 people took part in what was the museums first temporary exhibition. Among the guests I even happened to meet a man who had worked with the light bath we had on display! Congratulations to the Millaa Millaa Museum group for their hard work and enthusiasm.
Yesterday, Mulgrave Settlers Museum in Gordonvale opened a new exhibition called ‘Beetles, Grubs and other Bugs’. Developed to commemorate the 100th year of sugar research at nearby Meringa Research Station (part of the Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations) and highlight the importance of cane to the region’s identity, it featured the work of the station’s entomologists as they battled to help cane farmers overcome pests and diseases in the early 20th century.
Central to the exhibition are the display cases created by Edmund Jarvis between 1922 and 1932. A science communicator pioneer, Jarvis created educational cases to help farmers better understand and manage issues affecting their crops. He crafted the displays using specimens, hand drawn diagrams, typed labels and early black and white images and held information days at the station.
You might recall an earlier post from May 2015 outlining details of the cases at the time I was approached by staff at Meringa seeking advice on preservation and storage. Since then I contacted the Mulgrave Settlers Museum about acquiring the cases – there is a strong link between Gordonvale and Meringa, with the first research station being located on Thumm Street just near the present day museum. Thanks to a Regional Arts Development Grant (RADF) from Cairns Regional Council, the cases have also undergone conservation treatment and made ready for this new exhibition. Thanks to conservator Sue Valis at MTQ for her meticulous cleaning and attention to detail.
The RADF grant allowed the museum to purchase a large format scanner to digitise hundreds of images and glass plate negatives that were also part of the donation. These images also feature in the new exhibition, as do a number of other significant artefacts including a lantern used in breeding programs, injectors and sugar refractors (which help to measure sugar content in cane) as well as a microscope belonging to James Buzzacott (on loan from the Australian Industry Sugar Museum in Mourilyan).
Council support also meant that the museum could work with the MDO to create a new exhibition, install a new hanging system, reline cases and rearrange the displays to showcase the research they had undertaken into the cases and the work of Meringa. An exhibition development workshop was held early in the year to set out the parameters. Lead by Travis Teske, the volunteers collaborated with Meringa Station staff and each other to pull the project together. One built timber easels to display the cases, and all hands were on deck for the installation and rearrangement.
The exhibition is open for 6 months. The museum is located near the Mulgrave Mill at 60 Gordon Street, Gordonvale
As many museum followers know, Cairns is home to a nationally significant collection of Chinese artefacts known as the Lit Sung Goong temple collection. Cared for by the Heritage Group at Cairns and District Chinese Association Inc. (CADCAI), this collection tells the story of early migration and settlement, of business connections and acumen, religious practices and artistic skill and craftsmanship.
What many do not know, however, is that CADCAI is seeking support to build a new Chinese Cultural Centre. A new facility would support CADCAI’s vast array of activities, and be a place to preserve and display the Lit Sung Goong collection and explore Chinese-Australian history. Development plans and concepts are already underway, but there is still much to do before their vision can be realised.
Over the past two months, CADCAI volunteers have been working with Dr Jo Wills, MDO in Cairns, to develop display panels and banners that can be used in both temporary exhibitions and to promote CADCAI’s activities throughout the year. Following a successful RADF application to Cairns Regional Council, the group has undertaken exhibition concept development training with the MDO, text writing activities and worked with a local graphic designer. They are grateful to Cairns Historical Society and Museum for lending them showcases to display some of the collection.
Using the history of the temple, the Chinese history of Cairns and the preservation of the collection as a starting point, the banners, panels and object cases illustrate the exquisite beauty of this collection, and highlight the role played by Chinese settlers to the region. They also highlight the work that has already gone into preserving these items, and the passion of those involved. This background research and work with the collection has been so important for developing these exhibition materials. Follow this link to see a few of CADCAI’s short videos that feature the collection and volunteers.
For those based in Cairns, make sure you visit the updated CADCAI display on Grafton Street this Saturday as part of the Chinese New Year street festival and visit the festival website to find out what else is on. 恭喜發財 – Gong Xi Fa Cai – Happy Chinese New Year. 2017 is the Year of the Rooster!
Earlier this year I was contacted by a woman who was wondering whether a cloth that had belonged to her husband’s grandmother held any interest to the collecting organisations in far north Queensland. The description of the item reminded me at once of the autographed signature cloths that we have featured previously on this blog from Croydon and Cloncurry so I quickly asked for some details. She replied:
My Grandmother-in-law, Clementine Manning, gave me an Autograph Cloth. In the centre of the cloth it says: “KINGSBOROUGH AUTOGRAPH CLOTH – IN AID OF BELGIANS – OCTOBER 9th 1915” It is surrounded by appliqued signatures of the children at the school in 1915. One of them, Vincent Manning, is my husband’s great uncle.
