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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.

Works in progress … new in FNQ

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!)

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Collage of images from Babinda, c.1919. Satchwell Family Collection.

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

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Normanton Railway Station is listed on the Queensland Heritage Register.

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.

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Mulgrave Settlers Museum holds a fantastic collection of local dress maker Kath Moss’s wedding dresses, and an associated photo album.

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.