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Up close & personal: falling in love… with objects

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

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

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

Blood ties and birthplace: identity

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

Emotional reaction: compassion

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

Embroidered Quilt, Yarrabah Mission, Menmuny Museum 2014.

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

Physical attraction: aesthetics

‘Papa Dabad’, Nancy Kiwat, 2016.

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

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

Intrigue and curiosity

Light bath after reconstruction

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

Becoming friends: understanding

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

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

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

More 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.