To say I was interested was an understatement! What a treasure! And so the process of research and object analysis begins.
Of course, it was Germany’s invasion of Belgium on 4 August 1914 that prompted Britain to declare war on the Germans and, thus triggered Australia’s involvement. Historian Peter Stanely noted:
Reports of atrocities committed against Belgian civilians—actual, exaggerated and invented by British propaganda—flooded newspapers around the world.
Australians responded powerfully to reports of ‘poor little Belgium’. Its own soldiers saw almost no action until April 1915. In the meantime, many Australians devoted themselves to supporting war charities that were directing relief supplies and money to Belgian refugees in Britain and France. Until their own troops entered battle, Belgium became the focus of many Australian civilians’ patriotic fundraising…
I found specific postcards were generated to support this, particularly in Britain. I also found a number of collections with specific material about the Belgian Relief Fund, in the State Library of New South Wales, the State Library of South Australian and the National Library of Australia.
But what of Kingsborough, and Queensland? In 1915, Kingsborough was a small mining town on the Hodgkinson goldfield in the hills behind Cairns and Port Douglas. Pugh’s Almanac reports it had a baker, blacksmith, butcher, aerated water manufacturer and two hotels – the Federal and the Kingsborough. Children were taught at Kingsborough State School No 359 by the teacher Ms Amelia Boyns.
It is through Amelia Boyns that we start to uncover more about the story and fundraising in the region. In January 15, The Telegraph reported that Amelia donated the proceeds of an autograph cloth (1 16 shillings) to the Belgian fund which were disposed of by the art union. It also notes she ran a guessing competition for a doll, raising 16 shillings and putting that towards wounded soldiers. In September 1915 the Cairns Post reports that she sold a boy’s hat for 1 eight shillings and six pence and put that towards the Belgian Fund as well.
I’d love to spend more time researching Amelia’s history. She appears to have been a motivated and passionate supporter of the war effort, and another example of the type of activities that women undertook on the home front. She left Kingsborough in 1916 and moved to Edge Hill in Cairns to teach. Unfortunately, however, that is as much time as I could sneak away from other projects and indulge in a bit of research. I can report, however, that the cloth will be donated to the Historical Society of Mareeba.
At the recent Q ANZAC 100 Heritage Leaders Workshop held at the State Library in Brisbane, I was asked to participate in a forum about community involvement in First World War Projects with three other speakers. This gave me the opportunity to discuss a few of the projects I have worked on as the MDO for far north Queensland:
Portraits of the North (Mareeba Historical Society)
Cooktown at War (James Cook Museum, Cooktown)
HistoryPin Project (Australian Sugar Industry Museum, Mourilyan)
Re-Honouring Cardwell (Cardwell and District Historical Society)
But as we sat and discussed the projects and their merits, I wish, in hindsight, that I had reflected a little more on what aspects of the projects didn’t go to plan or experienced hiccups. I am the first confess that the delivery of some of my projects encountered speed humps and that we had to make changes and deviations along the way. It’s rare that we speak publically about mistakes or hiccups – but I find these are the very things that provide invaluable learning. If we shared these experiences more readily with some of the other groups undertaking projects we might help them avoid some of the issues we have encountered.
I was also aware that the projects I discussed are but a few of those that have been produced locally, and that one of the legacies of this extraordinarily busy period of history making was the skills and contributions of museum and historical society volunteers. In far north Queensland, Cairns Historical Society, Mareeba Historical Society, Mareeba Shire Council, Cairns Regional Council, Douglas Shire Historical Society, Loudoun House Museum, Mount Garnet Visitor Information centre, Cooktown History Centre, to name just a few, have all delivered a range of exhibitions and events that provide a distinctive far north Queensland take on the First World War and involved people in undertaking historical and museum based work.
Fortunately, the Heritage Leaders Workshop gave participants an opportunity to see projects from across the region, and also appreciate the different sort of people involved. Far north Queensland was represented by volunteers from Mareeba Heritage Centre, Douglas Shire Historical Society, Atherton Library and Mulgrave Settlers Museum. Ken Keith spoke about the Douglas Shire Historical Society’s Douglas Diggers WWI Project. During one of the workshops, Don Lawrie from the Mulgrave Settlers Museum took the stage and entertained the audience with his storytelling and object based remembrances. I think it is this personal involvement, and the satisfaction that people glean from it, that lies at the heart of these projects’ success.
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.