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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.

The only good typewriter is a provenanced typewriter…

It’s probably no secret that typewriters in museum collections generally aren’t my favourite kind of object. There are a few reasons for that, all based on principles of good museological practice. Let me explain…

As I travel the regions I come across many typewriters. They seem to be breeding in collection stores and back sheds. At first there is one and then another. And then another couple that turn up after that. Before you know it they have taken over, like the seagulls in Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds”. If sparrows or starlings are considered to be the rats of the sky, I wonder what this make the venerable museum typewriter?

A proliferance of typewriters in regional museums isn’t necessarily a reason not to include them in a collection. The problem is that many of the typewriters I come across in collections have little or no known provenance. We don’t know who donated them, if they are associated with any particular event, who used them, or even where they came from. As far as being able to use them to illustrate important or interesting local stories, often they aren’t great examples.

Typical typewriter breeding habitat. Note the typewriters lurking under the card index accompanied by their close relative, the adding machine

Typical typewriter breeding habitat. Note the typewriters lurking under the card index accompanied by their close relative, the adding machine

Aside from that, they are big and heavy. Even the “compact” versions are more than capable of wrenching a shoulder or breaking a toe should you decide to tangle with them. In terms of both storage and display, they occupy a significant amount of real estate that could be dedicated to more significant objects. If you have any more than two or three typewriters that you know nothing about, and are concerned about your storage space not having room left for the town survey plans or Mayoral chains, I’m sure you know what I would be putting up high on the deacessioning priority list.

There does seem to be a couple of standard justifications that I hear for having a glut of mystery typewriters in the collection. One is that there are plans afoot to develop a display on the development of typewriters through the ages, from past to present. However, few of the museums with such aspirations consider themselves museums of technology. They are museums that aim to tell the stories of their particular community, not a worldwide perspective on technological advances. Such stories are really out of the context and scope of the museum.

Another reason I hear is that children really enjoy using (read: playing with) them. The “a-ha” factor, where the child draws a connection between the typewriter and the computer, or an understanding the rationale behind the QWERTY keyboard layout* is often cited as being justification for their inclusion. I’m sure that there are children who make the connection and are enlightened by those facts, but I’m not quite convinced that these are the best lessons we have to offer.

We have been seduced by their quaint branding and maker’s marks, often with those nostalgic golden cursive scripts transferred onto a black wrinkle paint finish. Their open construction and visible mechanisms capture our imagination, and test our cognitive ability to predict what will happen inside when we press the button marked with the letter “a”. They are a far cry from our sleek, ergonomically designed smartphones or tablet computers, and we seem to love them for it. Perhaps a little more than is healthy.  Secretly I think there are more than a few others who think these intricate machines might look delightful parted out and turned into artworks, kitsch ornaments or steampunk jewellery. In either case, we seem to find it hard to let them go.

Now, before you lynch me for crucifying this poor, defenceless, much maligned device I need to state that it is possible for me to appreciate the typewriter in a museum context. In fact, it has been one of fantastic typewriter that prompted me to write this blog.

Oliver typewriter at Dayboro Historical Society Museum

Oliver typewriter at Dayboro Historical Society Museum

Recently I enjoyed a visit to the Dayboro Historical Society, and came across this little green beauty. It is an “Oliver” brand- possibly a model 3- that was manufactured in the USA between the 1890’s to late 1920’s. In this particular configuration, the u-shaped type bars that impress the letters onto paper swing down from above, rather than from the front of the machine to back. It’s certainly not like your average Remington.

But it isn’t just the unusual “down strike” format, the age, or the fact that it wasn’t black with pretty writing that I find this particular typewriter interesting and valuable. It was because it was used by David Edgar Evans, a local resident and newspaper correspondent, during the 1930s’. I’m told that Evans would type up his regional reports on this machine before forwarding it through to the Courier Mail for publishing. Unlike a multitude of unprovenanced typewriters sitting on shelves in our museums, its importance doesn’t necessarily lie in it’s ranking in the evolution of the printed word. The significance of this particular item lies in the way that it illustrates how the Dayboro community stayed connected with the rest of Queensland, and the importance of the region in Queensland daily life. It speaks of the means and importance of communication within our state. Through the documents it helped produce,  many years on we know about the issues and events of the time that Queenslanders of the time valued and found important.

This particular typewriter would have played a large part in the recording of many incidents, both great and small: social gatherings, sporting events, births, deaths and marriages. One Dayboro local recalled that “you could barely sneeze around here without it being written up in the paper”. This is one of many typewriters that would have been used to document the very articles that today we use in our research. The Dayboro Historical Society certainly understand the most important aspect of the history of this object.

So perhaps it’s not actually the typewriter that turns my gaze glassy when I encounter them. Maybe I just need to hear more about the unique stories and reasons our communities value them. Do you have a typewriter in your collection with a unique local story? I’d love to hear all about it!

*The QWERTY layout is said to have been designed in order to slow typists words per minute down count down enough so that the machine didn’t jam