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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.

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Learning how to make interpretation panels using foam core board.

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.

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Checking to see if our location system works!

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.

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Cassimatis Store display

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.

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Way Out West

As the new kid on the MDO block, I have recently had the privilege to travel to the western areas of Central Queensland to meet groups caring for cultural heritage in the west.  In a trip that covered Nebo, Clermont, Emerald, Springsure, Barcaldine, Muttaburra, Winton, Longreach, Ilfracombe and Isisford, I encountered everything from dinosaurs to diggers, as well as meeting the dedicated volunteers caring for these collections in the often hot and harsh outback.

Daph Bashford's 1976 rich boiled fruit cake at the Barcaldine and District Folk Museum.

Daph Bashford’s 1976 rich boiled fruit cake at the Barcaldine and District Folk Museum.

A new type of object for me was a 1976 prize winning rich boiled fruit cake, preserved in its own purpose built glass dome and proudly on display at the Barcaldine and District Folk Museum.  It was originally intended that the cake would last about five years under its dome, but thirty eight years on the cake is still going strong, although the temptation to sample its rich fruity goodness isn’t hard to fight.

Possibly most famous for its role in the 1891 shearer’s strike which ultimately led to the formation of the Australian Labor Party, Barcaldine has a rich agricultural and social history which is evident in the architecture and monuments about the town.  Much of this history is eloquently told and on display at the Barcaldine and District Folk Museum.  Aside from the fruit cake above and a wealth of social history items linked to the town, the museum also has an interesting collection of WWI material, including this pair of French airman’s goggles.

French airman's goggles, brought back to Barcaldine by a local soldier.

French airman’s goggles, brought back to Barcaldine by a local soldier.

Also a central location in the 1891 shearer’s strike but now more famous for a major fossil find in the area in 1963, Muttaburra is a small town with a big history.  When grazier Doug Langdon stumbled across some unusual looking rocks on his property, it led to the first recorded specimen of one of Australia’s prehistoric giants – Muttaburrasaurus langdoni – named for his discoverer.  Affectionately known as ‘Mutt’ or ‘Dino’, the dinosaur is recreated in the park in the middle of town, and each year fossil enthusiasts visit the area in the hope of making the next big find.  Muttaburra has more on offer than dinosaurs however, with the A.A. Cassimatis Store and Cottage and the Dr Arratta Hospital Museum capturing a snapshot of life in Muttaburra in a more prosperous time.  The range of goods on display at the Cassimatis Store helps to reinforce how essential these general stores were to remote communities, stocking everything from farm and stock supplies to boiled lollies and over the counter medicines.

Dinosaurs were still on the menu in Winton, with a visit to the Australian Age of Dinosaurs.  With a dedicated team of staff and volunteers constantly chipping away at fossil deposits, what’s on offer at the AAOD is continually evolving (unlike the dinosaurs themselves!).  But as with Muttaburra, there’s so much more to Winton than dinosaurs. The heritage listed Corfield and Fitzmaurice Store not only has displays ranging from shearing to, yes, dinosaurs, but also offers a rare opportunity to see the virtually unaltered interior of an early 20th century general store, complete with manager’s office, clerk’s cubicle, and flying fox or cash railway for dispensing change.

Folding stools and the beautiful broad planks of the haberdashery counter at Corfield & Fitzmaurice Store, Winton.

Folding stools and the beautiful broad planks of the haberdashery counter at Corfield & Fitzmaurice Store, Winton.

Another rare survivor in Winton is the Chinese market garden and store of Willie Mar.  The garden, which had provided Winton with fresh fruit and vegetables since the 1920s when Willie’s father commenced operations, only ceased to produce commercially in 2000 when floods impacted heavily on the aging Willie and his garden.  Willie himself passed away in 2007, and many residents of Winton have vivid memories and engaging stories of Willie and his garden.  Although the fruit and vegetables are gone, Willie’s shop and house remain at the site, as well as evidence of the ingenious pond watering system common to Chinese gardens.  The Chinese skills and traditions of farming small patches of land with a continual crop yield became an essential part of community health and survival in many outback towns and the excellently interpreted Willie Mar site is a tangible reminder of this now extinct tradition.  The progress on this site will be exciting to watch as the Friends of Willie Mar continue to interpret and share the site.  A special thanks to the Friends of Willie Mar group and the volunteers at the Qantilda Museum for taking the time to share with us their wonderful collections.

Willie Mar's shop at the Chinese market garden site.

Willie Mar’s shop at the Chinese market garden site.