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.

150ZK: Truth Telling and the Coming of the Light

Two new exhibitions at Gab Titui Cultural Centre, THURSDAY ISLAND

Nancy Kiwat’s artwork ‘Papa Dabad’, 2016.

On June 17, Gab Titui Cultural Centre opened two new exhibitions to commemorate 150 Years of Coming of the Light. One explores the history and impact of Christianity on the community through an historic timeline. In the other, artists from three Torres Strait Art Centres have created works that represent truth telling: their understanding and response to this particular topic.

EXHIBITION PLANNING

MDOs Jo Wills and Ewen Mcphee worked with staff in March and then again in June to ensure the project was ready for opening. Exhibition training workshops in March included research, object analysis, interpretation and conservation, and ensured that new staff understood and contributed to the exhibition development process. There are multiple perspectives within the TSI community about what ‘Coming of the Light’ has meant, and continues to mean. By using the topic as the basis for the workshop, we were able to deliver applied training and help shape an exhibition plan.

Prior to the MDO workshops, lead curator, Leitha Assan, had already run engagement workshops with the three participating art centre communities (Erub Ewer Meta – Erub Arts; Moa Arts – Ngalmun Lagau Minaral Torres Strait Islander Corporation; Badu Art Centre | Torres Strait Islander Art from Badu Island). Her challenge was to bring all the components together and curate displays that creatively honored diverse viewpoints. Not an easy task, or in such a compressed time frame.

Between March and June, Gab Titui staff were busy with research, planning, community engagement, and content preparation. This included liaising with AIATIS, travelling to the islands to record interviews and collect items from the community for the displays. Staff also had to coordinate the transportation of artworks and production and printing of all material (labels, text panels, decals) back to Thursday Island – no mean feat when you’re living a remote community! MDOs assisted with ongoing advice and purchasing of materials and equipment.

Hands on installation training

When Ewen and Jo returned in June to assist with the installation, they were joined by freelance photographer and exhibition designer, Michael Marzik. Leitha was also keen for artists Jimmy K Thaiday (Erub), Fiona Mosby and Paula Savage (Moa) and Matilda Nona (Badu) to get some exhibition installation experience. With two large projects to install, it was all hands on deck, and wonderful to have additional people working across the two galleries.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Each artist bought their own skills, understanding of materials and expertise to the process, and oversaw the installation of their own works, their colleagues’ works as well as other exhibition components. It was all hands on deck for the installation of decal signage, mannequin dressing and one of the large charcoal pieces from Erub Island.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Opening night at Gab Titui

Exhibition openings at Gab Titui are a special, community event. This year was the first opening for a few years, and people from around the region, and state, were in attendance. This included QM’s Head of Cultures and Histories, Christopher Salter. Openings comprise a curated outdoor program of prayer, speaches, dance and song. After that, the galleries are opened to the community. This year, the Saibai Island Dancers performed took the stage, accompanied by a choir.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

Read the rest of this entry

More projects from the far north

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.

Snapshots from FNQ

We might only be in March, but 2018 has already been busy up here in the Far North. Apart from attending a new exhibition opening in the temporary gallery at Cairns Museum, helping groups submit grant applications and planning for textile conservation workshops, here’s a quick overview of some of the FNQ MDO museum work since January:

Loudoun House Museum, Irvinebank

I visited Loudoun House Museum in Irvinebank in January and was overwhelmed by the work and changes instigated by the volunteers at the museum. They have done a fantastic job at implementing and adapting recommendations I made in an interpretation plan. The museum now has a dedicated John Moffat display in the original office and refreshed and  exhibition spaces.

Plus, the group also found time to pull out some railway artefacts for the railway display in the Old Post Office Gallery in Atherton. Special mention, and farewell, to Ellen Barnes.

Railway Ready – War Ready and the Railways 1914-1918 travelling exhibition, Atherton

At the end of 2017, I started working with groups from the Atherton Tablelands to create a local component for the QM Railways 1914-1918 travelling exhibition.  Apart from curating the project, I also stretched my graphic design skills to create text panels to accompany the photographs and objects.

Big thanks to Eacham Historical Society, Herberton Mining Museum, Loudoun House Museum, Mareeba Heritage Centre, Ravenshoe Visitor Information Centre and Queensland Railways for helping with image, information and objects. The exhibition opened in February and has since moved onto Douglas Shire Council offices in Mossman.

Collection gold: Croydon  Miner 1887

At the end of last year, a Cairns resident requested help finding a suitable repository for an early newspaper from the goldfields which he thought might be important. After some research we discovered just how special it was – a first edition copy of the Croydon Miner 1887 printed on silk. No other institution has a copy of this newspaper, so it’s quite a treasure and its research value and historical importance is exceptional. A quick glance at the advertisements and articles reveal a window into 1880s Croydon and its goldfields during its heyday.

As the item is fragile and needs conservation, I wanted to find a place with the capacity and resources to ensure its longevity. I also needed to heed the donor’s wish that the item be kept in north Queensland, so I approached James Cook University’s Special Collection Librarian, Bronwyn McBurnie. Needless to say, Bronwyn was delighted to work with the donor and the newspaper has now been acquired into JCU’s collection. It will be preserved in memory of the donor’s late son. We hope to work with Croydon Shire Council to recreate a copy of the item that can go on display in Croydon’s heritage buildings later in the year.

75th anniversary of the Torres Strait Islander Light Infantry Battalion exhibition

Finally, I’ve just come back from Thursday Island where, with Ewen McPhee and the team at Gab Titui, we installed two exhibitions to mark the 75th anniversary of the Torres Strait Islander Light Infantry Battalion. One was a travelling photographic exhibition called Indigenous Australians at War by the Shrine of Remembrance in Victoria.  It includes remarkable and candid images and stories that are an important part of our military history.

The other exhibition was curated by Gab Titui’s Exhibitions and  Public Programmes Manager, Leitha Assan, with help from Vanessa Seekee OAM, curator at the Torres Strait Heritage Museum on Horn Island. Stories from the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, the only Indigenous battalion in the Australian Army, remind us that at the time of their enlistment, these men did not receive equal pay, were not able to vote, nor were they recognised as Australian citizens. Despite this, 873 men enlisted – 36 were killed or died on active service.

As MDOs we have been liaising with Leitha over the last few months regarding the preparation of exhibition  content and materials and then travelled up to help them install and prepare the spaces. This continues the strong link between the MDO program and Gab Titui. We were privileged to attend the opening, which featured traditional dancing – the Aeroplane Dancers and Charlie Company Sarpeye Dancers – and attend the dawn service, the anniversary march along the main street and listen to the speeches.