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.
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
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
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.
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.
“Rarely if ever before has so deep and so general a gloom been cast over the community of this colony as that which has been occasioned by the sad catastrophe which occurred in Torres Straits on the night of the 24th February. The wreck of the R.M.S. Quetta in the vicinity of Adolphus Island with a loss of 173 lives is one of those shocking disasters of the sea which strike nations with sorrow and distress, and leave their painful mark upon the annals of the world’s shipping.”
I first saw the R.M.S. Quetta tea towel while I was visiting Andy and Joan Csorba, owners of a former Cairns souvenir company in Cairns during the 1980s-1990s called Reef Productions. It was in among a host of other tea towels, napery and linen that I have been assessing for Cairns Museum. Having visited the Quetta Memorial Church on Thursday Island numerous times during my MDO travels, I am familiar with its story and was intrigued by the teatowel and the design.
Initially, I thought my ‘who drew it’ query would be easy to solve. Made from Polish linen, the object has ‘Handprinted by Reef Productions’ printed underneath the image. All I had to do, I reasoned, was ask Andy and Joan. But having had so many designs produced they couldn’t recall who had created the original drawing.
Reef Productions was a souvenir company which started in Cairns in 1970s and ran, under multiple owners, until the late 1990s. Initially, the company produced drawings of local industries, heritage buildings and tourism spots. But when Andy and Joan took over, they diversified and started to work with Indigenous artists and produced cultural designs for screen printing by artists like Thancoupie, Jenuarrie, Heather Walker, Roslyn Kemp and Enoch Tramby.
Given the subject of the tea towel, I wondered whether or not one of these artists had created the piece, or perhaps a Torres Strait Islander living in Cairns. Wrong on all counts. So I continued to research the history of the company, and liaise with other former owners and artists who produced artwork for the prints. Another artist, Jim Arena, shared pictures of all his designs with me so I have a catalogue of his creations. But there was no Quetta on his list.
Discussions with previous owners uncovered the stories behind some of the different commissions that Reef Productions asked the artists to produce. One of these was a line drawing of the new parliament house in Canberra by Dutch-born Ludij Peden. I was thrilled when I found her website and a small video which featured a photo of Ludij with Jenuarrie, Thancoupie, Roslyn and Joan Bouissevain (all of who created work with the Csorbas). It’s the only photograph I’ve ever seen of artists from Reef Productions together. There was also one of Ludij and Andy with the parliament tea towel. Naturally, I made contact. Like Jim, Ludij generously gave me a list of all of her work for Reef Productions. Bingo!
In a follow up email she wrote:
I was commissioned, via Andy, to do the tea towel design of the Quetta sinking for the ladies’ guild of the Anglican Church – for a fundraiser … They wanted the tea towel to look like the stained glass window in the church – depicting the ship sinking in the storm.
With this mystery solved, I’m now working with staff at Cairns Museum to develop an exhibition of Reef Productions objects and about the people who were involved. Stay tuned for more information. There are examples of Reef Productions items held in both Queensland Museum and the State Library of Queensland. No doubt the information uncovered in this project will contribute additional knowledge to these collections into the future.
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.
Earlier this month I was lucky enough to travel to Muttaburra to deliver some workshops. Although a (very) small town, Muttaburra boasts two museums – the Dr Arratta Memorial Museum and Cassimatis Store and Cottage – which are managed by a small but dedicated team of volunteers. Keen to learn about how best to care for and interpret their collections, we devised a series of four workshops covering collection policies, interpretation panels, cataloguing, and object labelling.
While we all may know what is exciting and unusual about our own collections, it is worth giving some thought to how we share this with our visitors to make sure we’re providing the best possible experience of what our collections have to offer. During our workshop on interpretation panels, the Muttaburra volunteers thought and talked about how to plan exhibitions and displays (and what’s the difference between the two!), how best to interpret objects to make them accessible and interesting for visitors, and the nuts and bolts of what makes good interpretation panels. Thinking and talking is good, but doing is even better, so the volunteers soon got stuck into making their own interpretation panels. Now armed with the tools of the trade, I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with their new skills!
Writing a Collection Policy may not sound like the most exciting aspect of museum life, but it is really the most important document in helping you manage your collection well. It helps you clearly define all the main aspects of managing your collection, including how you will collect objects, how you will document them, how you will care for them, as well as tackling some of the more tricky issues of deaccessioning and ethical considerations. With two very different collections to manage, some thought had to be given to how to structure the collection policy to best suit their situation, but very quickly the volunteers worked together to painlessly produce a document which will be their first port of call in all important decision making processes.
Another hallmark of a well managed collection is good documentation, but with backlogs common to all museums, it often gets put in the too hard basket. We spent some time in Muttaburra looking at the processes for accessioning items into the collection, followed by the more detailed work of cataloguing. While some useful work has been done in the past at the Hospital Museum, we had to spend some time trying to establish if previous location systems were still practical, and devising new ones for the Cassimatis Store and Cottage. As always, practice makes perfect so getting their own electronic catalogue started was an important component to the workshop.
A good catalogue is of little use if you can’t identify your objects, so applying accession labels to objects was our last topic. Good object labelling, combined with good documentation, is also another weapon in the museum arsenal when confronted with a disaster. There are several options for doing this safely and unobtrusively dependent on the materials of each object, so the volunteers were introduced to a range of techniques. I expect that soon everything that isn’t nailed down will have a number attached to it!
The workshops were funded by the Regional Arts Development Fund through Barcaldine Regional Council. Thanks to the volunteers for being such wonderful hosts and willing students, and also to the volunteers from the Aramac Tramway Museum who made the trip to Muttaburra to take part. It’s great to see small museums and communities working together. I’m looking forward to seeing more of your new skills in action.
Do you have a question about clothing and costumes in your collection? Should they be hung, rolled or laid flat? How should they be displayed in exhibitions? And how can we best use them to tell stories and explore the myriad of different cultural and social expressions that they represent? If you’ve ever asked any of these questions about clothing and costumes, then the new “Clothes Tell Stories Online Costume Workbook” is a perfect resource for you and your collection.
The workbook was launched recently at the International Council of Museum’s Triennial General Conference in Rio de Janeiro, August 11-18 by the ICOM Costume Committee (which operates a separate web page with useful resources). By celebrating the genre of clothing and costume within the museum sector, the workbook has made information about costume and clothing care, display and interpretation more accessible. In it you will find advice from international organisations and specialists about storage and conservation, collection policies and procedures, mannequins and reconstructions, and interpretative techniques.
What goes around comes around, as they say… And Cairns Museum has been delighted by the recent request to loan its collection of hats made by the Cairns Country Women’s Association for use in a RetroVintage Fashion show at Merrylands Hall in Atherton on August 19th. Cairns Museum Manager, Suzanne Gibson, has noticed a growing interest in retro fashion and feels museums with fashion collections are well placed to appeal to younger audiences interested in fashion. Local resident, Di Singh, who is helping the CWA in Atherton put together the show, agrees and has noticed an increased interest in millinery as well. Whilst visiting the museum to view the collection, Di shared her memories of how the hats were created during the 1980s. Her stories have greatly enhanced the museums understanding of the hats’ provenance and significance, and breathed new life into their potential for display and interpretation.